When Katrina Arnold photographed a ladies arm wrestling brawl in New Orleans a few years ago, she was instantly hooked. The raucous events, which are hosted by New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling, combine the performative, athletic elements of a WWE match with the communal, boozy aspects of a trivia night. It’s one of more than 25 chapters across the world under the umbrella of the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers.
“They’re such colorful events. You never know what’s going to happen,” Arnold said. “I got addicted. I ended up joining the collective and taking pictures of my friends.”
At NOLAW’s events, which are held a few times a year at bars, galleries, and other spaces across the city, eight arm wrestlers—each with their own costumed persona, theme song, and entourage—compete before hundreds of spectators. According to NOLAW, “rules are determined and managed by the referee, only to be manipulated and corrupted by celebrity judges, crowd hecklers, and dolla billz.”
The events aren’t just fun and games. They’re also fundraisers, with all proceeds benefiting local groups supporting women and children. (The groups, in return, create the winner’s trophy and submit a member to wrestle in the tournament.)
Photographing arm wrestling, Arnold said, is like photographing a concert: It involves shooting fast-moving subjects in low light, as well as avoiding getting in the way of audience members. Still, she said, NOLAW’s events are “a photographer’s dream.” Hilarious wrestler alter egos—Babe Lincoln, Amelia Armheart, Ruth Hater Ginsburg—come with equally outrageous costumes and stunts as they prepare to compete. Half-time acts include drag queens and burlesque dancers. Crowds are loud and enthusiastic.
“We want to create a fun, safe atmosphere where we can show off these strong, empowered women doing something that allows them to act out however they want,” she said. “You can be sexy, strong funny—you create a character. The best part is seeing these expressions come out on stage. It’s more about performance than the actual arm wrestling.”
The next NOLAW brawl is set for Dec. 12 at One Eyed Jacks. Arnold’s photographs will be on display in the exhibition, “Katrina Arnold: Wrists Up” at New Orleans’ Gradoux Gallery as part of PhotoNOLA from Dec. 4 through Dec. 7.