“Photography and wrestling are two of my favorite things on the planet to geek out on,” explains Zach Tarrant. He’s a professional photographer based in Houston, Texas. He’s a sports photographer by trade, having worked NFL games for the likes of the Houston Texans and the Minnesota Vikings. However, we’re not here to talk about football. Instead, we’re going deep into the wonderful world of professional wrestling.
Personally, I’ve long been a just fan of professional wrestling. Like many, my first exposure to the business was through the WWF (now WWE). Then came WCW and the iconic Monday Night Wars. Stone Cold Steve Austin is my guy, and after his recent return at WrestleMania 38, I was reminded of the good that can come from watching pro wrestling. It also prompted me to speak to a photographer who has worked at past events.
Objectively, any photographer would want to work at such an event; the lights, the drama, the action, the unpredictability of the crowd – live wrestling has all the ingredients to help you make good photos. However, I didn’t want to speak to just any photographer, the kind who is there to tick a box. I wanted someone who understood wrestling, someone who loved it and thrived off it, so I contacted Zach Tarrant.
He kindly accepted my offer of an interview, and below, he shares what it was like working at the biggest event in all of sports entertainment and professional wrestling, WrestleMania.
The Essential Photography Gear of Zach Tarrant
I usually shoot big events with three bodies. I have Canon 1Dx MkIIIs now. I’ve always been a Canon guy. For lenses, I’ll use a wide lens. Maybe a 24mm. A medium, like an 85mm or 70-200mm, and then a long lens. I’ve actually been surprised a few times. WWE events are so brightly lit, that I’ve been able to get away with a 600mm f/4. I love the 600mm!
Phoblographer: What came first; your love for wrestling or photography? Talk to us about how you were first introduced to each of them.
Zach Tarrant: I knew wrestling was awesome long before I knew photography was awesome.
Rasslin’ was always floating around when I was a kid. I was probably first introduced to WWF by my buddies. I grew up in rural Kansas, so I had super limited access to the product. My experience was similar to lots of other folks my age–the action figures, the Saturday morning shows, the video games, all of it. Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Mr. Perfect, Doink the Clown, I remember begging for the Summer Slam PPV for my birthday.
One of my earliest Saturday TV-watching memories: Doink cheated and won. I was absolutely beside myself that the ref hadn’t seen the chicanery. I remember beseeching my dad, “Couldn’t something possibly be done to overturn this result!?”. I think he was probably just laughing at how crazy I was acting. I was a mark and was getting worked up from day one.
When the Attitude Era blew up when I was in middle school, it was on! My step-brother was in high school and WWF became something we could bond over. I remember getting a Wolfpac shirt and I was so proud to wear it to school. I was hooked for life at that point.
I didn’t start taking pictures until I was in 11th or 12th grade and I didn’t really get going until college. I recognized early on that I had some sort of skill because of the way my friends were responding to my work. I became interested in some Lomography gimmicks around 2004. That stuff made photography feel fresh and exciting and I realized more was possible with the medium than I had initially thought. I began working as a photographer at my school newspaper, The Daily O’Collegian, and I was off to the races after that.
Phoblographer: How did you manage to gain access to the biggest wrestling event of the year, Wrestlemania?
Zach Tarrant: I was working for the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, and I helped the 49ers with their photography coverage of Wrestlemania 31 at Levi’s in Santa Clara. NFL photography is a small world and it’s pretty common for NFL teams to document the event history of their home stadium. I was probably inspired to shoot that show by a couple of my coworkers at the Chiefs. We were talking a lot of WWE at the lunch table in 2013 and ’14. I wanted something different in my portfolio so I just shot my shot. When Seth [wrestler] cashed in his Money in the Bank at the end of the show, my mind was completely blown. I couldn’t believe what I saw that day. The crowd. The fireworks. The production. I was back as a fan. I walked away from Levi’s that night repeatedly thinking, “I need more of that!”
Phoblographer: Talk to us about the first time you photographed the event. Have you had a similar experience in terms of scale? What thoughts and feelings did you experience?
Zach Tarrant: Wrestlemania felt somewhat familiar to an NFL game day, but it all instantly felt buzzier and bigger. Shooting big sporting events is definitely my specialty, so the types of things I’m good at focusing on and shooting were all there and happening. I wanted to capture a sense of place, the details, the people, the action, the color, the production. I was just going on autopilot. I wasn’t really thinking, just going. [I had] too much adrenaline and excitement. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes I want to down during a big event. Working like a crazy person that day felt right, though.
Phoblographer: Many photographers are working the event. What was going through your mind when considering how to make photos different from everyone else?
Zach Tarrant: I applied the same techniques I use during NFL game day – I may not be as good of a shooter as a lot of folks, but I will always get my steps in on game day. I love to hustle. I love to haul myself all the way up to the upper concourse of the stadium to try to get some wide shots and high vantage points. I want to make up for the shortcomings in my skillset with effort and volume and passion. I’m definitely not the best, but I try very hard to be thoughtful and intentional. If there are a lot of shooters in one spot, maybe that’s a hint that I should think of somewhere else to be. I think my favorite sports photographers try to do that and it’s inspirational. Often, I do feel comfortable in my ability to edit down a body of work, so I know if I really hammer an event, I will have enough raw material to sculpt a final product that I feel proud to share.
Phoblographer: Have you been able to get close to any of the wrestlers and strike up friendships?
Zach Tarrant: You know, I have never gotten to know any wrestlers. I wouldn’t mind it, but it just hasn’t happened. I should probably put more effort into that. A big part of my job has always been to maintain a respectful and professional distance. I really don’t want to be a distraction or a major factor in someone’s day. These athletes are trying to focus and do their best. I think that mentality has served me well. When you do hit it off with someone who you photograph, it’s because you have something in common. That’s how it should be.
Phoblographer: You also shot New Japan Wrestling. What was that like?
Zach Tarrant: Electric. I loved the passion from the crowd. I loved the different feel, production value and wrestling style. The venue was unique and strange in a delightful way. It felt fresh and different from a WWE show. NJPW hadn’t been to the US that often when I shot that G1 show in CA – so it felt really special. The “We Watch Wrestling” podcast guys (Matt McCarthy and Vince Averill) were in the crowd and I introduced myself. They were incredibly kind and friendly, which made my day. I think any big pod fans can speak to the phenomenon of feeling like they “know” the hosts after having them in their ears for hours and hours. I shot a PWI 500 cover portrait of Okada before the show. Okada walked into the room in his full gear – his aura had some next-level gravitas. Impossible to accurately describe. That day was unbelievable and I had a blast. I’m really grateful and lucky that I got to have a wrestling fandom and workday like that.
Phoblographer: Pro wrestling is extremely nuanced; from the promos to in-ring storytelling, what do you think are the most important elements a photographer should capture at a wrestling event?
Zach Tarrant: There’s no right way. I think every photographer should go with their gut and engage with their personal photography interests. For me, I love shooting things and moments that are meant and designed to be documented and photographed. I’m not the war photographer or the hard news photographer. I love the emotions, faces, colors, pageantry, materials and textures and details. I love to embrace capturing visual variety. I try to get a good one of a certain kind of shot and then move on to a different idea.
Phoblographer: You have shot three WM’s: 31, 32, and 34. How do you think your approach evolved from the first event to the last one?
Zach Tarrant: As I’ve progressed through my career, I think my biggest breakthroughs have been from becoming more comfortable with myself and embracing who I am as a photographer. I have begun to see value in what I’m naturally predisposed to. I feel more confident and can trust myself in the moment. As time has gone on, I know when I dump my cards, there will be something interesting there to work with. Also, as time goes on, the game slows down a little bit. You can breathe and think. I’ve been told those two things are important.
Phoblographer: Which wrestlers make up your Mount Rushmore?
Zach Tarrant: I’ll list my all-time personal favorites here: Triple H, Seth Rollins, Charlotte Flair and Mr. Perfect. Those are the folks that I’ve celebrated, bought the merch, and felt some sort of personal identification with. I really respect the heck out of what these athletes do.
Phoblographer: Away from wrestling, you were once an intern at Joel Meyerowitz’s studio. What was that like, and how did it shape your career?
Zach Tarrant: Working for Joel was completely transformative. It changed my life. Sometimes you need to actually see the real deal for yourself. You need to meet and talk to the actual person in the actual place. I probably wasn’t the best intern but that’s a world I needed to see for myself. I needed some real-world and real-life experience. I managed to get myself from Savannah, GA to NYC. At that point in my life, doing so was a small miracle. I found a Jersey City sublet on craigslist. I had no clue what I was doing. Joel was such a gracious and generous teacher. He went out of his way to give me his time, energy and knowledge and I can’t ever express enough gratitude to him– what a spectacular guy.
I left that internship feeling like a lot was possible for me. I’ve always been so curious to find out how good I could get at photography. That internship helped engender a sense of “ok – keep going – there’s something here.”
Phoblographer: Finally, if you could do a one-on-one portrait shoot with any wrestler (dead or alive), who would it be and why?
Zach Tarrant: This is such a good and tough question! My choice is Seth Rollins here. He’s about my age and seems to have some similar interests (football, family, music, coffee, midwestern background, etc.). The ability to relate always lends itself well to making successful portraits. I think my personal style would work well with his brand and would be flattering to the message he would want to convey with those types of images.
You can enjoy more of Zach’s work by visiting his website.
All images by Zach Tarrant. Used with permission.