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Carl Bower

Chica Barbie

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The pageants of Colombia are a petri dish for examining the nature of beauty and how we cope with adversity.  Set against a backdrop of poverty, crime, and the hemisphere’s longest running civil war, nowhere are the contests more ubiquitous and revered than in Colombia.  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.  Many of the roughly 400 contests a year can shut down a small town for days as thousands jam plazas and parade routes for a glimpse of them.  Icons of a rigidly defined ideal, the contestants highlight the conflated relationship between beauty and attraction.  Many of them seem familiar, stirring recollections of the same perfect features seen elsewhere, along with the identical flirtatious laughter, mock surprise and relentless optimism.  In their quest for adoration, they erase all traces of individuality.

While the inherent objectification of the contests and the values they convey to young women 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 Cinderella fantasy of magically transcending poverty.

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.  They are an escape, wholly frivolous and possibly essential.



Carl has worked as a photojournalist for Newhouse News Service, The Times-Picayune, Helsingin Sanomat, The Providence Journal and The Colorado Springs Gazette.  His photos have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, and Newsweek.

This year, his series on Colombian pageants received the Blue Earth Alliance’s Prize for Best Project Photography, was a finalist at the Palm Springs Photo Festival and was shown at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph.  His earlier documentation of one woman’s struggle with breast cancer received a Clarion Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

Carl lives in Washington, DC.


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Carl Bower


Editor’s Note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

59 thoughts on “carl bower – chica barbie”

  1. Fabulous! This is a tour de force, and demonstrates in vivid detail that photography is a medium that can convey complex realities in ways that no other can. I must salute Carl Bower for the high level and consistency of this body of work as well as conceiving it and following through to such devastating results. I am truly in awe. Great work!

  2. Frank Michael Hack

    Wow, wow and wow. I have not been moved, intrigued and engaged in a piece on Burn to this extent for some time. Absolute excellence in concept and execution. I really am humbled by this piece and am motivated to push further with my own work. You have set a mark, a high water mark here on Burn that should be the standard to which all submissions should aspire to. Congratulations Carl!

    All the best,


  3. CARL

    First of all, congratulationns on being published in the Photography Magazine of the Year 2009! As you know, I already think very highly of this project after having seen it on your website and in the maquette book you created. I don’t envy you having had to pare down such an abundance of fine images into a mere 23, but you did a great job. This edit shows all sides of the story that you’d created and really gives a feel for the slant that you take, ie., the complex relationship between the obvious objectification of these young women set against the political, social and military background of life in Colombia.

    Here on Burn we often comment on how a photographer’s text fits with her/his images in photo essays. In my opinion, this is an example of the best use of text imaginable. You place the photos within a context we would not have known otherwise. You give the essay a meaning beyond the one we might expect.

    Kudos to you, Carl. Excellent work!


  4. Carl
    Beautiful work. Very tight, very skillful technique, very sensitive, no gimmicks, honest story-telling. You deserve your acolades.
    I just checked out your breast cancer essay on your site. I’m very moved.
    The best of luck to you.

    Gordon L

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  6. #6, #13, #18, #22 are for me the best images here. These are WoW images. They each give me something different and completely novel. The whole essay is impressive. I think its the strongest story telling I’ve seen on Burn in the few months that I’ve been looking. You clearly know what you are doing. And you are obviously a pro photojournalist. From an aesthetic point of view I wish it was in colour but wonder if you’ve chosen a dullish black and white presentation as a subversive gesture. I mean I don’t find the essay beautiful but it’s certainly excellent.

    And yet this is the type of photography that’s losing circulation opportunities, isn’t it? The way the photojournalism industry works is new to me, I have not worked in the field, but I’m getting the idea from online discussions, that this is what magazines don’t want to publish anymore. Is that right?

  7. Carl, This might be one of the best I’ve seen on Burn. Darn near every shot is a winner, but 9,10,12,18 and 23 are the real grabbers.

    Interesting, I was looking at Lauren Greenfield’s “Thin” and “Girl Culture” work again this morning.

  8. (Sorry to be repetitive, but…) Wow. Beauty pageants are clearly a place to find people who are not camera shy along with the contradictions that make photography so fun and moving. You have excitement, spectacle, leering gazes, dull eyes, empty expressions, and suddenly an energetic thrust of a shoulder and the animated face of the judge in #18 (but hey, she’s 12!). It’s a wonderful series and well done IMO.

  9. The start of it confuses me, first I see a woman on, which looks like, a stage and then next I see a model on the catwalk. So initially I think it’s about women in general, because it looks like a singer on that stage and then a model. But then the rest of it clarifies that it’s about models and that ‘obsessiveness about beauty’ theme. So that’s good. But I don’t see how the first photograph fits in. Maybe I’m just blind to the story…

    #11 is quite funny once I noticed where he pointed that camera.

    Reminds me of another essay I saw here from Andrea Gjestvang, which was called “Body Histories”. I’m not going to dig deep into an analyzation between the two, but there is definitely some inspiration available that can be drawn from “Body Histories” if this is work-in-progress.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. CARL,

    I really enjoyed looking at your essay and I agree that this is one of the best we have seen here. Some really great shots for me, 4, 5, 15, 19, 21, 22, 23 well many….no point listing them all but I absolutely love the last one… You have really constructed this essay so well with not only the expected shots but the “behind he scene” as well. We feel we are there, at the right moment, just like a fly on the wall when these girls dress etc…Nicely done really and a feeling of sadness that I am left with at the end…

    Great work!


  11. Wow! Excellent essay, beginning to end.

    These are the thoughts and feelings that it evoked in me:

    Why couldn’t I have known about this long ago, and gone down there and photographed it for myself?

    So many beautiful women.

    And to some of the private celebrations that must have happened afterward?

    Why did I have to grow up in a Mormon society?

    This is just what Mormon society needs – festivals like this.

    Poor child! Poor, poor, child!

    But with age limits.

    Well done.

  12. Each and every picture tells a story on its own. Together even stronger.
    I am very much amazed by the quality and layout of each picture.
    This is certainly on of the strongest essays I have seen in the last weeks.
    Wonderful work.


  13. Thanks for the responses and kind words. I have a lot of concurrent, contradictory feelings about the contests and I hope a bit of that comes across in the work. The more time I spent around that subculture, the more complicated things became. I don’t think my original thoughts were necessarily wrong, but they were certainly incomplete and devoid of context. I’m trying to be balanced, not because I think I can or should be objective, but because glossing over any part to make this a polemic or work of praise seems disingenuous.

    AndreaC, the series is in black and white partly because it’s the way I normally work, but also because of the challenge of photographing something sensational by nature — beautiful women in brightly colored costumes — without the pictures themselves being sensational. Focusing attention on what I felt was important would have been more difficult in color, at least for me. As for what people do or don’t publish, I can only say that I began this for very personal reasons and it wasn’t really a consideration.

    Bjarte, I somehow missed Andrea’s work, but you’ve really got me curious; I’m looking it up as soon as I finish here.

    Eric, I appreciate your comment about the end. I’m glad you felt sadness and not anger, which implies simple problems with ready solutions. Sadness is where I usually end up, and maybe a bit fatalistic.

    Frostfrog, Don’t despair! I grew up in Utah too. But before you go pining, all that glitters…. By the way, I met several candidates who were LDS, including the winner of the Miss Sun and Steel pageant. Apparently, I’m not the only one with contradictory feelings…

  14. “It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanity.”–paul strand


    now time to flounder over a long bob black comment, so will say simply this:

    this is one of the finest journalistic essays to appear on Burn and for me, one of the finest essays i have seen on S.America, period.

    In truth, as a teacher who has a number of students from both Columbia and Venezuela, countries for which these contests have a profoundly different sociological and historical context than in n.america, I found the essay wise, haunting and humane. I’ve showed it to 3 columbian students late his afternoon (one of whom is looking over my shoulder as I write this) and all of them responded, one with tears.

    It makes a very very interesting juxtaposition (a bookend?) with Chris’ new book Capitolio. In many sense your essays shadow-haunts chris’ and vice versa….though the styles and intent are different, i think both lent a doorway into the relationship of what often occurs there. Though this essay gets it exactly right (the importance in journalism) about the Pagents and their sociological context in Columbia, more important is that the essay gets it right (for me) about the emotional, psychological and universal aspects of what happens. pic by pic it’s as flawless as any 25 picture, traditional journalistic story can get…and it the end, it rips the heart wide open…at least it did for me…

    again, the work of the best of work is when the shadows are knived apart, and alow the light to enter, including to enter our own spiritual and emotional numbness…

    thanks for sharing Carl

    all the best

  15. What an excellent piece of work Carl. Pictures like this made me want to be a photographer in the first place. I guess I share that contradictory feelings that you mention (women and beauty are synonyms to me), but I think your essay is very clear in showing us the sordid and sad side of this.

    What follows is a free association of ideas, so it may be completely wrong, but as a latinamerican (from Mexico) your essay hit me strong, and reminded me of one of the most famous tales of the colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez: The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother. The tale has been traditionally interpreted as a metaphor of the exploitation of Latin America in the figure of a 14 years old made prostitute by her grandmother. I think picture number 15 tells that whole story.

    But I couldn’t take away any photo of the series. They’re all great. As bob black said, they rip the heart wide open.


  16. Carl,

    you hit the nail directly on the head… not only do I feel strongly about your position in this essay but I’m sure there are countless others out there who feel the same way. this photo-essay is a “testament to the power of images”.. they conveys more than words, it connects with my heart and mind deeper than written language. this “photo vocabulary” is becoming more and more common..a good thing most definitely.

    top notch photography on a difficult subject and point of view. black and white is absolutely the right path..besides the technical point you mentioned in your comment, b&w shows a “theoretical world” (it may be because of this that describing a subject like this in words would fall short of seeing a photo essay). theoretical in a sense that these 2 dimensional photographs do not show the whole picture, and one must come to a opinionated conclusion about what these images mean as a whole (or as part of the whole). the reason I feel you succeeded in this essay (hmm I just noticed how we’re now using the word essay in terms of photo-content… a new language.. a new vocabulary needs to be learned…) is because in each of these images you can see/think/feel what your goal was, as noted in your statement.

    the unfortunate thing for me is that I wasn’t there, and I can’t pick your brain to figure out what exactly you were thinking! you mentioned that you came to have contradictory feelings about what you originally set out believing..can you explain why?

    I do see a balance in the essay, most especially the final image… previous to it, the essay had been for me an ascent of like-minded feelings, one after another after another showing this world we live in. but once I saw that girl in her outfit sleeping on the bus, it struck me… it was as if I’d been on a roller coaster and then getting that feeling of disappointment once the ride was over, that’s what the final image made me feel. you brought me down to earth with that image and I feel richer having seen your entire essay.

    sorry for my rant, perhaps being part Colombian willed me to write such a long response, but also because I rarely see work that mimics my own feelings in such an amazing way. VERY well done sir.

    p.s. a word that comes to mind….
    –noun, plural -tries.
    1. the religious worship of idols.
    2. excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.

    p.p.s I’d love to hear what made you have contradictory thoughts… and maybe if you have any future plans for photo-essays :P oh and how you’re so damn good hahaha

  17. Bob, you really know how to stop people in their tracks. Thank you.

    I made several trips to Colombia for the project, and after the first trip I always brought a box of prints with me. I would show them without saying much, watching carefully as people flipped through the them; they were my litmus test.

    Just as it’s often easier to see a situation clearly from the outside, it’s easier still to get it completely wrong. Combine our own prejudices with the inherent novelty of being in another country, and we have a good chance of only making the pictures we brought with us in our heads.

    So if the pictures didn’t speak to those who lived in that world or merely reflected the obvious,they would show nothing more than my own shallowness, my status as an outsider. I’m very self conscious about that, afraid of people feeling like they’ve been used as raw material and afraid of looking foolish myself, an earnest idiotic gringo. So when Colombians started responding as your students have, it was heartening. I felt that perhaps I hadn’t simply persuaded myself into believing things because they fit a personal narrative. One man told me “I’ve been around this all my life, but I’ve never seen it clearly until now.” I had many frustrations working there, but that little comment kept me going for weeks when I felt like pulling the plug. So thanks for telling me about your students. I’m curious to know what were their specific thoughts.


  18. This is an absolutely fantastic essay. I feel sadness for these young women who are being objectified and feel as if their beauty and bodies are the only way to be noticed. I checked out your website and your work is outstanding. Thanks for the inspiration!

  19. salvatore sacco

    Wow! What a statement. Here is a perfect example of trying to “understand the complexities of this planet” as DAH puts it. In a world where we strive to bring equality to the sexes and see beyond the physical being, here is a nation engulfed objectifying women. You can almost smell the testosterone emanating from the images. This begs the question: What is a women’s worth if not a beauty queen?
    Carl, you have executed your craft well, the essay tells a compelling story as expected from a seasoned professional. Excellent work, Bravo!

  20. Carl you rock!
    Nice, nice, nice. High quality throughout…style and substance.
    Absolutely one of the best (if not THE best) essay published on burn so far.

  21. I agree with Marcin…
    Good newspaper work… Other than that..
    No “claws”…
    Also I agree with Jim…
    Lots of pretty girls.. What’s not
    to love??
    And I’m laughing out loud with Cathy’s
    comment above….( as I usually do )…
    Big hug..

  22. CARL – Moving and humane work Mate!A photo essay the way they are meant to be!
    Looking at your pictures took me right there!
    But then that’s the point ,is’nt it?

  23. raw
    I don’t know why,
    but I can’t help but think of
    Lauren Greenfield’s
    Girl Culture…
    how different
    story telling can be
    for each one of us…
    some great
    stand alone

  24. kathleen fonseca

    BRAVO, BRAVO!!!!!!!

    On every level this is amazing..one photo #8 was not as solid a contributor to me but every other photo was simply awesome. Starting with #1 which stopped me in my tracks, sucked an involuntary gasp right out of me. You had me in your pocket with #1. 0-to-60 in the time it took to open one frame and you took off from there, wowing me with every new happy-sad-bittersweet shot. I live in latin America, raised my kids here, have Columbian friends, thought i knew it all but i didn’t know sh*t. This made me want to cry, laugh, punch somebody, wrap the girls in a coat and take them home, high five them for their nerve and ambition, tsk-tsk them for being so misguided. Made me think of Mexican beauty queen Laura Zuniga busted with narco-traficantes who had her in their pocket last year. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1868836,00.html

    Beauty is a rough proposition anywhere..but when girls are raised to be coquetas from the time they are born, when there’s a premium put on feminine perfection, oh,God, how far does the pedestal fall when it inevitably does? What about those who don’t meet those impossibly high standards of perfection? What value do those girls have in a country that worships beauty to this extent? brrr…

    I’m stunned. Amazed, thrilled..great, great work!


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  26. In my opinion, this is an example of the best use of text imaginable.

    Totally disagree. One of the most patronizing examples of telling/directing us how we should see the photos, next the world too I suppose, and be judges too as wonderfully sensitive, educated elites (hence, the many accolades), of the poor, exploited, 3rd world masses. So hackneyed argumentation too. I think PJ is about camera-pointing, not finger-pointing. Moreover, you knew exactly what you wanted to say and what was your opinion before you delved into thus world.

    I usually refrain when I feel uninspired by an essay, but I feel a bit personal about these issues (not beauty pageants).

  27. Well, Carl, just now I just read your last entry, and glad to see you are “not so sure”.

    I think the one potent thought that can guide photo-journalism at times, is “I am not sure”, and the reason why the job is not about text-editorializing the subjects. As much as possible.

  28. Journalistic photoghraphy at it’s best. Superb images! Great composition! My favourite image would be #13. Like that one a lot! Nice to see that you use both long and wide lenses. The very first image is amazing with all these people in the background and not an inch of open space between.
    Good light and I hope you will create more of this awesome work!

  29. Carl – I really like this essay.

    It’s admirable and the style is welcoming. #4 for me. Great imagery.

    Well done on burn, Good luck, and thanks for sharing.

  30. Carl,
    I totally agree with Kathleen Fonseca: you had me at #1…
    Fantastic essay!!! What moved me even more were those rivals’ derogatory looks, full of envy…
    Very moving work, indeed!
    All the best,

  31. Fotocubas,
    The young woman on the steps you mention was in the People’s Pageant of Cartagena, a contest that runs concurrently with the lavish and media-frenzied National Beauty Contest each November. Each neighborhood gets to nominate a candidate, and all the costs are donated or covered by the local government. The winner gets a scholarship and a house. As a candidate, she’s drilled in how to move in social circles to which she’s never been exposed, and the process may bestow a degree of self confidence she didn’t have before. If she can stand in front of 30,000 people in the Plaza de Toros in a bikini, a simple job interview may not be as intimidating. By the same token, most resumés must be accompanied by a photo and she may be screened out by her appearance before she has the chance to interview. I don’t know if she’s the woman in García Márquez’s story or if she’s empowered. It’s possible that she’s leveraging a situation to her advantage while perpetuating a mindset that may ultimately limit her opportunities. She may not have a lot of options. I don’t know what she should do.

  32. Thanks for the clarification Carl. You put it very well: “It’s possible that she’s leveraging a situation to her advantage while perpetuating a mindset that may ultimately limit her opportunities”. I think that’s the key to the story, and the lack of options.

    By quoting the tale I wasn’t judging the girls, but the situation. Of course I know that any misunderstanding is my fault for mixing literature with photojournalism. I know I shouldn’t look at this kind of photographs as symbols or metaphors (even if the pass of time could make them so), but as facts, real people with their very real circumstances. Yet sometimes is hard for me to refrain.

    The more I watch this pictures and think about them the more I believe that this is not just a colombian, or latinamerican, but an universal story, since the exploitation of women by their beauty is everywhere, in different ways, even in the so call “developed world”, and maybe we all have our little part in that. I don’t know any answer for it, but your essay has gave me many good questions (and that’s what journalism is about, isn’t?).

    Thanks again for a great job, I’ll love to see it in his final form.

    All the best

  33. … what everyone else said. This is compelling stuff.

    Interesting how different commenters are hitting on different shots – you must be pressing a lot of different buttons. 12 is the best for me – the queen’s smile in what could be kind of a tense situation, and the way her trophy rhymes with the batons…

  34. Is there exploitation? Of course men exploit women, women also exploit men, and let’s not pretend the women here don’t do this by choice. You can say that women may have fewer opportunities but Id argue that they have more. What opportunities does the average Colombian male have to make any real mark in the world? He is born poor, he will die poor, overworked and ultimately disappointed by his life. Yes you can talk about exploitation but in many cases women are born with a ticket to success that men are not born with and they do leverage it to get what they want. Not just in Colombia, either. So for me, this essay is good photography but the thinking is very inside the box, cliche. We have seen victim photography, and this is very one sided. Women as sex objects handled by bad men. C’mon. It does nobody any good, not the women, not the men, its not a very realistic portrayal of the realities in my opinion as it totally misses the fundamental motivations of the women in these photos. The people are very flat, one dimensional, shallow and caricatures. This is the danger of going in with an agenda, you are blind to things that don’t fit your mental models and the baggage you brought along. As Herve said, PJ is about camera pointing, not finger pointing.

  35. Fabulous work no doubt. BRAVO for that. But I find the circumstances for the girls quite disturbing. Nobody is complaining doesn’t always mean that everything is fine.

  36. alexblackwelder

    I don’t think a project has provoked such a response from the depth of my soul in a long time.

    These images make me angry. I want to bust in , fists in the air, viva las chicas, we are more than THIS.

    But how can I? The issue is so complex, how can I possibly know what it feels like to be these girls, growing up in these times?

    The world is just too much sometimes,

    Thanks Carl

  37. jenny lynn walker

    Wow! Images that take your breath away! Some i will never forget, packed with atmosphere and so brilliantly composed and framed. But, I have to agree with Herve that I cannot see that the selection reflects the brilliant context in which they are portrayed in the accompanying text. I think the angles highlighted in the intro – the objectification of women within a specific culture and socio-political context – have not been addressed. Absolutely awesome, awesome essay, none the less! Congratulations!!!


    ps There was a time when the objectification of women, along much the same lines, was commonplace in many countries around the world. I am grateful that we have moved on in some countries in our times. May the fall of patriarchial systems that continue to dominate and objectify women continue. And may the documentation of it not simply an excuse to partake in it!!! ; )

  38. This is what photojournalism is all about! I’m blown away, utterly blown away!

    I never knew this little slice of the world existed till now, and now I feel like I’ve been there and witnessed it first hand. This essay is easily one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, thanks for sharing this with us!

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