Documentary

Kayfabe

Photographer Sebastiaan Franco explores the world of European Pro Wrestling, and discovers what ‘kayfabe’ means in that sporting universe.

In the world of wrestling, ‘Kayfabe’ is the term for portraying events, relationships, and rivalries between opponents as genuine. Photographer Sebastiaan Franco has been following pro wrestler Rob Eeckhout since 2015, and explores the world of European Pro Wrestling through photography.

Professional wrestling became popular in the UK in the seventies, and in the US in the eighties – in Belgium, it was revived in 2003 with the founding of the Flemish Wrestling Force (FWF). Over the next decade, multiple organizations such as the Pro Wrestling Alliance (PWA) were launched. In 2015, Franco contacted Steve Van den Bergh, the founder of the PWA, who in turn put Franco in touch with pro wrestler Rob Eeckhout. Only a few days later, Sebastiaan travelled with Rob to one of his shows and has been following the pro athlete on a regular basis on his tour through Europe ever since, capturing events both on and off stage.

Gradually, Franco became intrigued by this project because of the high level of entertainment of pro wrestling: “This is the summit of live entertainment. Pro wrestlers construct their own character and background story after which they train to bring this character to life on stage. Rob Eeckhout is, for example, known in the ring as Rob Raw where he forms a tag team with his partner Rex Rage. The characters of pro wrestlers create stories which provide a recurring theme both within one show, and throughout multiple shows. It is the athletic tension that exists around these storylines that is so appealing to the audience.”

Rob Raw getting ready for his match in Baudour, Belgium.

Rob Raw getting ready for his match in Baudour, Belgium.

Tagteam wrestling match in Baudour, Belgium.

Tagteam wrestling match in Baudour, Belgium.

Stagehands getting the ring ready in Milan, Italy.

Stagehands getting the ring ready in Milan, Italy.

Practicing the drills before a show in Milan, Italy.

Practicing the drills before a show in Milan, Italy.
Wrestlers watch a show behind the scenes in Epinal, France.

Pro wrestling is constructed as a performance art, where the entertainment is created by the simulation of a combat sport contest. In this process, the principle of ‘Kayfabe’ is played out; despite the athleticism inherent in the performance, the wrestlers remain in character at all times, allowing for the audience’s complete immersion in the constructed story. ‘Kayfabe’ plays a fundamental part in pro wrestling because it breaks the fourth wall, and encourages interaction between the wrestlers and their audience, which is essential for the subsequent course of the show.

A wrestler poses before entering the ring in Milan, Italy.

Detailed moves for a show in Syracuse, Sicily.

Detailed moves for a show in Syracuse, Sicily.

Rob being driven back to his hotel in Catania, Sicily.

Rob being driven back to his hotel in Catania, Sicily.

Ymah Pain warming up for a show in Epinal, France.

Ymah Pain warming up for a show in Epinal, France.

Fans buying merch in Epinal, France.

Fans buying merch in Epinal, France.
Marcel making his entrance in Epinal, France.

Greeting fans after a show in Epinal, France.

Greeting fans after a show in Epinal, France.

Rob Raw and Rex Rage doing promoshots before a show in Boom, Belgium.

Rob Raw and Rex Rage doing promoshots before a show in Boom, Belgium.

A small television shows the ongoing matches for the wrestlers backstage in Boom, Belgium.

Kayfabe-18

Wrestlers watching a show from backstage in Boom, Belgium.

Wrestlers watching a show from backstage in Boom, Belgium.

Bathroom break during a show in Boom, Belgium.

Bathroom break during a show in Boom, Belgium.

Wrestlers messing about backstage in Boom, Belgium.

Wrestlers messing about backstage in Boom, Belgium.

As Sebastiaan says, “pro wrestlers can always count on a large number of spectators and Rob has several die-hard fans who are present at each of his shows. They are truly immersed in the storyline of pro wrestling.” This does not, however, mean that these shows are seen as a mere construct; pro wrestlers must put in a lot of physical training and although the stories and characters are set up, it is still a highly intense sport.

“They are genuinely thrown around. The risk of injury is very real.”

Richie during PWA Battle Lines in Antwerp, Belgium.

Johnny ‘knocked out’ during a show in Antwerp, Belgium.

Johnny ‘knocked out’ during a show in Antwerp, Belgium.

Spectators and presenters waiting for a show to start in Wittorf, Germany.

Spectators and presenters waiting for a show to start in Wittorf, Germany.
Fan at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Referee about to enter the ring at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Referee about to enter the ring at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Mot and his brother getting ready for a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Mot and his brother getting ready for a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Gary before heading out at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Gary before heading out at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Involving the crowd and other objects at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Involving the crowd and other objects at a show in Wittorf, Germany.

Sebastiaan Franco’s fascination with the human interaction, with identity, shows clearly in this series of photographs. “Professional wrestling contains a psychological aspect; in the end it comes down to wearing a certain mask.” Sebastiaan declares that he is not yet finished with this project, and still joins Rob’s tours whenever he finds the time.

Women's show outside Langres, France.

A wrestler appears out of a coffeeshop during a show in Langres, France.

A wrestler appears out of a coffeeshop during a show in Langres, France.

Aspiring wrestlers being trained in Antwerp, Belgium.

Aspiring wrestlers being trained in Antwerp, Belgium.
A referee looks on during a show in Antwerp, Belgium.
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The photographer

Sebastiaan Franco

Sebastiaan Franco graduated from the MA Visual Arts program at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent in 2019. Since graduating, he does freelance assignments and pursues his own documentary projects.

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