Capturing Senegal’s strongest

  • Jhonny Núñez
  • Sabreen Hassan
  • Anfisa Strizh
A fury of fists, makeshift gloves and spraying sand; meet the photographer shooting West Africa’s wrestle-mania

Swedish photographer, Lasse Burell, “more or less stumbled” into the sandpit of Senegalese wrestling. La Lutte – literally translated as “The Fight” – is Burell's new photo-book, capturing a duel of strength and beauty amongst the West African country’s national sport – “Even bigger than football!” riffs Burrell. A no-frills fighting tradition that has developed from ancient pre-battle warm-up's to a stadium-worthy sport in an artful display of agility, strength and ability. Bold shoulders smatter against the sand, thick thighs entwine in aggression as eyes are gridlocked on their opponent in this aggressive and persuasive battle of honour. “I was intrigued by the beauty in their movements and fascinated by their hard training without any facilities, apart from the sand and their partners,” says Burell. A machismo display of muscle transpires in Burell's luxurious black and white page-turner – a hybrid of pure power and poetic grace. Shots of smiling faces and slip-on shoes used as cheap boxing glove alternatives are a refreshing reminder of characters and the community itself. Juggling day jobs as they moonlight at night wrestlers, the community reveres these characters as local heroes. Below, we chat to the photographer about his new book and finding beauty in the battlefield.

What initially drew you to capture Senegalese wrestling? How did you get involved?

Lasse Burell: I was walking along the beach in the late afternoon and I saw all these men (or boys) working out. At first I thought they where training for football, but I soon understood they were training for the local wrestling sport: La Lutte Sénégalaise. I connected with a bunch of guys training on the beach and just minutes after I was laying down in the sand with my camera. All around me, big wrestlers were fighting, the sand was spraying, the wrestlers were joking and laughing – I was infected by their enthusiasm and shot like a maniac. About a year later, I managed to get in contact with Mbour Montagne, a local wrestling club in Mbour. I was invited to spend time with them on their training sessions and these images are from that second trip.

How important is the sport to the community and culture?

Lasse Burell: The national games take place at stadiums with large audiences, they broadcast it on television and the athletes on that level can earn really big sums. In the villages the athletes, of course, are seen as local heroes.

Senegalese wrestling can be particularly aggressive – allowing blows with the hands – yet your images all have an air of joy about them.

Lasse Burell: The sport is truly brutal and the best wrestlers are big and very strong. But what really impressed me was the tenderness between the athletes. They fight each other, twist the other’s arms and finally force the other to the ground. And then they often rest a while, lying down on each other. They laugh, make jokes and are very encouraging to each other.

You chose to shoot in a local fishing village as opposed to a stadium – how do you think this affected the image?

Lasse Burell: I wanted to capture the struggle and play within an ordinary wrestling club. If I had shot this at a competition in a stadium, well, it would have been a totally different story. But quite a few images in my book are actually shot at a competition and a smaller local competition at night on the beach as well.

What have you learned from watching and capturing these sportsmen?

Lasse Burell: The world might look very strange and exotic when you watch it from distance. But when you get closer you realise that we are much more similar than we think. To me, this is not a story about Africa, it is a story about sports. It is about togetherness, joy, struggle and (sometimes) defeat, and I think we can all relate to that.

La Lutte, Published by KEHRER VERLAG, is available now