The pageants of Colombia provide a distilled environment for examining the nature of beauty and how we cope with adversity. Set against a backdrop of poverty and decades of armed conflict, nowhere are the contests more ubiquitous and revered. In these carefully scripted shows of fantasy, beauty as a concept, commodity and singular goal, is stripped to its raw elements. There is no ambiguity or pretense that anything else matters.
The queens are celebrities. Icons of a rigidly defined ideal, they highlight the conflated relationship between beauty and attraction. Many seem familiar, with the identical flirtatious laughter, mock surprise and relentless optimism. In their quest for adoration, they erase all traces of individuality.
While the contests often provoke outrage and ridicule elsewhere, in the Colombian context the issue is more complicated. The millions who pack stadiums and follow dozens of national contests on live television often have a vicarious relationship with the queens, clinging to the fantasy of magically transcending poverty. The queens themselves often claim to be working the situation to their advantage, even as they perpetuate a mindset that ultimately limits their opportunities.
The popularity of the pageants ebbs and flows with the level of violence in the country. The contests project an image of normalcy and vitality in the face of social upheaval and fear, a refusal to be defined by the violence, or to live as if besieged. In a country rife with conflict, the pageants are a form of both denial and defiance.
Carl Bower is a Denver-based editorial and portrait photographer, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
His personal work addresses issues of identity and the pressures of social conformity, and has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Lens Blog, Burn, The Sunday Times Magazine and The Georgia Review. His photographs are in the permanent collection of The Portland Art Museum and have been displayed at The Georgia Museum of Art, The Phoenix Art Museum, The Annenberg Space for Photography, Farmani Gallery, Photographic Center Northwest and Blue Sky Gallery.