In Senegal, professional wrestling reigns supreme. Seeing as it's the national sport, those who successfully practice lutte sénégalaise, or laamb, are considered heroes in their home country, treated like movie stars or royalty. Though unlike the WWE stars in America who transformed wrestling into an entertainment spectacle throughout the '90s, the burgeoning wrestling champions in Senegal are reaching new heights of popularity while attempting to maintain ties to their traditional folk roots.
Amsterdam-based photographer Ernst Coppejans recently spent several weeks shadowing the men and boys who are working to become the next big laamb champions. His portraits capture the hulking subjects on a beach in the small village of Yene where they train. Contorted and posed, mid-grapple or lounging by the sea, Coppejans' images demonstrate a different kind of masculinity.
The series, titled "Lutteur," began while Coppejans was traveling in West Africa, seeking to meet and photograph members of the gay community there. The resulting project, "Dans le Milieu," explores West Africa's laws that prohibit same sex relationships. While in Senegal, however, Coppejans became particularly fascinated with the wrestlers he saw on the beaches. After a bit of research, he decided to join the Senegalese hopefuls for a month, attending their tournaments and observing their practices.
"Champions are worshiped," Coppejans explained to The Huffington Post. "Many Senegalese boys train fanatically to make their dream, becoming a famous lutteur come true." The allure of fame and fortune from sport clearly crosses national borders. Talented lutteurs will wear talismans (gris-gris) and douse themselves in blessed liquid to better their chances of triumph, while connecting to the older folk rituals based on faith and luck. But while the majority of competitors make around $2,000 per season, the small percentage of elite winners can earn up to $100,000 per combat.
“There is a mirage, a sort of dream, that the youth of the country are living,” Malick Thiandoum, a sports broadcaster for Senegalese Radio and Television, stated to The New York Times. “But we are in the process of telling them, ‘Be careful, because there is a gap between what you believe and reality.'"
Cappejans captures portraits of the wrestlers, clad in loincloth and shorts, before they've been fully enveloped by this reality. "What I love about this series is that it is all about hopes and dreams," he added. "Not many make it as a professional wrestler, but they sure are gonna try. It's a way out of poverty and a way to a better life."
For more on the multinational world of wrestling, check out Laurent Goldstein's series on kushti here.