September 27, 2017, 4:00AM EDT

From 172 to 115 Pounds: The Faces of Venezuelan Hunger

“They have no right to starve someone this way.”

Much has been written about Venezuelan hunger since the oil-rich country sank into economic chaos a few years ago. The strict food rationing, surging malnutrition and, in some extreme cases, starvation.

But if you’re not there on the ground, it’s difficult to comprehend what it truly looks and feels like up close—to see an old neighbor’s round face slowly hollow out or notice how your father’s favorite T-shirt hangs loosely on his shrinking frame.

So we photographed five Venezuelans—predominantly from the blue-collar neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest—and asked them to share pictures of their old, fuller selves. The changes in their physiques are stark. One person has lost 63 pounds. Another 78.

Some had been overweight, a testament in part to the typical Venezuelan diet: lots of fried and starchy foods, much of it served in dinners that run late into the night. One of them has even heard that she looks better now. She does not feel better. She feels just like the others: weak, defeated, depressed. To them, the narrow faces staring back in the mirror are a cruel and constant reminder of everything they’ve lost in the worst crisis that they, or their country, have ever known.

Yetsi Martinez

Nurse, 46 years old, married, two kids, lives in working-class suburb of Caracas 

Pre-Crisis Weight: 165 lbs.
Current Weight: 121 lbs.

Yetsi Martinez has lost more than 40 pounds since the economic collapse.
Yetsi Martinez weighed 165 pounds before the economic collapse.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg

“This crisis has changed our lives too much. It’s horrible.”

She’s crying. And she’s furious. Both she and her husband have lost their jobs, she explains in a rapid-fire staccato, and so she had been doing hairdressing work to help make ends meet. That, too, ended when she decided to sell her scissors and blow-dryer to pay some bills. Her family’s diet used to be loaded up with proteins and calories. There was steak, chicken, ham, eggs, cheese, sweet bread. On Friday night, it was dinner out; on the weekend, grilling out. “We can’t afford any of that now.” Not even, she says, cake for birthday parties.

Today, she relies on government food handouts and serves to her family mostly cheap vegetables—corn, celery, yucca. Her older daughter, 21, wants to leave the country. Her friends already have. She’s thinking about trying her luck in Peru. “I’ve thought about it, too,” Martinez admits, fighting back tears. “I’d leave my younger girl with my mom.”

Juan Domingo Cruz

Social worker, 35 years old, single, lives in working-class suburb of Caracas

Pre-Crisis Weight: 209 lbs.
Current Weight: 146 lbs.

Juan Domingo Cruz weighs 146 pounds.
Juan Domingo Cruz weighed 209 pounds before the economic collapse.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg

Cruz hadn’t realized he was losing weight until he peered into his closet one day and pulled out an old suit. It was way too big. Then, on another occasion, his 18-year-old nephew lent him a shirt to try on. Size small. It fit. He used to wear large or extra-large. “I look at old pictures of myself and say, ‘No, that can’t be me.’”

He sunk into a deep depression and refused to leave his house. “I kept saying to myself: ‘I don’t want anyone to see me, I don’t want anyone to see me. They can all go to hell.’”

His mood is a bit better now. He’s started going to work again. But acquiring enough food remains a huge challenge. He skips breakfast, and dinner is often little more than a plate of cream of rice. On a recent day, he decided to treat himself to a couple of pieces of cake at a local cafe. He bought them on credit.

Alexander Lopez

Construction worker, 49 years old, single, two kids, lives in outskirts of Caracas

Pre‘-Crisis Weight: 243 lbs.
Current Weight: 165 lbs.

Alexander Lopez weighs 165 pounds.
Alexander Lopez weighed 243 pounds before the economic collapse.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg

A self-described big eater, Lopez says he used to have as many as four or five meals a day. Now he has two at the most. On some days, none. “I’ve stopped eating in order to feed my two daughters.”

Speaking during a recent midday break, he looks worn out. His voice is barely audible, his gaze distant. He describes a recent accident he suffered on the subway. Hungry and exhausted, he blacked out and collapsed. He woke up to find himself in a wheelchair, surrounded by nurses attending to injuries to his head and back. “This crisis has to end. If we don’t do something, we’re all going to die of hunger.”

Julio Cesar Montes

Security guard, 50 years old, married, five kids, lives in Caracas

Pre-Crisis Weight: 172 lbs.
Current Weight: 115 lbs.

Julio Cesar Montes weighs 115 pounds.
Julio Cesar Montes weighed 172 pounds before the economic collapse.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg

Montes is the lightest of all the people we photographed and, as a percentage of his initial weight, has lost the most. But in some ways, he’s coping better. He appears almost resigned to—and at peace with—his fate. One key reason: His children are all adults and live safely outside the country. Most of them fled to neighboring Colombia. Still, he’s struggling as the pounds come off. He can’t find, or afford, any of the food he loves so much: Venezuelan stew, rice, fish, empanadas. “You have to eat whatever you can get your hands on,” he says. “You don’t get to choose.”

Monica Santaella

Insurance sales team manager, 49, single, lives in outskirts of Caracas

Pre-Crisis Weight: 258 lbs.
Current Weight: 198 lbs.

Monica Santaella weighs 198 pounds.
Monica Santaella weighed 258 pounds before the economic collapse.
Photographer: Fabiola Ferrero/Bloomberg

Santaella has suffered from obesity since childhood and has tried every weight-loss program imaginable over the years. But this? To be forced on a harsh diet by the poverty sweeping the country? “They have no right to starve someone this way.”

The “they” is the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro. Santaella, like many of the others, was withering in her criticism of the administration and its handling of the economy. Inflation has gotten so bad, she says, that chicken, meat, fish and even basic things like flour, rice and sugar are now beyond her budget. She substitutes cheaper foods for what she’s cut out, like plantains for rice. And her dinner now is typically a bowl of oatmeal. What she finds perhaps most painful of all is to see her kitchen so empty, “to open the refrigerator door,” she says, “and find nothing but water.”