“It was in 2009; I had decided to do a series on Senegalese wrestling. Since I had already been to Senegal several times, I knew it was going to be a very difficult job and so I had planned to make at least three trips to be sure I could do it.
I took off for Dakar the first time and stayed two weeks without taking a single photo, because each time there was always a last minute problem. I was upset and very frustrated because I was able to attend all these wrestling matches but without being able to shoot anything. My idea was to set up a studio and shoot them face-to-face, but that wasn’t at all possible.
On that first trip, I did meet one of the people in the picture: Bombardier, that’s his stage name. He’s the big guy in the center of the picture. I had already shown him my work, which had resonated with him, but he told me it would be complicated. Anyway, nobody there wanted to help me, nobody wanted to pose. I didn’t take a single shot, but it only made me realize all the more that this was the subject matter I wanted to do.
I went back to Senegal a month later. I established contacts with as many locals as possible, but again, to no avail. The day before I left for Paris, I decided to call Bombardier one last time. He said to me: “Listen, come to Mbour beach tomorrow, where we train.” So I went there with a photographer friend in his small car and, once there, we find ourselves staring at forty wrestlers training on the sand and two hundred children gathered around. Bombardier says to me: “Set up your studio.” It was 5 pm, I had one half-hour of daylight left. I quickly set up my emergency studio behind the car on the beach; I set up my black screen and I set up my flash. I was very careful with my equipment because there were a lot of people there. I was in a suburb of Dakar, with people swarming everywhere.
When Bombardier sees that I’m ready, he walks over with his team and they hang out, right there, in the studio. Sweating, in a total state of trance, I start to photograph them. When I take a step forward, there are two hundred children behind me who move forward too; when I step backwards, there are two hundred children who move backwards too. There was an incredible vibe, but at the same time, it was a moment of intense stress. That’s the day I took this photo.
Then he puts his whole team behind the studio and I start to do individual portraits of Bombardier and his best fighters. I worked until 6 p.m. and managed to do exactly a third of what would later make up my book Lamb, lutteurs du Sénégal [Lamb, Wrestlers of Senegal]. I waited for a month for the right moment, and just when I had lost hope, it all happened the day before I was going home after my second visit, and in that one half-hour was concentrated everything I had missed over the course of a month. When Bombardier said to me “Come,” he was prepared to pose exactly the way I wanted, and in that fraction of a second, it was as if everything aligned for it to work out.”
By Denis Rouvre