This powerful ongoing project was selected as a series finalist in the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2016 (as well as chosen among the top 50 for our 2015 Emerging Talent Awards). More recently, Luisa Dorr was named one of 12 participants in the Joop Swart Masterclass. She is definitely someone to keep an eye on!

I first met Maysa during the final contest for “Young Miss Brazil” in Palacio do Cedro (The Cedar Palace) in April 2014. I was there working on an assignment, so it was really just good fortune that brought us together.

When I saw Maysa for the first time, she was wearing a beautiful green dress. I approached her and we had a short talk. I took a picture of her near a tree. At that time, she told me she was visiting the competition just to check it out. Her true dream was to someday become Miss Brazil.After taking those photos, I went to her house for a coffee in Brasilândia, one of the most dangerous slums of São Paulo. Maysa told me that she would register for the next competition of Miss Sao Paulo. I said that I would love to know more about the contest and would even like to tell her story through photographs.

Four months later, in August, her mother sent me an email. She asked me to make a portfolio of portraits of Maysa. They didn’t have money to pay me, but Maysa really needed the pictures to start working as a model. I decided to shoot her for free.

After taking those photos, I went to her house for a coffee in Brasilândia, one of the most dangerous slums of São Paulo. Maysa told me that she would register for the next competition of Miss Sao Paulo. I said that I would love to know more about the contest and would even like to tell her story through photographs.

Thus, we started to meet frequently and I would photograph her rehearsals, catwalk lessons—the whole preparation. I got close to her everyday life and we became friends.

To be in the contest, a girl needs to be between 8 and 12 years old and enrolled in school. The pageant is divided by national states. Girls pass up and down the catwalk in myriad outfits and perform their various talents.

Six months later, Maysa won the state title of Young Miss São Paulo, specifically “Black Beauty.” This is a separate title from Young Miss São Paulo, created to encourage black girls to participate. Racism is, unfortunately, very common in Brazil even though most of our people are a mix of several different ethnicities. It’s not common to see many black entrants in beauty contests.

Maysa represented the state in the grand finalé, “Young Miss Brazil” in April 2016.

—Luisa Dorr