On a rainy and windy February day last year, Aaron Lavinsky was sent by Aberdeen, Washington’s the Daily World to cover a girls’ wrestling tournament at Hoquiam High School.
“There wasn’t much else going on I could shoot that day, so I turned the eight-hour day into more than covering just the two or three local wrestlers that were there. I got permission from the school to set up a studio, so I just did it, not knowing what I’d get,” he said.
Lavinsky wandered the event without a camera, looking for subjects that intrigued him—the girl with the swollen eye, or the powerhouse who stood less than 5 feet tall, or the wrestler with a bloody nose wearing pink headgear—before asking them to sit for photographs. He worked quickly, so as not to take them away from their coaches or teammates for too long.
At first, the entire set-up—a male photographer in his mid-20s asking teenage girls for a one-on-one portrait session at a fairly low-key sports event—seemed a bit strange. “I got some weird looks from wrestlers and coaches. I explained that I wanted to do something different that showed the essence of the sport,” he said.
Once athletes at the event figured out the intent behind the series, they started lining up to have their photos taken. Eventually, Lavinsky had to turn some away. He ended up taking portraits of nearly 20 wrestlers, which the World’s editors ran as a special feature. Taken together, the photographs in his series “Off the Mat” are a celebration of girls thriving in an undoubtedly tough sport.
“It’s brutal. They go through the same moves that boys do,” he said.
For Lavinsky, now a photojournalist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, portrait series like this one have become something of a personal specialty. The awkwardness he experienced at times while creating “Off the Mat,” he said, helped toughen him up and inspired him to be braver about pursuing these types of projects.
“Portraits were something I wasn’t good at when I got to Washington, and I’m still learning. I feel like forcing yourself into these situations makes you a better shooter.”