Ethics, Race and Beauty: Photos of Miss America 2014

Nina DavuluriI can’t remember when I last watched a Miss America pageant. But I was pulled into this year’s story because of negative tweets about Nina Davuluri, who was crowned Miss America 2014 Sunday night.

As I reviewed news stories, I thought I noticed decided differences in the darkness of her skin.

To prove myself wrong, I took screen captures (MacBookPro/Retina) and then investigated the differences using Photoshop. I took a light and dark sample from each image, one from her face and one from an arm.

What I found did not make me smile or ease my mind. Most differences are not as stark as the infamous O.J. Simpson example, but they are unmistakeable.

What is unknown is how they came to be.

Was it the camera pre-set for white balance? The photographer’s post-production practice? An editorial decision at the publication? A sloppy edit-for-the-web change?

Skin tone variance
Skin tone variance in web photos of Miss America 2013, Nina Davuluri.

Manipulation: is it in our genes?

Photographs have been “doctored” or “manipulated” since the technology was born. Sometimes alterations are designed to enhance current standards of beauty, as the Unilever/Dove Evolution campaign made clear in 2006.

Today, digital technologies that make it easier to fiddle with photos also make it easier for said changes to be caught. And called out.

Examples range from O.J. Simpson’s skin color and the Tonya/Nancy Olympics “face off” in 1994 to an American solider composite in Iraq in 2003, from fake fires in Lebanon sent out on the wire in 2006 to falsified signs in the hands of Obama supporters in 2012.

I offer these images of Davuluri for continuing discussion about news photography and post-production ethics.

An examination of 10 photos

The photo above is her official photo from the Miss America web site. In the head shot, her even facial skin tone reflects makeup application; her shoulders are lighter in tone than her face. This is image #1 in the summary chart to the right.

Next up, #2, was published in the New Jersey Star-Ledger after Davuluri was named a semi-finalist. She is wearing a black dress, and her skin tone in the photo is slightly but not dramatically darker than the head shot. It is also in a similar range as six of the 10 photos that I analyzed.

When Davuluri was crowned Miss America, she was wearing a bright yellow evening gown. Photos #3-#6 were taken by at least three different photographers. One, #3, is markedly darker than any other photo in the sample. Mel Evans is the photographer; AP distributed it widely. This screen capture was from USA Today.

Notice that the other three photos of Davuluri in her yellow dress are similar in tone but starkly different from the Evans photo.

In the final two sets of two photos, what differs is the publication, not the image.

Photos #7 and #8 were taken earlier in the competition by Donald Kravitz, a Getty Images photographer, and show Davuluri wearing a green dress. The darker image ran on the NY Daily News website; the lighter image ran on E!. Given that the photo is the same in both publications, it seems as though the difference lies there. Might E! have touched up the photo because it’s an entertainment site? Might the NY Daily News have darkened the photo?

Photos #9 and #10 were taken after the crowning festivities; it is a straight publicity still which, one assumes, would have favorable lighting. The AP photo appears drastically different on the FOX Alabama web site when compared with the New Indian Express. In this instance, it is the FOX photo that appears to be an outlier, based on this corpus of 10 images.

How do these differences jibe with the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics, which focuses on photographers?

6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

Or the Society of Professional Journalists?

Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible.


Tell the story of the diversity … Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status… Minimize harm.

In summary, there is one photo — an Evans AP photo — which appears darker than images shot by four other photographers and one other image shot by Evans. And circumstantial evidence suggests editorial futzing with two images prior to web publishing.

This kind of manipulation would be bad form any time. But given the state of US-Middle Eastern relations today, enhancing a brown person’s skin tone is like tossing raw meat to a bunch of hyenas.



The photos

Photo 2:, Star Ledger

Photo 3: USA Today, Mel Evans, AP


Photo 4:, Getty


Photo 5: NY Daily News, Mallory Hagan, Reuters


Photo 6: CBS Philadelphia, Michael Loccisano, Getty


Photo 7 & 8: David Kravitz, Getty



Photo 9 & 10: Mel Evans, AP



By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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