Striking Pictures Show What Beauty Pageants Look Like Behind The Scenes

As the year draws to a close, It’s a time to look back on things that happened over the past twelve months. Over the next few days, we’ll be revisiting some of our favorite stories from throughout the year, and seeing again what they mean for 2015 in review.
This story was originally published on September 30, 2015.
In 2009, husband-and-wife photography team Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber were invited to take pictures of beauty pageants and the women who enter them. But not, as you might imagine, on show night, when everyone takes to the stage. Rather, they were sent behind the scenes.
The Miss Universe organizers invited the duo and their cameras inside to shoot the pageants over the course of several years. And so from 2009 to 2011, they did just that, spending time at the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe pageants.
The series that resulted, called Miss, is a voyeuristic look into the world of big grins and perfect teeth. The photographs express desperation, defeat, ebullience, and envy so intensely that it's almost impossible to believe they're documentary. Ackerman and Gruber insist they are.
Click ahead to see our favorite shots from the project and read our conversation with its creators, below.

Why did Miss Universe want you to photograph the pageant?
Jenn Ackermann: "People had lost interest. They didn't really care about pageants at that point. I think [Miss Universe] wanted something that was genuine and honest. We had done this project inside of a prison and they saw that and were like, 'Let's do something like this. How cool would this be?' — which was crazy to us at first."
Tim Gruber: "It's a different look than what you'd expect from the controlled, Pageant Polly sort of smile. In this age of social media and reality television, they were trying to push the pageant beyond the 'two-hour special.'"

What was most
surprising part for you?
TG: "The amount of work the girls actually dedicated to competing. Jenn and I came in a bit cynically, like, 'Oh, okay, pageant girls — this is gonna be pretty lifeless.' Then, we started to see them as athletes themselves. They were competitors and this was their version of a sporting event."

Jen, what was your reaction, as a woman, to seeing other women place so much emphasis on their appearances?
JA: "I had multiple responses. As a female, when you're looking at these beautiful people all day long, at first it was a little bit overwhelming. These women are so beautiful and there are so many of them. But there's a sadness about putting so much effort into your appearance. You start becoming numb to it — just a bunch of bodies running around."
TG: "The other thing we realized is the idea that we may or may not wear a sash, but in life, we're all competing in some way. As photographers, we enter contests. It's not like we're putting our bodies on display, but we're putting our work out there to be judged. In some ways, even though we're different, we kind of do the same thing with our photography."

Was your ultimate impression positive or negative?
JA: "It went between the two — the human aspect of it, that these are all women who are just realizing they're beautiful — and this sadness of, 'Wow, they are really focusing on appearance.'"
What was the most challenging part of the project?
JA: "They are competitors. They did not have down moments. That's the one thing that we really had to work hard at. We had to gain their trust...They knew how to play the game. They were always on their A-game. To get them in an off moment was really tough."
TG: "They've been programmed by all the other photographers they've been dealing with. Their natural response is to have a big smile, to put their hands on their hips, to have a really striking pose, whereas we wanted them to just ignore us. That was the hardest part."
But I noticed that some of your photos are, as you mentioned, quite different from traditional pageant photos. You show the contestants passed out or gorging on something. When did those happen?
JA: "Every once in awhile, we had people that really trusted us. We weren't trying to make them look bad. We were just trying to show real moments — 'We're taking photos of you guys eating, because we're trying to show that you actually eat.' We had to talk through some of the shots. It also helped being a couple."
TG: "As a male, I obviously wouldn't go into their rooms without somebody else with me. But as a female, Jen could go hang with them in their rooms. It's nice to be a husband-and-wife team in that sense. Jen could go do things that I didn't feel comfortable with."
Ahead, the photographers comment on 28 selected shots.

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