• September 5, 2014

Pumping Iron in Cuba: Arien Chang Reveals an Underground Scene

Anna Lukacs
Elizabeth Krist

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.

Picture of a very muscular man lifting weights in front of a mirror, looking himself in the eye
A few weeks before the tournament, the athletes intensify their training and follow strict diets in order to be in the best shape possible.
Picture of a man who is having something brushed on his body before he goes on stage for a competition, he wears a competitors number on his speedo
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.

Picture of a bodybuilder lying on the ground with his feet propped up on a chair and an electric fan laid down on its side, blowing air on his head
The high humidity and heat make the tournament even more difficult. The competitors try to concentrate the best they can.
Picture of a female bodybuilder flexing her muscles while three men, at least one of whom is a bodybuilder, look on
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.

Picture of finalists in a body building competition posing in front of the judges, the finalists are photographed from a low angle so that they are framed by the high heels of someone standing far away from them on the stage
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.

Picture of body builder contestants flexin their muscles on stage in front of an audience who is watchcing and taking photos
The audience is composed mostly of family and friends. This type of competition doesn’t receive sufficient promotion.
Picture of a bodybuilder standing inside a dark hallway with his hand on the wall as light streams in from the windows at the top of the wall
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.

Picture of a crowd surrounding a competitor from the bodybuilding competition, taking pictures with their cell phones while he flexes
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.

Picture of a body builder with his biceps flexed, his small son stands in front of him so that it appears that a young boy has very muscular arms
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.

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. mark zurek
    January 29, 2015

    Chang: Dude you knocked this out of the park. Man, this is strong, strong work.

  2. Reid Callanan
    October 26, 2014

    Hi Chang, Congratulations on this beautiful set of images. Well see my friend. The words explain about the bodybuilding culture in Cuba, and your images speak of the passion and dedication of the people who are driven to push their bodies to extreme.

  3. Fernando .
    October 12, 2014

    Pa alante y pa alante Arien.

  4. antonio
    September 25, 2014

    felicitaciones Chang, Me encanta tu trabajo.

  5. Tabiah
    September 17, 2014

    These pictures are quite stunningly beautiful, continue your great work. Cheers!

  6. lucy
    September 15, 2014

    The photos are good.I enjoyed reading the article.And it is good to know people like them exists in Cuba.Hands of to the people of Cuba for their hard work and hands of to you Mr Chang for the wonderful work.

  7. Wesley Wong
    September 13, 2014

    Really great photo essay and nice to see something different and unique for a change about Cuba besides the standard boring portraits of Cuban people

  8. peterjesse
    September 12, 2014

    Thanks for the reminder. I truly appreciate the depth of your art and the inspiration of the beautiful people you’ve worked with in cuba.

  9. JANET
    September 9, 2014


  10. Mohamed
    September 9, 2014

    I enjoyed reading the article despite the lake of organizing and all have exposed in the article, I hold much respect to these people because they’ve got dreams to come true. Countries like Cuba; Peoples like Cubans are likely to success in other countries…wish you all luck to develop your country Or find an opportunity abroad.

  11. AliasSaid
    September 8, 2014

    Wonderful & inspiring report works you got there Mr.Chang … Very informative & inspiring indeed … Keep it up !

  12. jay govind kumar
    September 8, 2014

    Congratulations Chang on your project Pumping Iron.

  13. Norman Mauskopf
    September 8, 2014

    Hey Chang, Congratulations my friend. Your photographs and your spirited dedication to photography are an inspiration.

  14. Jovonn
    September 8, 2014


  15. Wayne L
    September 8, 2014

    Arien, i personally appreciate your work. it’s wonderful to capture the spirit of the cubans and their determination to succeed despite the lack of many things. good heads up, and keep it coming.

  16. aykut
    September 7, 2014


  17. Juan DE Urdemalas
    September 6, 2014

    Objeción a la traducción. JAMÁS MENCIONÉ LA PALABRA ESTAFADORES. ¿Cómo se coló?. Lo ignoro.Gracias.

  18. Juan DE Urdemalas
    September 6, 2014

    Admiro mucho a los queridos hermanos cubanos. Ante las adversidades, sacan su coraje y valor. Admiro su ciencia médica, su música. Les deseo muchos éxitos más en el campo del físicoculturismo en el cual, a pesar de sus limitaciones, tienen y dan con qué como dignos rivales en sus torneos. Sean felices.

  19. Lourdes Muriente
    September 5, 2014

    Chang gets better with each new project. Felicitaciones.

  20. Judith Burngen
    September 5, 2014

    Congratulations Chang on your project Pumping Iron. I am happy for you and pleased you are receiving international recognition.

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