Mihaela Noroc photographs women from around the world to show that beauty has no bounds. What she’s discovered on her journey is that beauty is not only diverse, but that it can also teach us to be more tolerant. “In the end,” she says, “beauty has the ability to save the world.”
Name, rank and serial number please…
“My name is Mihaela Noroc, and I am a thirty-five-year-old female photographer from Bucharest, Romania. Beginning in 2013, I travelled the world with my backpack and my camera, photographing everyday women in a natural and serene way. My goal is to showcase that beauty has no bounds, and that the diversity of our world is a treasure, not a reason for conflict.
“I have photographed more than three thousand women in every corner of the world, and when there was no language barrier I listened to their stories. My project is called The Atlas of Beauty and it has become a unique book featuring 500 of my best portraits, from more than 50 countries, accompanied by stories that capture a rare glimpse into the daily experience of women. Now I’m working on the second part of the book which will probably be published in 2024.”
How did you get started on this project?
“My father is a painter, so I spent my childhood surrounded by his paintings, enjoying the diversity of colours. When I was sixteen years old, I got my first camera, a very old one, and I was too shy to go on the streets and take photos of strangers, so my first subjects were my mother and my sister. That’s how I started to love photographing women – in a cosy and tranquil way.
“I studied photography at university but found little encouragement. I felt insecure about my skills, and I quit photography for a while. I ended up working in other fields, just for the money, and photography remained only a hobby. During backpacking vacations, I visited different parts of the world, and I was fascinated by the diversity of our planet. So, in 2013, after a trip to Ethiopia where I discovered an amazing mosaic of cultures and traditions, I realized that I could combine my two passions: traveling and taking portraits of women.”
When did The Atlas of Beauty take off, and what has it taught you?
“In the beginning, The Atlas of Beauty was just a small personal project, funded by my savings and known only in my country. After a while, because of social media, it became popular all over the world. Frankly this took me by surprise. Suddenly, I realised that millions of people were looking at my photos. My inbox was full of messages from all around the planet. I felt a lot of pressure but I also understood that I had to work harder, I had to capture more diversity, find more inspiring stories, so that I could really create a book that can make a difference. People from across the globe started to donate to the project, and that’s how I was able to continue my work and keep it independent.”
What is beauty for you?
“Real beauty has no bounds. You can find it in Africa or in Europe, in a village or in a skyscraper, in a smile, in a gesture, in an intense gaze, in some wrinkles, or in a story. Real beauty is wisdom, creativity, resilience, strength, kindness, generosity … anything that makes us good human beings. Beauty is much more than what we usually see in the media.
“Real beauty is in our differences and is all around us. We just have to open our eyes and see it. While traveling, I noticed that there’s a lot of pressure on women to look and behave in a certain way. In some environments it is the pressure to look attractive. In others, on the contrary, it is the pressure to look modest. But every woman should be free to explore her own beauty without feeling any pressure from marketing campaigns, trends, or social norms.
“Real beauty comes from inside, inspiring serenity and humanity, so if our outsides are natural and authentic, our insides will be more visible. We need to learn to be ourselves, but to do that we also have to learn to let other people be themselves. Beauty can teach us to be more tolerant. There’s much love, beauty, and compassion in the world and I see it with my own eyes. Yet a few sources of hate and intolerance can ruin all this.
“Many times, the victims of intolerance are women, and while on the road I hear many heart-breaking stories. I think now more than ever our world needs an “atlas of beauty” to present the struggles and dreams of everyday women, to send an empowering message to all of them. An atlas to prove that diversity is something beautiful, not a reason for strife. For me, beauty is diversity, and it can teach us to be more tolerant.
“We are all very different, but through this project I want to show that we are all part of the same family. We should create paths between us, not boundaries. As Dostoyevsky once said through one of his characters, ‘Beauty will save the world’.”
What are the practicalities of travelling to so many countries for your project?
“Travelling as a backpacker around the world made me integrate into all kind of environments. I have taken pictures of women in many different places from all continents except Antarctica. I have captured beauty in Brazilian favelas, in isolated areas of Afghanistan, in an Iranian mosque, on the Tibetan Plateau, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in North Korea, in the Amazon rain forest, and also in upscale areas of Paris, in downtown New York, and in Beijing.
“I also focus on capturing the environment around the women that I photograph, because this is a part of their lives. Many times, after meeting a woman on the street, I have only a minute to make a portrait. In other instances, if we arrange a meeting in advance, I may spend an hour photographing her, listening to her story.
“When I photograph, I talk a lot, I try to make her feel special, proud, and unique. I get by with five languages and this helps me a lot, but in many places even that’s useless, and talking becomes pantomime. Many of the women that I photograph are in front of a professional camera for the first time, and this is not bad at all because they are more authentic. For even more authenticity, I always use natural light.”
Tell us a little more about the book …
“The Atlas of Beauty is a unique collection containing 500 portraits of women from more than 50 countries, accompanied by many interesting stories. Most of the photos from the book have never been seen before. Throughout the 352 pages, I try to create suggestive juxtapositions in order to celebrate the diversity of the world and show that beauty is everywhere regardless of money, race, or social status.
“After almost four years of continuous work, I dream of seeing this beautifully packaged book in many homes around the world, because this will mean that my message about love, acceptance, and beauty will last. In the meantime, I am also working on a second edition, because there are many more faces and places of the world waiting to be discovered.”
Mihaela, keep up the good work!