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Football and cemeteries:

An insight on the limitations of documentary photography

This project includes:

Related to this project: 

 "Look beyond"

Key words:  Brazil, identity, society, ideas.


“Brazilian people really love soccer!” I thought to myself when I first saw the gravestones. Indeed, Brazilians do love soccer. Brazil is the land of soccer, where even the ongoing protests cannot deter people from decorating streets and closing down businesses in order to watch their favorite team. In Sao Paulo, for instance, it is common to see walls painted with team motifs and people of all ages walking around dressed as if they are part of an official team. But do they love it to the point of mixing the sacred with the profane by stamping their loyalty upon their gravestone?

My trip started in Rio de Janeiro 29 years ago. My mother met my father who came from Switzerland to spend his holidays in the beautiful city. Growing up, I absorbed my mother's culture and as the stereotyped Brazilian image suggests, I became a soccer player for the Swiss youth national team at 15 and played until the age of 21. Most of my teammates from that time will play in the upcoming World Cup for Switzerland, but due to numerous injuries and their consequent surgeries, and my own changing interests, life began to take a different route.

I heard about the custom of people putting team logos on gravestones in Brazil and felt compelled to discover what lies behind this phenomena. While my former companions were getting ready for the World Cup, I walked through cemeteries everyday for a few weeks. At first, the people I encountered on my walks were those who did not opt for such gravestones for their loved ones. They were surprised by my quest and readily told me that the custom was borne of mere fanaticism. Of course, this is what I should have expected, but I was eager to hear from somebody who actually chose that type of gravestone for a beloved one.

One day I bumped into a gardener who surprisingly told me that football fanaticism has little to do with the choice of sports related symbols on gravestones. This caught my attention and soon after, I met Salete, a woman who had opted to put the Santos logo on her beloved Mauro's gravestone. Santos is the team of the great Pelé and more recently, Neymar. They have many supporters in Brazil and, as I expected, Salete suggested that Mauro was really a Santos fanatic. However, as I kept talking to her, her discourse began to unveil a different story.

“Mauro was a kind person and a hard worker. I met him in a nightclub for elderly people and we loved each other so much from the very beginning. We liked to listen to music and go to karaoke bars. His biggest passion was music and he could talk about any musician! He used to go very often to Santos since he had an ill brother there, but he didn't like to go to the stadium, nor watch any games and he never had any Santos jerseys. When he died, I turned to his sister and asked her which team he supported. His family didn t want to do it but I thought he would have liked it and would have done the same for me.” For my last question, I insisted: "Why did you choose the Santos symbol for his gravestone?” and she replied: “Because he was a fanatic…”

When you see these gravestones, the image easily leads you to wonder about the person's life based on the stereotyped ideas we have of Brazilians. However, just as somebody wrote on the walls of the entrance to the cemetery, we should “look beyond” in order to understand the meaning of things. I would take it further by saying that this is an excellent example of the limitations of documentary photography because without accompanying text, these pictures would simply misrepresent the significance behind the gravestones.

After my conversations with Salete, I contacted Dr. Fabio Mariano Borges, an anthropologist who had spent 4 years studying this issue in different parts of Brazil. From his research, it has come to light that while some of these people are fanatics, most are just casual individuals or simple supporters who don't even choose to put such symbols on their gravestones before their death. People misuse the term fanatic to justify their choice, but the real reasons for this social phenomena lies behind deeply-rooted social inequalities.

In contrast, in cemeteries destined for higher class individuals there is a great diversity of gravestone representations. In fact, they are elaborate, rich architectural beauties characterized by material diversification. Individuals from lower socioeconomic classes, on the other hand, are buried in public cemeteries where they are obligated to use simple, standard gravestones. In Salete's case, this meant her beloved Mauro's grave was almost identical to those of thousands of people in the Vila Formosa cemetery of São Paulo, the biggest cemetery in South America.

The reality is that rich families have access to options regarding how they want their deceased to rest after death, whereas poor families do not have many alternatives. Yet, even in their poverty, people still want to be perceived as unique and pragmatically speaking, choosing the sports symbols eases the search for their loved ones in such huge and badly-managed areas. The irony of this is that while higher class individuals laugh when shown these gravestones, poorer individuals admire the gravestones of the rich. As a Swiss national, this issue clearly evidences that, despite huge inequalities, there is still a perverse harmony between haves and have-nots in a polarized Brazil.  

Sometimes these cemeteries receive victims of violence, which results in burials happening very quickly and gravestones being hastily chosen, without any planning. Gardeners show families a book with a few options for gravestone designs and people opt for what they think could be an homage to their loved one, but without any previous agreement. Dr. Mariano Borges arrived at the conclusion that when family members of the deceased choose these symbols for the gravestones of their deceased, they are actually driven by deeper longings unbeknownst to them. He suggests that the symbols are families' only weapon to fight against the anonymity of poverty which haunted them in life and threatens to devour them even in the afterlife.

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