Portfolio: Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou's striking images of Benin's bodybuilders

 

Though Benin has enjoyed a recent streak of economic growth, urban employment remains scarce – even in the capital of Porto-Novo. And it is here, a densely populated strip of land originally developed as a port for the slave trade, that the local studio photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou finds his subjects.

"These men," he says of the bodybuilders above, "are seeking personal and financial success through competition within West Africa, and they aspire to make the big time in Europe and the US. They can be found across Porto-Novo, fashioning weights from car axles and discarded building materials."

Bodybuilding became popular in Benin as a symbol of West African strength and power in the 1960s. It was in this decade that Agbodjélou was born to one of the country's most famous photographers, Joseph Moise Agbodjélou, and "as a youngster, I'd help my father put together outdoor studios using painted backgrounds and local textiles, where clients would pose and show off.

"Fashion, costume and props such as plastic flowers have always been used in the traditional studios to show style and taste." Which is why he coaxed his bodybuilders to hold them: "I like the contrast against the strong, masculine subject."

The shot of two men (above) has been selected for exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 (npg.org.uk), as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Agbodjélou's work is also showing at the Jack Bell Gallery, London SW1 (jackbellgallery.com)

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