Photojournalist Taehoon Kim is used to the hustle and bustle of big cities — the noise, the crowds, the atomization.
So he was in for a bit of a culture shock when he landed in Athens, Ohio, in 2012 to study photojournalism at the state university there.
"Living in Ohio was my first real exposure to small-town America," Kim said in an email interview. "Things like county fairs, rodeos, and beauty pageants were completely foreign to me. I wanted to immerse myself in something I was totally unfamiliar with...and keep my (photography) skills fresh."
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
That summer he dove head-first into that classically provincial pastime, the beauty pageant.
It was actually easier to break into the community than he expected, thanks to that famous Midwestern hospitality. The youthful participants and their families had no qualms about opening their doors to an outsider.
"The families were very generous, and welcomed me into their homes," Kim said. "Once I got to the event itself, the girls I was photographing usually introduced me to their friends who were also competing. From there, I could move around and photograph whoever or whatever I thought was interesting."
Kim continued to follow his subjects as they competed around the state, representing their home counties and reconnecting with friends who were also doing the pageant circuit.
"One thing I reminded myself during this project was to avoid the stereotypes of pageantry that we are familiar with — Toddlers and Tiaras comes to mind — because there are obviously stigmas and strong opinions that people have about child and teen pageants," Kim said. "I didn't want my photos only to reinforce those same ideas. I was more drawn to, and wanted to convey, the sense of tradition and community at these events."
Of course, while the communities may be supportive and the girls may be friends, pageants are still competitions — and fierce ones at that. But Kim was struck again and again by the poise and determination the young women showed each time they stepped up on stage.
"Public speaking, putting on your best face, and having people judge — in the most literal sense — every word you utter and every movement you make; they had to confront things that would make any of us nervous," Kim said.
In the end, not even the photographer was immune to developing a little pageant superstition.
"None of the girls I reached out to before the pageants ever made it past the first or second rounds of their respective contests," he said. "I don't know if I was a bad luck charm or something."
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.