‘These women wrestle for their mental and physical health – and to stick two fingers up at a male wrestling culture. Capturing them mid-flight was tricky’

Bolivia’s cholitas luchadoras began wrestling in the early 2000s. The women, indigenous Aymara Indians who have traditionally been marginalised and oppressed, took to Mexican-style lucha libre wrestling for mental and physical health – and to stick two fingers up to a culture where wrestling was strictly a male preserve. For many it was also a means of escaping domestic violence. Their choreographed fights in the ring became a dramatisation of day-to-day struggles, all the while adorned in their traditional dress of layered skirts, petticoats and embroidered shawls. Their name, too, subverts and reclaims a term, cholita, that has often been used to demean. But there was also a social and recreational aspect to the wrestling matches that are staged as entertainment, and have grown over the years. Today it’s become a living for many of them, with their fights drawing huge crowds of local people and tourists.

For my personal projects I seek out ordinary people that lead extraordinary lives. I came across the cholitas luchadoras when I was researching another (unconnected) project in La Paz, the Cholitas Escaladoras Bolivianas, AKA the climbing cholitas. The wrestlers are in El Alto, a suburb of La Paz that sits high on a plateau 1,500m above the main city. The houses of the town seem to cascade down the steep cliffs into La Paz below and the mountains of the Andes are ever present. We spent our first few nights driving around looking for cool locations that would showcase the women – I knew I wanted to photograph them outside the ring and make the landscape part of the images. The float and bounce of their traditional dresses is an integral part of the visual impact of the wrestling, and I drew inspiration from the South American literary tradition of magic realism in how I portrayed the fighters mid-air, mid-flight, giving the images a dream-like quality.

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