The sorcerers of Gwenn Dubourthoumieu’s RING
The 2015 Sportfolio Festival recently awarded a prize to the photojournalist’s report on pro wrestling in Kinshasa. We took a look into the passionate, talented photographer’s career.

Gwenn Dubourthoumieu didn’t start out as a photojournalist. His passion for the Congo, however, was immediate. He arrived in the DRC as an aid worker and the country inspired him to move to photography and journalism. “I spent a lot of time in Africa working for a demining NGO. My missions were mostly in Sudan, Somalia and Kenya, but it was the Congo that fascinated me the most”, he commented. He had been living in the country for two years when he decided to make the move from the humanitarian world to the press world with a goal to document the complex country.

His choice of subjects that are often difficult to report and therefore largely untold – children accused of witchcraft, copper mining in Katanga, violence towards women – soon won him renown as a photojournalist and a flood of awards. He was granted the 2011 Getty Images “Grant for Good” before winning the Investigation award at the European Festival of Photojournalism/Scoop and the jury’s special prize at the Roger Pic Scam award. In 2012, he won an award at the St Brieuc photo reporter festival and again at the Fotografia Etica Short Story Award in 2014. In France, he tackles subjects such as closed circles of power and the Romany community as it struggles to integrate a society that continues to reject it. This year he recently won second place at the Sportfolio Festival for his report on pro wrestling in Kinshasa, which we have the pleasure to publish here with a text by Caroline Six. Welcome into the ring. M.B.

“Pro wrestling in the DRC wouldn’t be wrestling without the sorcery. With all due respect to the purists who come to admire the “coriaces” (warriors) technique, the public is here for the féticheurs (sorcerers) wrestlers. Roused by the fanfare of the brass brand and the crackling of the megaphone, the public hold their breath as these magicians of the ring throw flames into the air. More traditional fighters of sheer brute force rarely measure up to these “Copperfields of Africa” or “doctors in metaphysics”. What can a dodge or mace do against the powers of the beyond? Nothing. All the warriors can do is dance, bewitched and humiliated. This is the soul of Congolese pro wrestling. In this African carnival the struggle for power is reversed, the naturally strong are beaten by ancestral magic and cell phones travel through time to land in a wide-eyed penniless child’s pocket.

This is why, “after football comes wrestling”, a young Israeli sums up before adding his cheers to those of the crazed crowd. “The public wants the sorcerers”, explains Sirène, wearing a curly wig and mini skirt. The wrestler knows what he’s talking about. With the help of a young woman who bewitches her victims by rolling her hips, he just knocked out a giant.

For African’s 2010 wrestling champion, City Train (5kgs at birth according to his mother) and star of the Club des guerriers, the only magic of the sport is training. Watching him do his daily sets of 200kg weights certainly doesn’t make you want to disagree. Yet the colossus doesn’t scare Igwe Texas. “No wrestler can beat me. I have the power to demolish anything”, the lithe young man boasts. It’s mostly his humour and swinging hips that throw off his opponents. He has the power to enchant anyone he chooses into dancing – heavyweights, referees and even coaches.

A lot of the féticheurs work humour into their match but some delve into “very dangerous stories”. These stories usually include apparitions controlled by dead ancestors. Congo’s top féticheur-wrestler, Bijou Kisamvwote, also know as “coup de flamme” (flame blast) regularly brings a coffin into the ring. Using his talisman Mbengu Mbengu, his ancestor’s abode fills with hurricane lamps, clocks and cell phones that he throws into the captivated crowd.

There are tens of clubs in Kinshasa, each with a provocative name like “Tout va changer” (everything is going to change), “Haut-commandement” (high command), or “Club des guerriers” (warriors’ club). They have been competing for popularity since the infamous Edingwe, DRC’s long-running champion, retired. Professional wrestlers earn a living from sponsored events and tournaments in Angola and Congo Brazzaville. Several political parties draw on the wrestlers’ popularity for their own propaganda, draping the fighters in their party’s colours during the combats. As Simon, the patron and honorary president of the Ndjili Club des guerriers explains: “Féticheurs capture your spirit, it’s like being taken on a journey”.”

Caroline Six

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