The Atlas of Beauty
Mihaela Noroc lives in Bucharest, Romania, and has travelled almost continuously for the last four years, visiting over fifty countries and working on her project The Atlas of Beauty. Communicating in five languages, she met and photographed women in every type of environment, from all corners of the world, never imagining that her project would gain such international acclaim. Her collection shows that beauty is everywhere, regardless of money, race or social status, and comes in many different sizes and colours. Mihaela's portraits feature women in their native environments, from the Amazon rainforest to markets in India, London city streets and parks in Harlem, creating a mirror of our varied cultures and proving that beauty has no rules. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Mihaela introduces herself and her project and describes the background to four of her favourite images from the book.
I am a thirty-two-year-old female photographer from Bucharest, Romania. Since 2013 I have 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 boundaries, and that the diversity of our world is a treasure, not a reason for conflicts.
I have photographed more than two thousand women in every corner of the world, and when there was no language barrier I listened to their stories. My project, The Atlas of Beauty, features 500 of my best portraits, from more than 50 countries, accompanied by stories that capture a rare glimpse into the daily experience of women.
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. 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 in order to make a living, and photography remained only a hobby.
During backpacking vacations, I visited different parts of the world, and 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 realised that I could combine my two passions: travelling and taking portraits of women. After many years, photography was no longer a simple hobby; I started to work hard every day, and step by step regained my self-confidence.
In the beginning, The Atlas of Beauty was just a small personal project, funded with my small savings, known only in my country. After a while, because of social media, it became very popular all over the world. This took me by surprise. Suddenly, I realised that millions of people see my photos. My inbox was full of messages from 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, and that I could really create a book that would 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.
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 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 travelling, 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.
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 heartbreaking 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.
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 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, but also in upscale areas of Paris, in downtown New York and in Beijing.
I prefer to photograph natural faces, without a lot of makeup. I also focus on capturing the environment around the women, because this is a part of their lives. Many times, after meeting a woman on the streets, I have only a minute to make a portrait. In other instances, if she has time, 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. Through my camera, I try to dive into their eyes, to explore what is inside too. Throughout the book, I tried 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.
Below are four of my favourite images from the book, with the background to each of them.
NEW YORK, USA
Abby and Angela are sisters with an Ethiopian mother and a Nigerian father. Both parents worked for the United Nations so the sisters grew up in six different countries, on three different continents. This gave them a broad perspective and allowed them to see where need was the greatest. After graduation, they both plan to move to Africa and put their knowledge in the service of that amazing continent. Their enthusiasm is inspiring, and Angela’s words express that perfectly:
'Among my peers in my age group, I want to start a movement of coming back to the continent. I want to shine a light on the potential of my people, and I want to lift the entire region out of the health conflict it is in, putting power in the brilliant youth, using local talent, and customizing policies that work in the African setting rather than transposing Western policies.'
AMAZON RAINFOREST, ECUADOR
More and more tribes of Amazonia are starting to adopt modern clothes for everyday life. But they are still keeping their traditional clothes for important events. I photographed this young woman in her wedding outfit.
For many people around the world, this is what shopping looks like. They don’t have their own cars, or big homes, or bank accounts. But most of them are great examples of dignity, strength, generosity and honesty. If more of those who have fortunes and power would learn from these wonderful people, we would live in a much better world.
At first, Laile didn’t want me to photograph her because she said she is not beautiful enough. Once she agreed, I posted this photo online hoping to show her how beautiful she is; it got more than twenty-two thousand likes.
These were just a few of the comments:
'She’s a heartbreaker.'
'Sister, you are strikingly beautiful.'
'You’re rocking it, girl.'