First oil check in five years

January 11, 2013 

One of my favorite aspects of sports photography is seeing silly outtakes. Athletes make some ridiculous faces amid the action and players and participants in all sports end up in compromising positions, like this Walla Walla player losing his head against Kamiakin High's Justin Pedley:

It can be funny to see certain sequences of photos flipped back and forth quickly while editing your take too:

But if there's one sport that truly produces quality outtakes, it's wrestling.

Now, I can tell some people are wincing and maybe even audibly muttering "uh oh." So here's a disclaimer/preface/please-don't-be-offended-if-you're-a-wrestler-and-rip-my-arms off:

I have great respect for the drive and discipline required to be a competitive wrestler. I used to marvel at the lengths my wrestling friends in high school would go to to make weight and the distances they'd run for conditioning. As sports reporter Kevin Anthony said during a recent chat, it's a personal sport. When you lose, you got beat on the mat, one-on-one.

The pain of losing, both physical and emotional, is so clearly evident on the wrestlers' faces,

in the uncomfortable body positions,

or both:

But when awkward positions and facial expressions collide, the resulting snickers can tide you over until tomorrow:

A strange thing happened last week while covering a dual meet between Chiawana and Kamiakin, though. As Kamiakin's Sisto Pina wrestled Chiawana's Austin Silvers in the 182-pound match:

While I try to be more selective in my shooting these days, relying less on the motordrive, this was one of those surprising scenes that kick in spray-and-pray mode for me:

Even more surprising was that, except for a few giggles from Kamiakin's bench, there were no protests whatsoever. Pina wasn't even as upset as he was later in the match, when he felt like Silvers was stalling:

I later found out the move was called an "oil check" and generally seen as a desperation move. A few nervous moments on Google at work later and I stumbled across a story from two years ago when a wrestler in Clovis, Calif., was expelled for performing the move in practice. Then 17-year-old Preston Hill was even charged with sexual battery, though those charges were quickly dropped.

I got in touch with John Miller, assistant executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), which governs school sports. He replied via email:

Whether or not this move is legal is a judgment call on the part of the official. If the wrestler is simply placing their hand on the back of the upper thigh or buttock to complete a move, it would not be penalized. If however, the wrestler does something else, that wrestler could be penalized for a flagrant misconduct and removed from the match or tournament. If of a serious enough nature further penalties could apply.

And while I'm definitely not accusing Silvers of doing anything illegal, the whole thing seemed kind of strange to me. Not being a member of the wrestling tribe, I turned to Corey Perrine, a photographer at the Naples Daily News in Naples, Fla.

He grew up wrestling and while most people find the "oil check" photo funny or shocking, Corey informed me the name of the move and matter-of-factly commented "nice moment."

Corey also shot one of my favorite wrestling photos, which is #5 in his sports portfolio.

I asked him to share some thoughts about photographing wrestling after having been a part of the sport for so long:

I've been wrestling opponents since age 8.

I've been wrestling with images since age 19.

Now, at 33, can I say I have it figured out? No, the match goes on.

There is nothing more exhilarating than photographing the best sport on two feet -- of course I'm biased.

While most make fun of wrestling -- the odd rules, the skin-tight uniforms, the unique culture -- to me it is nostalgic. It's home. There's something after many years of smelling sweat and popcorn that takes me back to several seasons on the mat.

When I have an opportunity to document the ancient sport now and again, I'm surprised how quickly the names of moves come back to remembrance. I even find myself having to mentally say, "Don't yell out what a wrestler should do next." Instead I find my mouth talking to the back of my LCD screen, the way a coach would to their wrestler.

"Cross face, single, snatch, tilt, sprawl, scissor up, sit out, switch, stand up..." are usual jargon you can hear me talking into my camera these days despite wanting to call them out audibly.

As for the oil check photo?

To me it wasn't "ha ha funny" it was more like "crap, I've been there, and it's no fun."

I suppose I empathized more. I'm not made of stone, my first gut response was, "This happens a lot in wrestling, finally someone documented it." Then I chuckled. Brought back old memories. How can one not laugh at it?

Having swam and played water polo in high school, I can relate. Plenty of people find our skimpy Speedos funny and chlorine in the air to be caustic, but to me, they're also nostalgia. And if any of the shooters in Albany, Ore., had photographed our games with an underwater camera, they would have seen just as many awkward grabs and moments.

But while we wore less than wrestlers do, we had a whole pool full of water to hide the dirty stuff.

And while I never really analyzed and neuroticized about it until now, maybe it was this unconscious feeling that kept the awkward outtakes out of the photo galleries, where they would be seen without discussion or much context.

The only one that did run was this shot,

which I found out later from the wrestler's mother had become a family favorite.

While I used to love shooting basketball and loathe wrestling photography, those feelings have almost flipped. I still enjoy basketball as a sport much more, but in terms of photography, wrestling is a whole lot more interesting.

That I could photograph the sport with regularity for five years and only now witness and learn about checking the oil is pretty incredible and proof that an open mind is even more valuable than a dirty one in this business.

For a far more serious photo story...

Check out Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s powerful work documenting a struggling couple, a story that took a dark and potentially dangerous turn toward domestic violence. Particularly inspirational is how Lewkowicz handled herself when things turned violent, getting a hold of a cell phone the man had taken from her so somebody could call the police as she continued to photograph the situation.

BagNews has an interesting look at what it takes to get the dramatic photos of conflict and tragedy the public is so used to consuming.

Nancy Pelosi came under heat for digitally adding four congresswomen to a group photo and the incident stands as a clear example of why relying on provided photos can be dangerous when those providing the photos don’t subscribe to the same ethics that photojournalists do.

And to end on a positive note, see Maika Elan’s beautiful work documenting gay and lesbian couples in Cambodia.

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