French photographer Bénédicte Kurzen explores the mystical and ancestral practice of Congolese wrestling in Brazzaville.
Lisbon-based photographer Bénédicte Kurzen, a member of NOOR Images, began her career when she moved to Israel in 2003, covering hard news as a freelancer in the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Lebanon.
In 2004, her photography developed from hard news to a more documentary style with her work on the lives of volunteer suicide bombers and widows in the Gaza Strip. Bénédicte Kurzen contributed with this work to the “Violence Against Women” group project, in collaboration with Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
She also wrote an essay about the “myth of the war photographer”, which inspired her to become a visual storyteller herself. For the past ten years, Bénédicte Kurzen has been covering conflicts and socio-economical changes in Africa.
In South Africa, where she was based, she explored some of the deepest social challenges of the post-apartheid society producing stories entitled “Next of Kin”, “The Boers Last Stand” and “Amaqabane”, on the life of former anti-apartheid combatants.
In 2010, Bénédicte Kurzen decided to do a story on voodoo wrestling in Congo and started photographing these fights mostly at night. It is the moment when the hypnotic beat of drums and the loud melodic trumpets announced the beginning of the wrestling match.
The athletes were getting ready and that night, in Brazzaville, they would fight opponents from Kinshasa. The audience was mesmerized by the “voodoo” that has been borrowed from ancestral practices that were used in animist rituals — a large part of the intrigue of this sport.
In Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, wrestling is as popular as it is in the U.S. The main difference: The Congolese like to introduce a mystical, magical “voodoo” element to the pantomime. So in addition to huge men wearing spandex and diving off 10-foot-tall stages, there are also “magical traditions” involving powders, spells and zombie-like transformations of wrestlers.
The majority of the athletes are former soldiers or street kids, who see in wrestling an opportunity to earn a better living or escape the misery they grew up in. It is the faces, the bodies and the passion of these men that Bénédicte Kurzen photographed in this beautiful and exclusive photo essay.
Bénédicte Kurzen is represented by NOOR Images