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The Comedy of Errors

Under Cover Artist: David Severn

3 January 19 interview: Alex Kuster
photos: David Severn

This month’s cover artist is one of the most hardworking photographers in the city. Having just released his Whitby Goth Weekend photobook, and with a bunch of other projects in the pipeline, we sat down with David Severn to get the skinny on his wrestling shoot at Nottingham’s House of Pain, for this issue of LeftLion...

Who’s on the cover this month?
That’s Joseph Starr. I specifically asked for him to be at the shoot because I just like how goofy he is. He’s really nice. Wrestling tends to attract kind-of misfit characters. It’s a way of building confidence and channelling your anger. He definitely fits into that idea of what a wrestler is to me. Last time I saw him perform he was the good guy, but recently he’s become the baddie.

I picked Joseph because his look is more natural, and reminiscent of wrestling in the seventies, when it was literally just some bloke who worked as a car mechanic and went to wrestling in the evenings. He’s not super toned, or oiled up and tanned. He’s more like a normal lad. Wrestling is definitely something I want to photograph more, and I need to keep going with it to crack the shell.

What do you enjoy about photographing wrestling in particular?
I want to take pictures of things that I find interesting or unusual. Photography is a key to worlds that you’d otherwise not be a part of, and I’m just naturally quite a nosey person who wonders what makes people tick. Wrestling is definitely having a resurgence lately. It’s an art form. It’s quite eccentric and visually interesting because they’re all wearing homemade costumes. I’m really interested in the DIY elements, and I like that the fans make their own signs; there’s craftsmanship behind it all.

The first wrestling event I went to was with my friend Sam, who’s the curator at the Attenborough Arts Centre. He’s a fine-arts person, but he’s also really into wrestling. Almost from an academic standpoint, he’s very analytical of it, not just as a sport but from a theatrical perspective. It’s like a soap; they have certain characters, the bad guys and the good guys.

The people who go every week get really invested in the characters and storylines. It’s all prescribed; they decide who’s going to win the match beforehand, which leads a lot of people to say that it’s fake. Even if it is planned, they’re still throwing each other over their shoulder and smacking each other. The punches may be pulled, but it’s still painful.

It’s amazing that House of Pain provides an arena for this. Paul Stixx, who runs it, says that when he was younger and got into wrestling, there was no scene at the time, whereas now there is. He’s really opened up a platform for wrestling in Nottingham to have an opportunity that perhaps he didn’t have.

Did the wrestlers defy their seemingly tough exterior?
They’re often slightly nerdy! Wrestling can be aligned with videogame culture and “geeky” hobbies like collecting figurines. There are all sorts of reasons why someone would want to have a go at wrestling. A lot of them seem to be into alternative culture; maybe they didn’t fit in at school and were a bit shy. Wrestling is a way for them to express themselves.

We experience a million things in the world around us, so to point a camera at one thing places a lot of importance on it

How does the shoot coincide with other projects of yours?
My main project at the moment is Workers Playtime, which is all about the history and significance of performance and entertainment within working-class communities. That stemmed from my dad, who is an Elvis Presley impersonator and a former mine worker. A lot of his friends on the working-men’s club circuit are tribute acts or comedians, and were once miners or factory workers. They were using performance and theatre to make an extra income. Today, wrestling can be counted as one of those outputs.

Then there’s Thanks, Maggie. It’s a project about culture and social life in North Nottinghamshire coalfields: where I was brought up. The project looks at the environment of Mansfield and the different uses of the former colliery sites that’ve now been landscaped and turned into nature reserves. They’re strange places because they often retain signs of their former industrial pasts. Workers Playtime follows on from that, and focuses on entertainment and theatre in the community. I’m going to expand Workers Playtime across the nation to find different performers with industrial connections who hopefully are bringing that into their performance.

How did you first get into photography?
I didn’t study because of the rise in tuition fees, and I just wanted to get on with Thanks, Maggie; I felt like I was going somewhere with it and that university would be a distraction from making the work. I was always quite a creative person, but art was my worst subject at school. I was bad at sitting still and drawing, and I’m still terrible at that.

I got my first camera at sixteen or so, and it was just a little digital camera. I loved that it was instantaneous; instead of having to sit and cut and draw, I could just go out into the world. It was an excuse to be creative with what I saw and how I framed it, rather than try to manually put pen to paper.

Are you critical of your own work?
I am very critical. I drive my girlfriend mad cause I’m literally never happy with my photographs. The moment I scan in the first negative, I always go “Oh, f**king hell, that’s it. I’m not doing this anymore. This is sh*t. I’m no good at this.” Then I start to come round to them, but it takes me a few days before I start to accept them as my children.

Do you have any philosophies surrounding photography?
It’s almost like curating the world around you. Whenever you take a picture of something, you’re saying “This is important, look at this thing” and the act of taking a photograph is concreting how you feel about it. We experience a million things in the world around us, so to point a camera at one thing places a lot of importance on it.

There’s a misconception that photography somehow tells a truth, and that people have a lot of trust in it. It’s just a blink of an eye out of the complete fluidity of life. It’s completely down to when you press the shutter button, and the photographer is in complete control of that. A portrait of somebody is more telling about the photographer than it is about the subject.

As a photographer, you’re projecting so much of yourself, your ideas and everything else you bring to that shoot. You’re making subjects into what you think of them. There are so many photography myths that are simply untrue, especially things like portraiture capturing a bit of someone’s soul. It’s totally not. Usually the best portraits are when you can see the visual identity of the photographer behind it.

David Severn website

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