Above: Reindeer racing in Finland (Copyright Hannelore Vandenbussche)
Born in Chile and raised in Belgium, Hannelore Vandenbussche has journeyed internationally as a photographer and storyteller, travelling to the remotest regions on Earth. In 2009, after graduating with a photography degree, she embarked on her first assignment, assisting photographer Jimmy Nelson on his landmark Before They Pass Away project, which documents the planet’s last remaining Indigenous tribes.
During her travels, after witnessing the games played by various indigenous peoples – unlike any sports she’d seen before – the seed for a new project began to take form. In doing some initial research, Hannelore uncovered fascinating stories about relatively unknown sports worldwide but concluded that “there was little to no documentation about the different motivations why people play.”
Her subsequent project, Human Playground: Why Humans Play, is her biggest endeavour to date, one she hopes will inspire people to appreciate the sheer diversity and universality of play. In this book (now a Netflix Original docu-series narrated by Idris Elba), Hannelore investigates the question of why sports have been – and remain – so fundamental to humankind.
What began as purely independent research evolved into a committed team of researchers once Hannelore got the green light for her pitch. With the team’s support, she was better equipped to shape the stories and discover even more interesting angles to explore. Like the Netflix series, the stories in the book fall under six universal themes: ancient rituals, rites of passage, big business, breaking the pain barrier, the pursuit of perfection and sacred playgrounds.
“A lot of people think that playing a game is about winning or simply the physical aspect of it, but while I was working on this project, I realised that these are mostly just secondary incidentals,” explains Hannelore. “Playing is about tradition, culture, pushing the boundaries, money, discipline, chasing perfection, healing traumas, and so much more. I discovered that it truly doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, healthy or not, black or white, man or woman, young or old – we all play.”
Her book is a testament to this. While modernisation poses a threat to many of these ancient sports, Hannelore presents them in a way that captures their vitality, and her photography is as energetic as the sports it depicts. Each frame launches us into the heart of the action. From the ancient equestrian game of Buzkashi that takes place on the Central Asian steppes in which she captures the “sheer anarchy” and “wild flurry of human and animal limbs thrashing about” (as described by Rose Casella in the accompanying text) to the dynamic images of Capoeiristas (practitioners of the Brazilian martial art) suspended in mid-air against Rio de Janeiro’s skyline, to the dusty clouds, kicked up by Mexico’s long-distance endurance runners, Hannelore approaches each sport with the reverence and respect they deserve, taking into account their unique cultural heritage and history.
Despite the competitive nature of most sports, Hannelore was drawn to the unifying force of play, the way these games bring people together, regardless of social background, race, gender or belief. “On the soccer field, it doesn’t matter which teams are put against each other; all cultural barriers disappear,” she says. “On the playground, everyone is equal. All differences are temporarily set aside to play the game.”
We witness, too, in the book, the seemingly boundless potential of the human body pushed to extremes. Take, for instance, the images of the Big Wave riders on Portugal’s Atlantic coast: minuscule surfers barely visible against ferocious, unforgiving waves. This is Nazaré: Europe’s largest underwater canyon, 125 miles long and three times as deep as the Grand Canyon. As described in the book by one big-wave rider, surfing Nazaré is “like being chased down by a moving avalanche”.
Yet, for many pro-surfers, this is the holy grail of waves, and this stretch of coastline draws people from around the globe. In her accompanying text, Rose writes: “a big wave surfer hears the thunder of tons of water echo in their pounding heart until time stands still. In that singular moment, they are side by side with Poseidon, taming the beast, and nothing else matters.”
While each trip offered something special, when asked about her most memorable encounter from the project, it is the Nigeria trip that stands out for Hannelore. “We were there to capture the brutal boxing sport Dambe and the ‘Special Eagles’ amputee football team,” she recalls. “Although I’d witnessed a lot of poverty in my life already, I never witnessed anything like this. We were in the slums to shoot Dambe and had to jump over open sewers to get to the arena, not to mention the smoke we were inhaling from the garbage set on fire. People were living in tiny huts with barley roofs over their heads. I remember thinking, ‘how can people live here?’ Ironically, the longer I spent time in the slums, the more these thoughts started to disappear.
“When capturing the Dambe games, I didn’t only see the whole community come together, playing music and laughing, but also witnessed that the boys competing were literally fighting for a better future. It was such a beautiful thing to experience; to see that sport can create so much joy and hope in the most despair[ing] situations.”
Travelling to another part of the city, Hannelore encountered the Special Eagles amputee football team, which included boys who had lost a limb due to accidents and poor hospitalisation. “Most of them played soccer before their accidents and somehow found a way to keep playing even after losing a leg or an arm,” she says. “The resilience and mindset of these boys are something to truly admire. They prove that it doesn’t matter what challenges you have to face in life; you can always find a way to play.”