Pej Behdarvand recently wrote in to share his latest project “Bingwa”, documenting bodybuilding culture in Kenya and Uganda. He wrote, “This project began when I stumbled across a website featuring African bodybuilders and was struck by the appeal that bodybuilding has around the world, even in impoverished rural Africa.”
We were intrigued by the project and liked the photographs, so we asked him to answer a few questions about the project:
Dvafoto: Can you tell me a little more about the project: what was your interest in the sport of bodybuilding before you did this project?
Behdarvand: My interest in bodybuilding was minimal prior to this project. I had done some commercial shoots where I needed bodybuilders, but it did not explore their world to such an extent. Though my experience was limited, one thing I did notice about all the bodybuilders I had come across was that they liked to be seen and photographed.
I also want to add that this project had everything I wanted and it was not just the sport of bodybuilding that appealed to me. I wanted to start doing documentary work, because of the depth and intimacy that it allows, and I am also fascinated by places where there is a specific activity or purpose to the location. Examples of this are gyms, monasteries, and prisons. I also needed an adventure.
What greatly appealed to me to this project was this strange intangible drive that humans have for building muscle and fitness regardless of where they live. This was the spirit I hoped to capture in these photos. I was not interested in getting into the details of the lack of support and resources for these men, nor did I want to go into the harsh details of their daily lives. That could be another story,but it was not one that I was interested in portraying.
Did your views on bodybuilding change at all?
My viewpoint toward bodybuilding evolved as I went to these gyms and saw how quiet these men were in these locations as they worked out. There was no high pulsating music. Instead, it felt almost like a church or a meditation was taking place. I really say how much strength one needs internally to do such a sport. It is interesting, because we focus so much on the physical aspect of athletes, but we are somewhat oblivious to the concentration and inner strength that is required. I talked to one guy and he said that it really calms him to lift weights. I got a greater understanding of the relationship between the external and the internal world.
Is there a greater message in this sport, for all participants or for Africans in particular? What is the reaction in the communities to these athletes, is this a popular activity or is it hidden/unknown?
I don’t know if this is a message, but there really aren’t that many outlets for building self-esteem in Kenya or Uganda. The unemployment rate is insanely high and there are just not that many opportunities for people there like we have in North America or Europe. Bodybuilding gives everyone, but especially Africans, an outlet to actually focus on creating and shaping something in a tangible way.
Unfortunately, there really is not much financial support other than some local and national competitions with minimal prize money. This activity is not popular at all. Most of the gyms were in extremely out of the way places that I could never have found without my guide. The local contest I went to in Kenya functioned in conjunction with an HIV testing drive, which I thought to be quite admirable. It was an attempt to get the audience to take an anonymous test. I don’t know how successful it was.
Where are you showing these pictures, have you published them?
The work is currently being shown at FotoGrafia Festival at MACRO (Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome). It is under the “PUBLISH- UNPUBLISHED” section curated by Marc Prust. It will be there until October 24th. It has also won an Honorable Mention by the Berenice Abbott Prize judged by David Fahey of Fahey/Klein Gallery.
I hope to find a gallery to exhibit this work as well as a book publisher.