by Maria Luci
Rick Wenner likes to keep things simple. His photographs are clean and insightful, with little in the way of distraction. This style lends itself well to strong and emotional portraits. And it’s the approach he took on his “New York Fighter Project”—a series of portraits of mixed martial artists (MMA), created in support of legalizing the sport in New York.
Rick first conceptualized the project at the end of of 2011, while looking for a meaningful series that fit his style and interests. Rick has always been a huge MMA fan, and finds it extremely disappointing that professional mixed martial arts is still illegal in New York. He believes that much of the opposition comes from misunderstanding—especially of the fighters themselves. Decided on his cause, he set out to create portraits showing MMA fighters in a new light—not as they animals they’re often portrayed, but as the humans they really are. His resulting portraits show tough exteriors while also revealing the emotional interior.
So far, Rick has shot almost 70 fighters from gyms in Long Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan and upstate New York. He found his subjects to be “well mannered, intelligent and generous people”—a far cry from the stereotype of the “barbaric fighter.” To get access to his subjects, he had to reach out to many gyms to see who was willing to get their fighters together for shoots. Rick adds, “I decided who I wanted to photograph, which was notable high ranking fighters in the MMA world as well as respected/well-known fight gyms in New York. After I made my list, I started making a ton of phone calls. Just about every gym that I called was interested in the project, which was no surprise because of the mission statement behind it.”
Scheduling ended up being his biggest challenge, since most of these fighters have jobs, families and other responsibilities, leaving little time for photo shoots. But when he was able to coordinate a shoot, Rick was not only able to create interesting portraits, but collect meaningful stories as well, saying,
I had extended conversations with each and every fighter I photographed, so there are a lot of stories. One that sticks out is of a Marine who has been on three tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s an amateur MMA fighter, but full time soldier, husband and father. He told me about what it was like to be in gunfights, to see his friends be blown up by mines, and all this crazy stuff over there. He didn’t show much emotion in that he didn’t cry or get anxious, but you could definitely see the hurt in his eyes.
The project has received nice reactions, and Rick says that “people really seem to enjoy the portraits—it’s not something they’ve really seen before with these types of fighters. I know I’m not the first photographer to create something like this, but it’s gratifying to know that people enjoy my work.”
He’s already began showing the portraits to a few magazines and ad agencies, with good responses. He plans on making a photo book of the project to send to prospective clients as well as politicians who oppose legalizing MMA, saying “I think this project has a chance to make a difference.”
View more of Rick’s work at rickwenner.com.