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Miki Johnson: Tell me a little about how you first found out about the beauty pageants of Colombia.
Carl Bower: I saw a small article in the New York Times that said there was a pageant there for practically anything imaginable — Miss Sun, Miss Sea, Miss Purity, Miss Pretty Legs, Miss Honey — the list went on. I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of these contests with everything else I had been reading about Colombia: the cartels, the guerrillas, the bombings and kidnappings. I thought of how such parallel realities could coexist and the extent to which our popular conception of the country had been a caricature formed by stories of the drug trade.
At the time I came across the article, I was supporting a close friend in her battle with breast cancer. She had been a national champion ballroom dancer and a competitive bodybuilder. Her appearance was something that she took pride in and took pains to maintain even as she lost one breast, then another, and suffered the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout her ordeal, I noticed how her sexuality seemed undiminished, if not stronger. I started to wonder, if a beautiful person gradually loses elements deemed to be part of that beauty, where is the tipping point at which they are no longer beautiful? Is there one?
In my anger and frustration with the cancer and growing obsession with the commoditization of beauty, the story of the pageants struck a nerve. Here was an environment where all the issues I was grappling with were stripped bare and distilled to the point that it might be possible to convey some of them on film.
At first I tried finding the pageants through government records, but most of the information was unreliable or outdated. Through a friend, I met a fashion designer commissioned to create the dresses for a candidate to the national pageant. I photographed her preparation and coaching, learned of regional pageants, and met with judges, organizers, parents of contestants. I visited modeling agencies and schools where girls were being trained to compete in the pageants from the age of four.
When I learned of festivals occurring throughout the country, I went to various towns and introduced myself in their mayors’ offices. I went everywhere: to the national pageants, with their weeks-long round-the-clock media blitz, to high school pageants, to pageants with just three candidates.
I began to see how the pageants were one of the few unifying threads in a country compartmentalized by geography, politics, and social stratification. It seemed that everyone, regardless of social standing, had an opinion about them: not on whether they were good or bad, or whether they should exist, but on who should win. When I returned to the United States, I found that some of the complexity I experienced was missing from the photos, so I went back. I kept finding new layers of meaning, so I ended up going back again and again.
MJ: You said that as you’ve gotten deeper into the story it has gotten more complicated and you feel more ambivalent about the role of these pageants in the culture (something visible in the images). What were some of the contradictions you discovered?
CB: When I began photographing, I felt that the pageants were essentially meat markets. It wasn’t just that thousands of people were scrutinizing the contestants’ bodies; what struck me was the categorical, exhaustive, and unforgiving nature of it. Are her ankles thick? Who has breast implants? Who doesn’t but should? Whose ass is too small, too large, or shaped like melons when it should be like oranges? After the current Miss Colombia was crowned last November, there were months of public demands that she have her nose fixed to better compete in Miss World.
Even in comparison to our own celebrity-obsessed culture, the arguments and scoring in Colombia had developed to the level of sport. I thought of all the young girls in the audiences with their jaws dropped in awe. Had they already decided what it meant to be a woman, what it meant to have value, what they needed to be loved? Given my friend’s experience and the questions and emotional baggage I began with, I think I was preconditioned to see things in fairly stark terms.
Those feelings haven’t changed, but they have been complemented by others. For example, there was almost always a genuine enthusiasm in the crowds, which included old, young, male, female, rich, and poor. And despite the crude assessments, the favorites of the crowd were not always the most beautiful — they often seemed the most intelligent or exuded a stronger sense of character. While the source of young men’s enthusiasm was fairly easy to track, older men and women expressed a sort of paternal affection. And even as the candidates molded their personalities into coquettish personas, they were still excited to be there.
One of the first things I had trouble reconciling was the absolute mania over the pageants with an environment where the threat of violence was nearly ubiquitous. More than half of the Colombians who invited me into their homes eventually showed me “The Picture.” The face in the photo was always different, but I came to expect and dread the moment it would come out. A brother killed by the FARC. Someone’s else’s brother, killed for the pesos in his pocket. A friend kidnapped years ago who hadn’t been seen since.
The woman who introduced me to the fashion designer went to the funeral of a very close friend, then held a huge party at her apartment only a few days later. I asked if it was difficult, having it so soon. She gave me a long look. “If we went into a period of mourning every time someone we knew was killed, we wouldn’t have time for anything else.”
It’s boring to be a victim, and tiring. Pageants, soccer matches, festivals and concerts are not only opportunities to forget, but a form of defiance. A refusal to be defined by the violence or to wait in vain for it to end. Colombia’s problems have been grave, but Colombians themselves are astonishingly optimistic. It is one of the things I respect most about them, one of the things that keeps drawing me back.
MJ: Tell me about what it’s like to be a foreign male documenting these events so tied up in creating definitions of youth and femininity. Even here some people might question a man dealing with “women’s issues.”
CB: I don’t see that these are strictly women’s issues, or that a man shouldn’t be able to discuss them or be without empathy. We are all pressured at some point to fulfill certain roles based on what we look like more than on who we are. Sometimes we go along; sometimes we don’t. It’s actually the theme of the group show I’m in at the Farmani Gallery in New York, titled Select Gender.
I didn’t start this because I’m a feminist advocate or viewed the world primarily from a female perspective. It happened because I watched helplessly as one of my best friends was overcome by breast cancer and because of the pain and admiration I felt for the way she confronted it. I responded to what was in front of me, in the only way I knew.
After documenting her experience for several years (Diane’s Story), I began looking at the culture of the pageants. I’d love to say I set out on an altruistic mission, but this was originally driven more by my own anger and confusion and attempts to understand the issues. Despite my initial motivation, this project has probably raised more questions for me than it’s resolved, and I’m at the point now where I feel that may be an end unto itself.
I don’t think my gender hindered the project once people got to know me. I tried to be very open about what I was doing, explaining that I was mostly interested in the idea of the contests, how young women were transforming themselves to meet a very specific ideal, and the fact that the obsession for the contests was on a scale North Americans could only imagine. I think some people were just relieved to have a foreigner focusing on anything other than violence and the drug trade.
I tried to speak with the organizers, security teams, judges, and always the candidates themselves before I started photographing, so they knew I was approaching things from a different place. Some didn’t know what to make of me, but decided that I must be harmless.
I traveled with the candidates whenever possible, until most just thought of me as part of the entourage. I was usually allowed to work in areas that were off limits to local photographers, who were perceived as using their credentials as passports for voyeurism and chatting up the girls. So in many cases my position as an outsider was probably an advantage.
MJ: This project is now your first book. What have you learned about making images for a book and how that differs from a long photo story?
CB: I viewed a book as an extended essay until I started laying one out, turning the pages and realizing things just weren’t working. When I first started shooting, I was thinking only of a series of images, each driving home a different aspect of the themes I was exploring, built into a narrative.
When I started paying attention to books I really liked however, I started to see that many were not only documents but meditations, and that the interplay between these forms gave them a certain rhythm that drew me in and kept me there. In the books I returned to most, there seemed to be a point where I wasn’t so much studying the pictures as breathing them in, absorbing them through osmosis, without being aware of exactly what I was thinking.
I also found myself flipping back and forth more, sometimes going back and pausing a long time at a more meditative picture without knowing why. When I jumped forward to where I’d been before, I realized my perception of the latter photo had changed, like I’d been given a key without knowing the direct connection, or passed a divide between information and understanding. Photo stories, more topical and limited in length, often can’t accommodate the more meditative pictures. But the books are dead without them.