There is a good possibility that you have seen Jon-Paul LeBlanc at a wrestling match or two. The photographer who wears a black vest decorated with patches from wrestling companies he has taken pictures for, almost always has his baseball cap turned around backward and is carrying his trusty Nikon camera. If you have never seen Jon-Paul in person, most likely you have seen his work. The shutterbug from New Orleans, Louisiana has worked in 10 southern states and photographed for nearly 80 wrestling promotions for nearly 25 years. He has taken pictures in the amount of tens of thousands.
“For me, it’s a feather in my hat. I set goals for myself, but I never thought I would photograph that many wrestling companies or take that many pictures,” Jon Paul Le Blanc said. “I guess you could call me an overachiever.”
Wrestling has always been a part of Jon-Paul’s life. Going to the matches was just what his family did. His earliest memories go back to 1975 at a promotion run by Leroy McGuirk called Tri-State Wrestling. Being only five years old and sitting with his father and grandparents, Jon-Paul watched wrestling usually from the first or second row.
“My grandfather used to take pictures with an old flash camera,” LeBlanc recalled. “By the time I was 7 years old, I could remember taking pictures at the matches too.”
By the time Jon-Paul was 12 his grandfather gifted him with a Canon AE 1. At the time it was one of the best cameras on the market. However, there was a great deal of responsibility that came along with having his camera. Jon-Paul’s grandfather was very strict when it came to the care of the photography equipment. After every use, the camera had to be broken down and properly cleaned.
“He showed me how to take care of the lenses and everything. I was learning about cameras and wrestling at the same time,” LeBlanc shared. “We never wanted to miss a show. We got there early and we stayed late so we could catch the guys coming out at the end of the night.”
When Jon Paul was 12, it was 1982 and the digital camera didn’t exist. The ability to take as many pictures as he wanted to was not an option. Back then film was the medium for photographers and there were only 24 shots available. Jon-Paul was careful not to run out of snapshots and he always made sure that the settings on the camera were correct for the conditions he was working in. There wasn’t a monitor to look at to see if the shot was any good. So, he had to be precise.
“I can still remember being hooked on that anticipation when waiting for someone’s high spot,” LeBlanc explained. “I had to be selective with my shots, but I had the patience to wait. My grandfather taught me how to do that.”
When you ask Jon-Paul what grabs his attention when photographing wrestling, he will probably lean toward telling you it is when he captures facial expressions. The look of joy, shock, anger, and pain translate well in the final product. He always gets excited when the heels come out because they tend to express their feelings in a very intense way. However, when it comes to feeling the effects of the punishment, it doesn’t matter to Jon-Paul if it’s happening to the good guy or the bad guy.
“I wait for that look of anguish when someone is in a figure four leg lock. That is the picture I want to take,” LeBlanc commented. “I want the fans to know how agonizing the hold was.”
Then there are those times when Jon-Paul has no clue what is going to happen next. Sometimes, especially when there are more than two people involved in the match, there can be a lot of things taking place at the same time. When he gets the shot he wants, Jon-Paul is on top of the world, but when he misses that moment it’s a whole different story.
“I get upset and I can be pretty hard on myself. After that happens I can become determined not to miss anything else,” LeBlanc scowled. “The drive home is always a little longer when I know I could have gotten the money shot.”
When Jon-Paul was living in Houston, he attended the wrestling matches regularly as a spectator. While sitting at ringside, he always had his camera with him. With his photography experience plus with the knowledge his grandfather instilled in him, Jon-Paul was able to capture a lot of the amazing shots from where he sat. When the wrestlers found out they were captured on film, they obtained that footage to sell at their merchandise tables.
“I was happy to help out the boys, but it helped me realize how good I was becoming at my craft,” LeBlanc answered. “I was pretty surprised people were willing to pay for my action shots.”
In 2010 at a show in Morgan City, Louisiana, Jon-Paul started working behind the barricade, and he was right next to the ring apron doing what he loved. However, taking pictures that close to the action can come with consequences. While leaning against the side of the squared metal structure to get his shots, Jon-Paul has gone home with bruises on his body on several occasions from the weight and size of the competitors colliding with the ring. Another time he was nearly punched by a 300-pound competitor but merely escaped.
“I have had some close calls,” LeBlanc claimed. “As a reminder, I have a close-up picture of a man’s fist that came within three inches of my camera lens.”
Working in the Gulf Coast region has its benefits. Regularly veteran wrestlers and stars come into work with the promotions up-and-coming talent. One night, Jon-Paul had the good fortune to photograph former ECW and WWE star Rodney Mack. The six-foot–two-inch brawler who weighs 240 pounds is intimidating enough. When he comes to the ring wearing a spiked leather collar around his neck with a large metal chain attached to it, the tension heightens.
On this particular evening during the match, Rodney wanted to make a statement inside the ring ropes. The veteran wrestler proceeded to retrieve his collar and use it as a weapon on his opponent. When Rodney was satisfied with the job he just performed, he threw the leather accessory out of the ring and onto the floor. An unsuspecting Jon-Paul scooted around the floor on his knees without taking his attention away from the match. Capturing all of the action seemed important until Jon-Paul put his knee down and his flesh met with the decorated metal spikes of Rodney Mack’s dog collar.
“I had seven spikes stick into my knee. I was bleeding pretty good,” LeBlanc remembered. “I still had to finish shooting the match. The next day I went to the store and bought knee pads.
Jon-Paul is lucky to have picked a sport to follow that isn’t seasonal. Professional wrestling is something that goes all year round. With that said, it says a lot about the wrestlers in the business. The athleticism that takes place inside the squared circle compares to no other sporting event. The strength, stamina, endurance, and conditioning are what he respects about wrestling.
“Wrestling has always been about the camaraderie because it was something I have always had done with my family,” LeBlanc mentioned. “I’m grateful for the sport because I have made a lot of friends, and I made a great deal of them through wrestling.”