It began in Ethiopia, back in 2013. Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc was visiting the African country with her husband and was struck by the diverse beauty of the women there.
“I was taking pictures of all these women, they were all very different and then I realized, how come I don’t see photos of women like these?” said Noroc in December at a Berlin event tied to an exhibition of photographs that appear in her new book, The Atlas of Beauty. The photo book is the result of a global, four-year adventure spurred by the now 31-year old photographer’s realization that we’re still lacking diverse representations of female beauty. It features 500 portraits of women from around the world, along with short snippets of their life stories.
After visiting Ethiopia, Noroc returned to her native city of Bucharest with a burning desire to photograph as many women as possible from every corner of the globe. She saved up and embarked on a 14-month, 30-country voyage that took her overland to the Arctic and then through China and Russia.
“My perception of beauty changed. If you Google ‘beautiful woman’ you get such a narrow image,” she told the crowd of more than 50 packed into a small gallery in Berlin.
“Usually, it’s a blonde woman with blue eyes and her lips are slightly open. What is that? I saw these amazing women—all different ages and ethnicities and found them beautiful,” she said. “There just aren’t enough images of them in the world. It’s because men always like to be photographed, but not women…they say they need makeup or they’re not beautiful.”
Noroc decided to keep going. She crowdfunded on Indiegogo and raised $50,000 to travel for another two years and produce a book of her resulting photos. Besides Europe, she sauntered through Iran, Tibet, North Korea, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific and parts of South America.
Noroc said she would spend hours and hours walking in the streets, then suddenly get “slammed” with the need to photograph someone. Then, she’d approach them and try to chat them up. Sometimes it took just minutes to capture the person at their most natural, other times she spent days hanging out with them to engender trust. “I try to humanize the camera, so they are comfortable and I can catch them super-relaxed.”
The product is a series of vivid photos that seem to feature every possible age and background. The women all exude a kind of serene power, often meeting the viewer with a laser-like gaze. The subjects are pictured standing, sitting, cooking, astride their motorbikes, playing instruments, and working. They include police and security officers from Israel, Palestine, North Korea, India, and Uruguay. There are also shopkeepers, firefighters, surfers, mothers, daughters, friends, and so many others.
“Perceptions of beauty are so different everywhere,” noted Noroc. “In some parts of the world, if a woman is modest, she’s quiet and covers herself. She is beautiful. But in other parts, she has to be out there, wearing little clothing, over-sexualized. It is such pressure.”
For Noroc, the women come off as beautiful in her photos because they are natural—no artifice, no need for special clothing or makeup. “When you look at my book, you will see freedom,” she said. “The women are presented in the way they wanted to express themselves.”
Below, find a selection of photos included in The Atlas of Beauty along with descriptions by Noroc.
Chichicastenango, Guatemala—"Maria is a vegetable vendor in the market of her small town. She became shy as soon as she saw the camera."
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."
Paris, France—"Anja is Belgian with Polish origins and dreams to compete in the Paralympic Games. She was born without a right leg, in Poland, and her mother abandoned her in a hospital, begging the doctor to take care of her. At 19-months-old, she was adopted by a Belgian family, where she had a bright childhood."
Berlin, Germany—"Anais has a Malian mother and a French father. When she travels to Mali, people consider her to be white. When she’s in Europe, she’s seen as black. But Anais says she feels both African and European."
Milan, Italy—"Caterina began dancing when she was three years old. Her mother, Barbara, was supportive, but knew that there were few opportunities to study ballet in their small town so, although her husband and son stayed behind, she moved with Caterina to Milan, where her daughter could fulfill her dream and attend one of the most esteemed schools in the world."
Sichuan Province, China—"Among the most graceful women I encountered, this Tibetan mother of two in a rural village looked like this the moment she opened her door to me; she had been cleaning her house, and yet she was wearing her jewelry."
Istanbul, Turkey—"During my travels, I’ve met so many stunning women who told me they don’t feel beautiful at all. Influenced by the way the media depicts beauty, many people feel pressured to follow a certain standard of beauty. But that’s not the case with Pinar. She is Turkish Cypriot and has long dreamed of becoming a theatre actress. So, she moved from Cyprus to Turkey, worked hard and fulfilled her dream. While she loves playing different roles on stage, in real life, she adores being herself, natural and free."