Christian Bobst is a Swiss photographer who has worked a lot in Africa, particularly for NGOs. He first came across Gris-gris wrestling in 2012, and returned to Senegal in 2015 to document this hugely popular (but little-known) sporting culture.
When I decided to go back, I contacted some people from the African diaspora in Switzerland. It took me just two phone calls and I was connected to the former president of the wrestlers’ union in Senegal. When I got there he handed me over to his friend, an ex-wrestler, and he showed me around. He was a very big guy so I felt very safe!
We were there for 10 days and we visited villages, small arenas, big areas, the wrestlers at home. We wanted to cover the Gris-gris rituals as this is a very important aspect of the wrestling culture in Senegal.
They do rituals for hours to entertain the public before the fights. They have a lot of music and dancing, hypnotic drums and singing. They have all those fluids they buy from the shamans and they put on all these amulets.
Different wrestlers have different qualities. You can use your fists, you can box, but as soon as another wrestler has you over their shoulders, you can’t box any more. So either you are really quick with your fists, or really strong, or really angry.
Everyone watches these tournaments – it’s more popular than soccer even. At the big tournament I had press accreditation. I was supposed to stand on the other side, but the light was coming directly onto the wrestlers and it was not so attractive.
I took a gamble to get a different sort of image, but someone came and sent me away. I went back and then this guy came back again, but mysteriously someone came around and said, ‘No no, let him be.’ I was able to stay there and take pictures from a completely different position to the other photographers.
A lot of people were challenging me – why do you photographers always focus on the problematic aspects of Africa? Why can’t you do a normal story? That was one of the reasons I thought this was an important story to tell.
The sport is spectacular but it also functions like a Trojan Horse, and within this Trojan Horse you can smuggle in different aspects of the culture, the rituals, the modern developing Africa with the media and the sponsorship. It’s a more holistic approach.