A colorful ring sets the stage for a brutal, high-energy skirmish between good and evil. Eager fans linger around, the air hot with anticipation for the commentator’s first roars as they introduce the evening’s rivals. The show begins and burly bodies leap and spar with a mix of grace and fury, struggling for dominance, roused by the screams of the crowd. The enthralled audience reaches far outside of the sweaty walls of the wrestling club; grouped around their TV sets, thousands of viewers watch the spectacle unfold from the comfort of their own homes. A familiar scene in Brazil between the 1960s up until the 1990s—with shows like Telecatch, and later Os Reis do Ringue and Os Gigantes do Ringue—professional wrestling holds a prime spot in the collective memory of many Brazilians.
Diego Saldiva’s Gigantes charts the attempted comeback of a group of wrestlers, raising questions about the appeal of this popular, performative entertainment. “My parents told stories of how a large part of the neighborhood would meet in the house of the only person who owned a television, just to watch certain shows,” he recalls. As a kid growing up, he remembers encountering the larger-than-life stars of professional wrestling every now and then on his grandmother’s TV set. But since the 1990s, its popularity has dwindled, and the ‘Giants’ that once reigned the wrestling ring found themselves out of favor. Having moved from São Paulo to Switzerland in 2008, these former celebrities were relegated to Saldiva’s childhood memories until he read in a local newspaper that the Gigantes do Ringue were making a comeback—in the outskirts of his hometown.
“A more ‘real-fight’ type of entertainment became very popular, and so pro-wrestling staged fights went underground. I was a bit surprised when I learned they were still active; it sounded a little anachronistic,” explains Saldiva. Intrigued by the stubborn persistence of these veterans of wrestling, the photographer decided to follow his nose and find out more. The majority of Saldiva’s projects stem from a personal connection to a given theme. Since working on a deeply intimate project about becoming a father to a sick child, he has been interested in themes of manhood and masculinity whilst also documenting the changes that São Paulo has undergone in his absence.
Saldiva began simply. Visiting the Gigantes’ shows, he photographed the people he met, documenting what he saw around him. But he soon became curious about the fault-lines of the wrestling phenomena and its popularity. What drove the giants into the ring? What was it about these choreographed acts of cruelty that made them so appealing to a mass audience? The majority of the men in his portraits joined the crew around the age of 18 in search of the fame and glory of being a Gigante. “Thirty years ago everybody knew them and, for many, becoming part of the Giants was a dream come true,” he explains.
Retreating from a straight documentary approach, the photographer began looking for anchor points in literature and Greek mythology, finding similarities in the tribe of 100 giants of Hesiod’s Theogony. “The relationship between nature and masculinity was also very interesting; the Giants were born to Gaia, mother earth, from the blood shed when Uranus, the sky, was castrated,” he explains. Known for their strength, force and indulgent violence, the Giants were earth-born beings who battled the Olympian Gods for the cosmos. Turning away from the main act, Saldiva photographed backstage and during training sessions, allowing the Giants to perform for his camera.
Interested in the space between the fantasy and heroism of wrestling culture and the reality of this difficult comeback, his images draw the curtain back on the theatre and excess of the hyper-masculine sport. In 1957, French cultural critic Roland Barthes opened his book Mythologies with a chapter about wrestling. Digging to the core of this popular form of entertainment, he draws parallels with ancient theatre where blown-out performances of suffering and sorrow play out on the stage. These “great solar spectacles” provide the audience with an exaggerated image of the strength and weaknesses of humanity. For Saldiva, there is also humor in wrestlings’ take on the age-old story of the hero. “It mocks the traitor, the conceited and even the hero—though finally making him prevail in the end,” he says.