Ibrahim Kashmirwala: “Who could resist photographing voodoo doctors, monkeys and demigods?”

A series capturing the transition from layperson to luchadore

Once a month, in a venue tucked behind the Bethnal Green tube station, everyday-people leave their work clothes at the door. Donning masks, leather briefs and knee high boots, performers and wrestlers take to the ring at Lucha Britannia, an east London cabaret wrestling show.

I am always surprised when a luchador tells me their full time job

Ibrahim Kashmirwala, a London-based photographer, documented the event in his Secret Lives of Lucha project. In 2009, he experienced his first lucha show when visiting his mother’s homeland in Mexico. He was captivated by what took place. Back in London, Kashmirwala decided to document Garry Vanderhorne’s Lucha Britannia, a modern take on lucha, and has captured the performers and luchadores training and performing.

We caught up with him to find out more about the event.

Why did you choose to shoot Lucha Britannia?

I’ve always been interested in what goes on behind the scenes, so when the opportunity arose to experience that in wrestling, a childhood pastime of mine, I naturally leaped towards it. From the offset I didn’t know much about Lucha Britannia, but it was the colourful character and imagination of co-founder Garry Vanderhorne that captivated me. The Stan Lee of the wrestling world, who could resist photographing voodoo doctors, monkeys and demigods.

What is your connection to lucha wrestling?

My first real-life experience with lucha wrestling was when I visited my mother’s homeland in Mexico in 2009. The show was amazing and it brought me right back to being eight-years-old again, wrestling with my mates in my living room with cushions flying all over the place.

Soon after, I came across a journal with the works of Loudes Grobet. Her iconic images of the luchadores in their native habitat were so inspiring, that I hoped one day I would be able to put my spin on it.

Tell me about a lucha wrestler’s training regime

During the project, I attended a few of the training sessions at the London School of Lucha Libre. There I gained a real insight into the art of wrestling. Typically a class would start off with calisthenics based warmup and mobility routines, all fuelled by pumping disco music. It then would progress onto group-based routines where the participants would tackle the more technical aspect of gripping, rolling and dropping.

Aside from the gymnastic side of it, what really surprised me was the emphasis spent on expressing an emotion through body language. I didn’t know that 80% of a wrestler’s performance is sold at the face. Photographing them became less about capturing amazing moves and more about their exaggerated facial expressions.

What takes place at Lucha Britannia?

In Garry’s words, ‘It’s a comedy cabaret mash-up of all the best things you have ever seen’. The ring becomes a platform to host a variety of performers. Firebreathers, comedians, strippers and wrestlers all play their part to deliver an episode of this dystopian narrative dubbed ‘Retro Future Verse’. It’s more of a theatre that uses wrestling as a platform to entertain. That in turn is reflected by its audience. Basically, not the kind of people you would expect to see at a WWE event.

Who participates in Lucha Britannia?

Bankers, graphic designers, chefs, accountants, IT technicians, school teachers, students, nurses. I am always surprised when a luchador tells me their full time job. What I find fascinating is the characters they embody and how unrelated they are to their normal lives.

What makes it unique?

From a sporting standpoint, it’s unique because it’s a combination of American and Mexican-style wrestling. But overall, what separates it from other events is the humour. No matter what you may think of wrestling, a night out at Lucha Britannia is a good laugh.