Earlier this year, Riccardo Bononi won first place in the Sport category at the 2015 Sony World Photography Awards for his project, Las Valkyrias de Bolivia. Bononi visited Bolivia on an unrelated research project, only to find himself photographing in the poorest neighbourhood in La Paz. The Valkyries are a group of women farmers from the countryside who come into the city and enter the ring for a series of wrestling bouts. The women, who raise their children all by themselves and work between the fields and the urban street markets, were the perfect example of migration from the countryside to urban environments, as well as a striking example of feminine strength.
What’s the genesis of the project?
My initial reasons for going to Bolivia were far away from the wrestling ring of El Alto. I had the opportunity to collaborate with a researcher from SOAS, University of London on a project looking at the migration of people from the countryside to the cities, along with the dispersion of traditional knowledge.
My first impression of Bolivia was that of a country divided in half. On one side, a deserted countryside where the few children living there dream of a better future in the cities. On the other side, the reality of the cosmopolitan capital La Paz, where migrants try to adapt themselves to a new context without losing their identity and history. In both areas, one characteristic remained constant; all the women I met were engaged in heavy physical working activities, from farm work to manual labour in the capital.
In Bolivia, which has the highest rate of working women in Latin America, the idea of a woman is hardly ever associated with that of the ‘weaker sex’. My challenge was to capture women who reverse well-worn stereotypes that exist in Europe.
How did you come across the Valkyries?
I decided to examine the phenomenon of migration through the stories of extraordinary women. I began by searching for work situations that visually translated the idea of femininity associated with extraordinary physical endurance and strength. I started working alongside the ‘campesinas’ women in the fields on a farm under a scorching hot sun, 4000 metres above sea level. In the capital, I took part in the celebrations held by the women butcher’s corporation.
From one contact to another, I ended up working in the prison of San Pedro, where inmates live with their wives and children. It was there that I first heard about the female wrestlers. Amazed at the number of women in a male high security prison, I asked the women if they were afraid of living amongst murderers and rapists. Their answer was that they could well defend themselves, and that one of them had become a famous fighter in the district of El Alto.
Given the enormous popularity of the phenomenon of female lucha libre among the inhabitants of the capital, it was quite easy to participate in matches.
You term your work as visual anthropology, as opposed to photojournalism – what do you think marks the difference?
I’m not a news photographer, so a visual anthropologist I value my shots according to the type of interaction I have with the subjects I portray. I believe that photography can be an intercultural communication tool – that the subjects I capture can represent themselves, their culture, as they perceive themselves through my photography.
In the final selection of my work, I preferred to discard the shots that were intimate and personal portraits. Instead, I gave space to external aspects that could provide a broad overview of the phenomenon, such as the colours of traditional clothing and bodily expressions that conveyed a personal struggle.
I strongly believe in being actively involved with the subjects I portray. I am normally involved in very long term projects (my work in Madagascar, for example, started ten years ago). In Bolivia I unfortunately had to deal with a very short timeline, and so could devote only few days to this specific section of the project. This I believe was my biggest regret, the fact that I did not have enough time to provide a deeper perspective.
How did you gain the trust of your subjects?
I always keep my approach very human, the photograph only comes in a second moment. If my curiosity regarding the subjects and their lives is sincere, it is normally perceived and exchanged. For every question I had, they would ask me about my life, my work and my culture.
The biggest challenge with cholitas wrestlers was to establish a human contact with real local celebrities, who were used to signing autographs for children and posing for their fans. My priority was therefore to get them used to my presence and to establish a different kind of relationship to that of their fans or tourists.
To break the ice, the anthropological ‘participant observation’ revealed to be really useful: I took part in their training, I told them about my experiences with martial arts during my childhood, I tried out their simpler fighting moves and played with their children.
When it has to do with people who are working and struggling it is easy to be perceived as a mere spectator. To gain the trust of a subject, you must prove their professionalism in terms that can be universally understood: a worker, unlike a mere spectator, is the one who gets through the day – sweaty and fatigued.