“After photographing women in more than 45 countries I can say that beauty is everywhere, and it’s not a matter of cosmetics, money, race or social status, but more about being yourself.”
So writes Mihaela Noroc, a 30-year-old Romanian photographer who, for the last three years, has been travelling the world and taking pictures of striking and beautiful women she comes across. The goal? To highlight the beauty of female diversity.
From Chile to Iran, Uzbekistan to Myanmar, Romania to Cuba, Mihaela has already captured images of hundreds of women and girls, and is currently seven months into her second tour of the globe for the project, which she has titled "The Atlas of Beauty."
During her first 15-month trip, which Mihaela mainly funded herself, she visited 30 countries across Asia, Oceania, Europe and South, Central and North America, photographing women in the streets, in their homes and in their places of work. She began her second trip in June last year with the aim of covering a similar number of countries, bringing her total up to 60.
The project has grown exponentially since its inception in 2013. Mihaela’s photos have been featured in a wide variety of media including CNN
. Even the Queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, has done a short section about the project.
In autumn last year, Mihaela spent nine days in North Korea and was able to take the pictures of almost 30 women there, despite the country being notoriously private.
Speaking to the Guardian
about the trip, Mihaela commented that “In most countries I’ve observed that women smile in front of the camera and that tended to be the case when I shot women in North Korea – but here I tried to find something more profound, to get them to open up and reveal something more authentic, to see a story in their eyes.”
The photographer has said that she wants her photos to be viewed as an alternative, if not an antidote, to the endless images of conflict that people see in the newspapers and on television.
“Everyday, when we watch mass media, we see an Atlas of Wars, Conflicts and Fear [sic],” Mihaela writes. “People are fighting just because they are different, because they have a different religion, culture or race. More than ever, I think our world needs an Atlas of Beauty to show that diversity is something beautiful, not a reason for conflict.”
Why did you start the project?
The idea of the project was born three years ago during a journey in Ethiopia where I discovered a mosaic of different cultures and beautiful women who were keeping their traditions with pride, grace and elegance.
After I returned home, I realised that nobody had explored the countries and the cultures of the world through portraits of women, in one single project. So I decided to do that, but I never imagined that the project would become so popular.What have you learnt about global beauty standards since you started?
I think that beauty standards have become more similar around the world, mainly because of mass media, even in isolated areas. But for me beauty is diversity, it’s what makes us unique. It's something that comes from inside too, and it shouldn't be driven by trends or rules, but more by our feelings. Can you describe one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had and why it was so important to you.
I remember perfectly the night when my project went viral. I went to sleep as an unknown photographer from Bucharest, Romania, who was doing a personal project using her own small savings, and when I woke up my photos were everywhere.
Suddenly, millions of people from all around the world were seeing my photos and were talking about their message. I was really happy, because my hard work was being appreciated, but I also felt a lot of pressure, like never before in my life.
From that moment I learned that I'm not on my own anymore. I understood that people will help me to continue my project, but they will also expect me to work hard and improve the project. What have people's response been to the Atlas project, have you been surprised by it?
In the last year, I have received thousands of messages from all around the world. Most of the people love the project and many of them say it really made a change in the way they perceive beauty.
I also sometimes receive negative feedback. Some people are upset because I haven’t visited their country yet, others because I don't photograph men as well, or because I don't have enough diversity in my project.
I'm doing my best, day by day. I'm just one photographer working on a big project, in challenging conditions, without any company or organisation behind it. Most people really appreciate this. Which women have you met that have inspired you the most and why?
There have been so many women that have inspired me while doing this project, it wouldn't be fair to pick just one, but I’ll name one of the most recent examples.
A few weeks ago, in India, I photographed an 18-year-old girl who was living in a tent next to a big market in Mumbai with her whole family. Her father had died, but her brave mother, who sells goods in the market, was able to keep her in school.
Even though her home was essentially on a sidewalk, I have rarely met such a warm-hearted person, with such a positive energy. She didn’t complain about anything. Her smile, her dignity and her wisdom were all strong life lessons to me. I really felt privileged to meet such a beautiful person.
When I asked her biggest dream was, she said she wanted to study and to find a good job. That's all. But I think, deep in her soul, she was dreaming about a proper home too. I really hope I can present people's stories to the world because they can really teach us something about humanity and about beauty.Click through to see some of Mihaela’s photos and read more about her "The Atlas of Beauty" below.