Image courtesy of Annick Donkers. All rights reserved.

The Grisly Spectacle of Lucha Libre Extrema

Photos from the underground Mexican wrestling scene

by Emily von Hoffmann


On assignment for a Mexican magazine, photographer Annick Donkers found herself angling for an invitation to a particular car wash outside of Mexico City. On some nights, this car wash transforms into a venue for the hardcore wrestling style called Lucha Libre Extrema. Illegal in the city for its brutality — Annick told me there are “basically no rules” — it’s difficult for journalists and outsiders to get invited. Once inside, she had to protect her camera for fear that it might get shattered when she approached for close shots of the wrestlers. Intrigued by the appeal this extreme sport holds for spectators, which include women and children, Annick says her work aims to observe but not judge. For Polarr, we spoke about the project.


Emily von Hoffmann: How did you become interested in photographing wrestling in Mexico?

Annick Donkers: The Lucha Libre Extrema series emerged from a growing interest I had in Mexican professional wrestling. I started taking pictures of Lucha Libre Exótica, involving androgynous and openly-gay wrestler. I began photographing Cassandro, a luchador “exótico” from El Paso, Texas. I became fascinated by the daily struggles he endured beneath the glamor and glitter of his stage persona. A Mexican magazine asked me to cover Lucha Extrema, the ultra-violent hardcore style of wrestling so that is how I got started with the Lucha Libre Extrema series.

Editor’s note: Photographers — interested in sharing some of your images in a format like this? Get in touch at emily@polarr.co.

Image courtesy of Annick Donkers. All rights reserved.

EvH: Can you tell us about the rules, and what makes it more extreme than other types of wrestling?

AD: In Mexico City, hardcore wrestling is prohibited because they had some accidents. Outside the capital, it is legal. I went to Tulancingo in the state of Hidalgo (also the birthplace of El Santo, Mexico’s most famous pro wrestler) where a wrestling company turns a local car wash into an arena and offers hardcore style matches to the locals once a month.

The hardcore wrestlers all have had a professional wrestling training so that is the basis. But the hardcore style means that they can beat each other with chairs, thumbtack, wire, fluorescent lights so basically there are no rules. It is quite a dangerous sport and the ring at the end of the match looks like a war zone.

Image courtesy of Annick Donkers. All rights reserved.

EvH: Despite or likely because of the danger, the participants become local heroes — what did you come to understand about this risky, intense subculture over the course of your project?

AD: For me it was hard to understand why people (and especially women and children) wanted to go to a hardcore wrestling match to see someone beaten up. It is difficult to understand since there is so much violence in Mexico, people are confronted with violence on a daily basis. But I think wrestling in general gives people the opportunity to let out their emotions out. Also, the wrestlers can get all their emotions and frustrations out in a situation where it is permitted.

EvH: You photographed fights for a while before being invited to come see this match — why is that? What was it like to get invited?

AD: A magazine I am working with in Mexico asked me to cover a Lucha Libre Extrema match. I had heard that it existed but didn’t have contacts or I didn’t know where to go. So I asked wrestlers and wrestling promotors I knew if they could help me. They put me in contact with a Lucha Libre Extrema organization. But it is very difficult to be allowed to take pictures because they are suspicious about outsiders, they are afraid photographers and journalists only want to give them a bad reputation. I could only go there because we had mutual friends who would recommend my work. I didn’t want to show anything bad, I just wanted to see what is happening and although it is difficult to understand why they would do this, I want to show respect and hope this shows in my work.

Image courtesy of Annick Donkers. All rights reserved.

EvH: Can you tell us more about the scene, and what it was like to be a spectator? Any details or interactions that particularly stick in your mind?

AD: The carwash was very convenient, near the hotel where I would stay that night. I went to present myself to the organization but I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought it would be a very male group but to my own surprise there were lots of women and children in the crowd. In the beginning, I found it very hard to take pictures since I was concerned about getting glass in my face or my camera getting smashed. Now I know more what I can expect and I am getting used to it.

EvH: You have a masters in Psychology in addition to being a photographer — can you share a little about your journey to photography and how that background aids your work?

AD: I studied psychology at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium and worked for many years in Market Research doing qualitative market research worldwide observing and analyzing focus groups. Later I worked in Brussels as a market researcher and took an evening class in photography. I never had the idea to become a photographer. But my teachers were motivating me to continue and then I realized it was what I wanted to do. I meet so many interesting people during my job and think I learn more about psychology now than I did back at university. I like to observe people, and take pictures when the moment feels right for me, so it all is very spontaneous.

Image courtesy of Annick Donkers. All rights reserved.

EvH: Do you have a favorite image from this series? What’s the story behind it?

AD: I wanted to take a series of portraits of the wrestlers after finishing the match. Most of the hardcore wrestlers I had met before, so they knew me and they wanted to have their picture taken. Then there was this new wrestler, Sharlie Rockstar, who had changed his name after being in jail. He was very popular so I had to wait a long time before he would meet me. I think it made me more nervous taking his picture than with the other wrestlers. But I like the shot I took [above] and it got selected for the cover of Dodho magazine in Spain.


Annick Donkers is an award-winning photojournalist based in Mexico City. Check out her work and follow her on Twitter.