A São Paulo based photographer, Gabriel Uchida has traveled the world, from Cuba to Ethiopia documenting football culture and the fans who love the game. He was kind enough to answer some of our questions…
You refer to Hunter S. Thompson on your website and his study of The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, but you prefer football fans, what is it about hooligans that reminds you of the Angels?
Hunter S. Thompson is one of my favourite writers and a big reference for me. I think The Hells Angels, Brazilian ultras and hooligans are groups who haven’t been understood very well. I’m not their lawyer, my work isn’t to defend them, but I try to show what really happens besides the clichés and prejudices. And honestly it’s a very interesting underworld, I can tell you I’ve learned a lot with ultras and hooligans.
You’ve traveled the world, photographing fans, have you noticed similarities and major differences in the way fans support their teams in different countries?
In a very simple way: fans from Latin America are very chaotic, Eastern Europe fans are so organized that they look like armies, Western Europe fans are very creative and North American fans are still in the beginning of their “soccer culture”, so they are more likely to copy things they like from other countries. I’ve also been photographing fans in Ethiopia and those guys are extremely happy and they love to sing and dance.
Your photographs are incredibly intimate, you’re in the midst of the action… Do you ever get swept up in the atmosphere and celebrations?
I’ve been doing this for seven years so I have lots of crazy stories. Once I was in Montevideo, Uruguay, for the Libertadores Final. It was Peñarol against Santos and I was traveling with the Brazilian fans. On the way to the stadium the taxi driver got mad because my friends were screaming, singing and throwing beer on the other cars so he took out his pistol and started to threaten us. That night we were attacked by Peñarol fans and I was hit by a glass bottle on my leg. Ironically it was one of the best days of my life because I’m also a Santos fan and we ended up winning the Cup. When you’re in a crowd of fans and you support a different team it can be awkward. Corinthians won a championship playing against Santos and lots of guys were celebrating and hugging me. Fortunately I was very focused on getting the pictures. There’s another funny story involving my club: once I was traveling with Palmeiras hooligans to an away derby match against Santos and our bus got attacked in the street. After the fight they were all making jokes because I was basically being attacked by fans of my own team.
England has seen a decline in football related violence and hooliganism over the last 20/30 years and it is not the issue it once was… What is it about the hooligan culture that still appeals in Brazil?
To understand the Brazilian hooligan situation you have to first remember that it’s a poor and very violent country. In fact I’d say we are living in an unofficial war because there are deaths and lots of other bad things going on everyday. So it’s basically the same in football and there’s another point to complicate the whole situation: the Brazilian police. They are very aggressive and never organized. Some results from a recent study in São Paulo: 60% of the population don’t trust the police; 1.7 people are killed by police everyday. We have an expression to illustrate the scene: it’s a big powder keg and it’s always ready to explode.
Your series of pictures focusing on hooligans is incredibly personal, how do you get the access to take such intimate shots?
Because I’ve been working within football for seven years I know a lot of people, they respect my work because they understand my project and there’s trust on both sides. I was never there to create sensationalistic content or to say they are just criminals. I always tried to understand their culture and that’s why they respect me. Besides that, they’ve been the victims of police violence on many occasions and I was the only one to show their story while the mainstream media were saying they were the bad guys. Once, a very drunk fan got mad with me for no reason. He tried to attack me and seconds later there were several hooligans punching him. I didn’t ask for that, they saw the situation and decided to help me because they knew my work. In the end they even explained my project to the drunk guy and he spent the whole match apologising for himself.
Gabriel, you’re from São Paulo, Brazil? Can you talk about the lasting impact of the World Cup…
Yes, I’m from São Paulo, although I’m going to live in Argentina for a couple of months. It’s easy to explain the impact of it: if you really love football, you hate the World Cup. It changed our football in a very bad way. It means much more restrictions for fans, much higher ticket prices and less fun. Imagine that we have lots of poor communities and they have no hospitals, schools and basic public structure. Instead of using the money to help them, it was used to build new arenas in places where we didn’t need them, many communities were evicted and people had nowhere to go. The Arena Amazônia for example was built in a far away region where their football is basically amateur. It’s a poor place and they used to have around 500 fans per match. Nothing has changed except that they now have an arena for 40,000 people. And there were several cases of corruption involving the World Cup and its constructions. It was definitely something really bad for our people, not only for football fans.
The photographs from your Cuban adventure are incredible… You went in search of football, did you find what you expected?
I’ve been to Cuba twice and I really love it. The football situation there is kind of curious because they love the sport but the public attendance at the stadiums is very low. There are images of Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo everywhere and there are kids and youngsters playing football in every street. I was there when Barcelona played Real Madrid and the whole of Havana was crazy about that match. All the pubs and hotels were crowded with people watching the match. Research on the island showed that 89.1% of people up to 25-years-old prefer football rather than baseball – which was always considered the most popular sport there. But the point is that their media is always showing the Champions League but they rarely give attention to the local competition. The tickets for the matches are very cheap, but that’s not enough. Anyway, it was a big surprise for me the way they love football, I even met the coach of La Habana FC and his son is called Romário because of the Brazilian former player.