2019 WIN Journalist of the Year Justin Hoch looks for more than fire inside wrestlers

Updated: May 23, 2019

Photo: Justin Hoch, a freelance photographer from New York City, can be found shooting wrestling events all over the world.

By Mike Finn

In meeting the photographer who created the “The Fire Inside” project — an extremely up-close and intense group of portraits of at least 1,800 people who are currently associated with the sport of wrestling — one might think Justin Hoch was an angry person.

But when countless people actually meet this resident of New York City, they actually realize that Hoch is one of the nicer, more inquisitive people who is trying to promote the sport with his unique photography.

“I want (the project) to be a representation of the intensity of the sport and what it creates within people,” said Hoch. “When you see one of these portraits, it tells you something about that individual. And when you see a collection of all of those things, it starts to paint a picture of what the wrestling community is.”

But Hoch also sees something richer in these images that he believes also can impact people not associated with wrestling.

“Sometimes I think we lose sight of what the particular valuable things are,” he said. “It’s a good reminder to know how cool it is and feel good to be part of it. It’s also important for non-wrestlers because it can tell the story about wrestling that they don’t know. They will learn wrestlers’ stories and what the sport did for those people and how those people are giving back to the wrestling community.”

Hoch’s “The Fire Inside” project, which fans can find on-line — http://www.jhoch.com/the-fire-inside/— is also displayed at many national wrestling tournaments. For the creative project and years shooting wrestling at all levels, the 38-year-old photographer has been named WIN’s 2019 Journalist of the Year.

“I have the upmost respect for Justin as a journalist in wrestling,” said WIN publisher Bryan Van Kley. “He’s passionate about the sport and logs thousands of miles every year shooting it at all levels and is one of the truly great wrestling photographers out there.

“His ‘The Fire Inside’ project shows he also really understands what makes wrestling and wrestling people so unique, and he uses his creative ability to showcase that inner strength needed to wrestle.”

“An image can be a good image, but if there is not something bigger behind it, it loses interest in me,” Hoch said. “I like for things to become complex. The world is a complicated place and I want to do things that are unique and different.”

Introduced to wrestling at age 4, while he was growing up in Wyoming, Hoch eventually moved with his family to upstate New York when he was in tenth grade and continued to wrestle. That included a period at Binghamton University, where he wrestled and studied psychology as well as business management with an emphasis on finance.

Unfortunately, the school temporarily dropped wrestling in 2004 after Hoch’s senior season — the New York school brought it back two years later — which Hoch admitted left him feeling bitter about the sport.  Hoch had nothing to do with wrestling until 2010 when a friend and former wrestler from New York — Mike Torriero of Beat the Streets — asked Hoch, who was involved in grant-writing, if he’d like to get involved with the non-profit organization that was using wrestling to influence children in urban areas.

It was about this time that Hoch also took up photography to help him and Beat the Streets spread their message.

“I realized I was totally into (photography) and needed a better camera to do the things I wanted to,” he said. “I would carry it with me everywhere and shoot everything.”

Hoch said his love of helping children also re-ignited a love for wrestling.

“I like the phrase, ‘Be the adult that the kid in you needs,’ said Hoch. “I felt that I could provide something for a kid that would make them feel empowered.”

He believes his “The Fire Inside” project helps kids realize a potential that they don’t first see.

“Steve Mocco’s sister, Katie, once told me something that still sticks with me after she saw the images,” Hoch recalled. “She said, ‘It gives kids a confidence looking at themselves before they actually believe it.’

“By looking at a picture of themselves in this powerful and intense sort of way, it may re-frame their own capabilities. They may realize that they can be tough even if they had not seen themselves that way before.”

During that period between college and Beat the Streets, Hoch also decided to spend more time in pursuing an acting career — which took him to New York City — and he has kind of become a jack of all trades.

“I had a business card that said, ‘Hello my name is Justin Hoch and I can do all these things for you and anything you can think of. Yes really,’ ” recalled Hoch. “I had many transferable skills and I felt I could learn how to do many things.”

This also created an independent spirit that Hoch uses today as a freelance photographer — his work can also be found in WIN Magazine — and helps create a dialogue with previous strangers.

“My happiest moments come when people first say they did not know who I am, but when I told them my name, they would say, ‘Oh, I know you.’ ”

“I want to spread the power that wrestling provides,” he said. “I want people, especially outside the sport, to understand what that power is.”

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