Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc spent nearly four years shooting portraits of — and collecting stories about — women from around the world.
The product of her vision — and her travels to 50 countries — can be seen in her book The Atlas Of Beauty, hitting shelves Tuesday.
The project, she says, began as something "very genuine and sincere" that she financed, initially, with her own savings — and by being frugal in her backpacking adventure. She later crowd-funded, including a Facebook campaign in March.
NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navaro spoke with the 31-year-old via phone from Berlin about her photography. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This book is called The Atlas Of Beauty. What is beautiful to you? What kind of beauty were you trying to evoke?
That's a very long story, actually. I'm going to try to make it short. You know nowadays the word usually has a little bit of a bad meaning in the end. And everything that's related to beauty is just related to marketing and sales. If you're going to put into Google, for example, 'beautiful woman,' you're just going to see women with parted lips and a little bit over-sexualized. And that's not what beauty means. In the end, I think beauty just means just being yourself. I don't think we have to change ourselves to be in a certain way; I think we just have to keep ourselves as we are and don't necessarily [need] to change.
Were you trying to reclaim the word 'beauty,' perhaps, from the male gaze and make it more about the way women see other women?
Maybe people that are going to look at my work are going to draw their own conclusions. I think I started the project in a very sincere way and the way it developed made us see some lessons from it.
Tell me how the project started.
The project started almost four years ago, and I just traveled around the world for one year. And, in the beginning, I was not expecting to do a worldwide project. It was just something very genuine; I just was photographing people that I met and after a year, when [my project] became very popular, I realized that I have to be more responsible and I have to work more.
The book features all these portraits of different women in different situations, of different ages, of different colors, of different sizes all over the world, and little snippets of their stories. How did you choose your subjects?
That's a very beautiful question because I think everything is very instinctual and, maybe, it's something that attracts you more than the appearance. Like a chemistry that happens for a moment between you and the person that you photograph. And you're just drawn to the people that you're going to photograph. It's something very natural, it's nothing planned. That's the beauty of it, and that's why the book is more honest and more sincere. Because if I would have planned everything, probably it would be very different.
Tell me the story of an encounter with one of the women. How you met her, how long you spent with her. Generally, do you just take the pictures immediately, or do you make an appointment to come back and see the women later when they've had a chance to fix their hair and put on some makeup?
Usually I prefer to photograph without makeup but not all the women are comfortable with that. It's very different from one situation to another. Sometimes I spend a few seconds, and sometimes I spend a few hours. If the women let me stay with them and photograph them and tell me their story, it is wonderful — but not everyone has the time for that. So whenever I have the opportunity to spend two hours, it is amazing.
The woman that I photographed for the cover of the book, it was a matter of seconds. I was in India, it was early morning — usually when you go to the river you are going to see a lot of Hindu pilgrims making their offerings. And so, she was one of them. I saw her in the river. I asked her for permission with my expression and she said yes. I made a few pictures, then I let her continue her offering. It was a magical moment that I saw — there are lots of magical moments like that in our lifetime. Maybe sometimes we are just not too careful to see them, and we are preoccupied with other problems. So maybe photography and this project also gives you the opportunity to just open your eyes and see the beauty that surrounds you.
Some of the women say they don't necessarily see themselves as beautiful. They do not see in themselves the thing that you saw in them. Did you find that to be common?
I did realize the women I photographed were not confident in the way they were. I posted their photos on social media and, after they saw the all the comments on social media, they saw [their beauty]. [We] are convinced we have to be a certain way and we are never secure in our own way. From an early age you can really understand that we can be confident and beautiful and however we want. We don't have to try to change. I think it's a very big confidence booster.
We are inundated by images of beauty on social media and in advertising in magazines. From your book, what can we learn about how other cultures view beauty?
The [other] cultures are also getting influenced by our Western way of seeing beauty. You see, in Asia and Africa, whitening products to lighten the skin. We have to start from early age with children to show them that people are very different but very beautiful in their own way.
How did this project change you as a woman?
I matured a lot, and I'm sure that my idea about the world changed a lot — in my idea about how a woman is supposed to be. I'm much more confident. I'm much more respectful of what the other women in the world have to go through every day because, I realize more that I am extremely privileged to be in this position. And this is why I'm beautiful.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A vegetable vendor in Guatemala with dark straight hair framing her face, deeply etched with lines, an insurance sales team in Cape Town dressed in dark suits and waiting for a bus, a mother in Tehran, head wrapped in purple, hugging her baby boy - Photographer Mihaela Noroc sees beauty in all of these women and has spent four years shooting portraits and collecting stories on her world travels. You can see that work in her new book "The Atlas Of Beauty." Mihaela Noroc joins me now from Berlin. Welcome to the program.
MIHAELA NOROC: Hello, nice to meet you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me how the project started.
NOROC: Well, the project started almost four years ago. And I just traveled around the world for one year. And in the beginning, it was - I was not expecting to do a worldwide project like it became now. It was just very - something very genuine and sincere. I just was photographing people that I met. And after one year, it became very popular. And now it's just a book that's just so wonderful in my hands.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you finance this? I mean, it must have been expensive to travel to all the places that you traveled.
NOROC: Well, the first year it was all with my own savings. And I traveled as a backpacker, as low budget as possible. That was not always very easy. And the second year, I managed to make a crowdfunding campaign. And I just kept working on my project.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book is all these portraits of different women in different situations of different ages of different colors of different sizes all over the world. Tell me the story of one of the encounters, as one of the women - how you met them. And do you just take their picture immediately? Or do you make an appointment to come back and see them?
NOROC: It's very different from one situation to another. Sometimes I spend a few seconds, and sometimes I spend a few hours. If the woman will let me stay with them and photograph them and tell me their story, it will be wonderful. But not everybody has the time for that. So whenever I have the opportunity to spend a few hours, it's amazing.
But I will tell you, for example, the story of the woman that I photographed for the cover of the book. I was in India in Varanasi. It was early morning. And usually, when you go to the Ganga where you're going to see a lot of Hindu pilgrims making their offerings in the river. So she was one of them. I saw her in the water making the offering.
I just entered very quickly. I asked her for permission with my expression. And she said yes. I made a few pictures, just a few of them. And that was it. I let her continue her offering. And there are lots of magical moments like that in our lifetime. And maybe sometimes we are just not too careful to see them. And we are too preoccupied with other problems.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. So I'd like to talk about one of the photographs - Raquel (ph) in Brazil. I lived in Brazil so it resonated. What is her story and what did you learn about her?
NOROC: So I photographed Raquel in North Brazil. And I spent two days with her. I'm actually still friends with her on Facebook because usually I try to keep contact with the women that I photograph. And her story was heartbreaking. When she was four months pregnant, her boyfriend got murdered in one of the favelas from Brazil. And now she's raising her child alone. And she's trying to sell coconuts because this is the only way she can afford living there.
I was amazed because even though her life story is extremely difficult, she got the power to be very positive. She was smiling a lot. She was taking care of her child with a lot of positive energy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She called her child biscuit.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, biscoito.
NOROC: Yeah. She's calling her child Biscoito. Yeah, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's very sweet. It's hard to travel as a woman and especially as a photographer, I imagine. What were the challenges personally for you?
NOROC: Well, whenever I go into one country, I will always say that I'm a tourist. I have the camera just to make some pictures as a tourist. I never tell them that I'm a photographer because this will surely make the things worse. And it's difficult because I always have to take care not to get robbed. This happened once, you know? But it was just my phone got stolen. That's it.
But once you're with the big camera in your hands as a woman, you're more of a target. So I always try to keep a low profile, go in very crowded areas during day time and not to draw a lot of attention upon me. And those are the women that I'm with. They're always going to help me because I don't know yet to know each other. And we become friends. And they will try their best to keep me secure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that struck me is some of the comments by some of the women. They don't necessarily see themselves as beautiful. They did not see in themselves the thing that you saw in them. Did you find that to be common? I'm thinking in particular of the sisters from Switzerland with the red hair who said they'd been made fun of as children because of the color of their hair. And you were drawn to them.
NOROC: During the project, I did realize that women that I photographed were not confident in their way of being. So whenever I posted their picture on my social media, we got a lot of comments and positive reaction from the people. So the women that I photographed, after that, they realized how beautiful they are. That was extraordinary for them and for me because it gives them confidence.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did this project change you?
NOROC: I'm much more confident. I'm much more respectful of what the other women in the world have to go through every day because the life is so difficult in so many parts of the world. And this project was a huge gift in my life. And this is why I'm trying to put it out there in the world for people to understand that the world is extremely beautiful. And we should really appreciate everything that's happening in our life.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mihaela Noroc, her new book is "The Atlas Of Beauty: Women Of The World In 500 Portraits." Thank you very much.
NOROC: Thank you very much.
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