“A kind of theatre”: Photographer Diego Saldiva on the decline of televised wrestling and the rise of Youtube street duels
Through two ongoing series the Switzerland-based Brazilian photographer investigates society’s desire to watch violence on screen.
- Elfie Thomas
- 9 May 2022
“For Streetbeefs the rules are simple: two fighters, three rounds, no biting, no eye gouging, no throat chops, no cursing, don’t insult the fighters and obviously no drugs, alcohol or filming. Whoever wins gets the honour and the dispute is solved”. These are the rules of Streetbeefs in the words of Christopher Willmore, founder of the group, best known as Scarface, or simply Face, explains Diego Saldiva.
Streetbeefs are a series of organised duels which occur in a backyard known as “Satan’s Backyard” in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley, Diego tells us. “Two people confront each other in a fist fight duel in order to solve a dispute”. The photographer discovered this unusual ritual after he came across a video on Youtube filmed by one of the “witnesses” which attend each fight, to ensure that a “fair” result is settled. Discovering Streetbeefs while he was already undergoing a series on the once-famous theatrical group of wrestlers the Gigantes do Ringue from his hometown just outside Rio, got him thinking about why this kind of performative wrestling wasn’t as popular as it once was.
The fights of the Gigantes do Ringue used to be televised in Brazil. Diego’s parents “would gather in the house of the only neighbour that had a TV, in order to watch their shows,” he tells us. This kind of theatrical wrestling, with characters and a plot, undoubtedly played a role in bringing the culture of fighting to TV screens. But we don’t often see it anymore. It occurred to Diego that nowadays “access to “real” fights is pretty much universal through the internet”. After spotting Streetbeefs on Youtube, Diego set out to investigate.
Unlike his Gigantes series (more on that later), Diego decided not to document the Streetbeef fighters in action, preferring to photograph their portraits whilst getting to know some of them. While he was sceptical of the “gruesome and sometimes comical western tradition of defending one’s honour,” he was also keen that the series should “explore other layers that might compose the bigger picture”.
He points out an image of a fighter called Bobby (pictured above) who works at a restaurant in Shenandoah Valley. The restaurant’s manager introduced him to Diego and they watched a video together of one of Bobby’s fights. The next day he made an appointment with Bobby to take his portrait. “He dyed his hair the same shade of blue as in the video,” says Diego. During the shoot, a passer-by approached Bobby at speed. Readying himself for an attack Bobby reached for a knife from his belt, but on arrival the pedestrian merely asked him for a lighter. On his second portrait appointment, Bobby turned up covered in blood. Not human blood, mind, but “chicken’s blood”. Bobby had been butchering chickens at the restaurant.
Ironically, when Diego was photographing this “real” fighter, he experienced much less “real” confrontation firsthand than when he was documenting the Gigantes do Ringue. The wrestlers were very sceptical of the photographer when he first began documenting their training sessions. Their distrust lasted a couple of weeks before one fateful day when a wrestler invited him to fight. Understandably, he politely rejected the offer. Undeterred, the wrestler began quizzing him about his weight before abruptly grabbing him by the wrists and flipping the unsuspecting photographer on his back. “All of a sudden, a group of wrestlers came out and started slapping me on the back [...] After that, they welcomed me as part of their group.”
After this baptism of fire, the Gigantes dropped their scepticism and were fairly forthcoming. They let him photograph all aspects of their rigorous training. Even then, Diego initially approached the photography cautiously. He wanted it to be a “strictly documental practice” and didn’t dare “direct” them in any way. But after spending a longer period of time with them it occurred to him that their work was essentially “a kind of theatre”, so he decided to “try something more staged, even if only for the experience”.
While the pandemic and looking after his “almost four children” has temporarily put a stop to the two ongoing projects he discussed with us, Diego’s been spending his time-out doing more theoretical research into these unusual cultures of fighting and wrestling. He’s slowly creating hypotheses around his series, delving further into the reasons behind society’s desire to watch violence.
Diego Saldiva: Everyone Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth (Copyright © Diego Saldiva, 2019)
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.