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Pumping Iron in Cuba: Arien Chang Reveals an Underground Scene

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The competitors practice poses in abandoned spaces in the city before the competition.

When Cuban photographer Arien Chang Castán was invited to watch a friend compete in a bodybuilding competition in 2011, little did he know how deeply he would enter that world. It wasn’t until afterwards, as he looked over the photos he had shot, that he realized he wanted to document the way the human body could be transformed. Over the next three years, Chang closely followed four bodybuilders, observing their training regimens, attending competitions, and meeting their families.

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A few weeks before the tournament, the athletes intensify their training and follow strict diets in order to be in the best shape possible.
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Before taking the stage, the athletes prepare their bodies so that they look perfect. The tournament, which can last many hours, requires great physical strength to achieve the ideal poses.

In Cuba, the bodybuilding culture is largely underground. Bodybuilders manage to sculpt their bodies to this extreme level despite lacking many necessary resources. Chang explains that “gyms without the basic requirements, deficient meals, and nonexistent vitamins” make it difficult for most Cubans to maintain an average level of health, let alone achieve the perfectly honed muscles bodybuilding requires. Some competitors’ families in the U.S. ship them vitamins and supplements, but most have to make do without. A lot can depend on their day jobs as well; restaurant workers, for instance, benefit from their easy access to food.

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The high humidity and heat make the tournament even more difficult. The competitors try to concentrate the best they can.
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It is unusual to find women in this type of competition. The machismo ingrained in [Cuban] society limits women’s interest in bodybuilding.

Cuban bodybuilders are also faced with a lack of information. Unlike their counterparts in the United States, aspiring bodybuilders in Cuba do not have full web access. Without the ability to search online, they rely on each other to learn about muscle-building techniques and vitamin/protein dosages, and are often ignorant of the dangers of steroids. Isolated from their counterparts in other parts of the world—and from outside advice—they have forged a tight-knit community.

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The finalists pose before the judges who are looking for the winner.

Bodybuilding experienced a surge in popularity when local Cuban champion Sergio Oliva beat Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1969, though the Cuban government does not consider it a true sport. Strict government censorship means there are no television or online advertisements, so the community functions entirely through word of mouth. Competitions are held three times a year, usually off-hours in a theatre.

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The audience is composed mostly of family and friends. This type of competition doesn’t receive sufficient promotion.
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Defeat is hard to accept after a year of so much sacrifice.

For these competitors, winning is primarily a source of pride rather than money. Instead of a large cash award, winners get small prizes such as a DVD player. Chang found that the strongmen–and it is almost all men–enjoyed being photographed, but only in a promotional way to show off their Arnold-style physiques.

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After four years as the favorite, this competitor lost in a very close final where the judges’ decision was questioned.

When Chang talks about why he photographs, he says, “I love people—each one opens a door for me and helps me learn about the world.” A new world was opened to him when he traveled to the United States for the first time this summer at the age of 34. Having studied the work of American documentary photographers from afar, he had the chance to experience their influences first hand. When he returns to Cuba in early September, he will be taking a fresh perspective with him, continuing the conversation in the universal language of photography.

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The son of one of the athletes, and his father behind him.

See more photographs from Arien Chang Castán’s project, A Base de Viandas, and other work on his website.

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