©Hannelore Vandenbussche

For Love of Games

Imagine being towed along an icy track at 20 miles per hour behind a semi-wild reindeer. Reindeer racing is a competitive sport enjoyed by the Indigenous Sami people who live above the Arctic Circle in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia, and who’ve been reindeer herders for over 2,000 years. It’s one of the many obscure sports captured in Hannelore Vandenbussche’s book, “Human Playground: Why We Play” (teNeues).

Vandenbussche was inspired to create the book after working with photographer Jimmy Nelson for Nelson’s photo book “Before They Pass Away,” which documented Indigenous people around the world.

“The one recurring theme I noticed during my work on ‘Before They Pass Away’ is that no matter how isolated tribes are or their social or financial status, they all love playing games and sports,” Vandebussche writes in her book’s foreword. She wanted to investigate the fascinating stories of sports across cultures worldwide. 

To seek out subjects, she first dove into internet research, digging up story after story of sports around the world. For example, she discovered that in La Paz, Bolivia, female wrestlers use the sport to make a case for gender equality. “I wanted to show the kaleidoscope of sports worldwide, from the more familiar Western games to the most remote and unknown games, people, and places.”

Making the best photographs of a sport in action meant forming bonds with her subjects and sometimes diving into the mix herself, she explains. She prefers using smaller lenses, which push her to get close to her subjects. “I want to feel what they feel—the danger, the adrenaline, the joy.” When she photographed big wave surfing in Nazaré, Portugal, she realized that to capture the best photos of the surfers taking on 100-foot waves, she’d need board a Jet Ski. To photograph the sport of buzkashi in Tajikistan, where men on horseback fight for possession of a goat carcass, she climbed on a horse to immerse herself in the action. 

“Sport can be an inspiring and unifying factor that bridges the gap between people, cultures, religion, and economic differences breaking down prejudices and barriers,” she writes. “My deepest wish is for ‘Human Playground’ to shine a light on humanity, highlighting this planet’s incredible beauty and diversity.” 

Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.