Not just skin deep: The Atlas of Beauty by Mihaela Noroc
MIHAELA NOROC’s The Atlas of Beauty, released as a gorgeous photo-book of 500 portraits of women from around the world, serves as an inadvertent yet fitting counterpoint to the crowning of Manushi Chhillar, the damsel from Haryana with a million-dollar smile, at the Miss World 2017 pageant.
Mihaela, 32, a photographer from Bucharest, Romania, travelled for four years, often with just her backpack and camera, across over 50 countries, to put together the pictures. Her stated mission: “To celebrate women from all corners of the world, and show that beauty is everywhere, regardless of money, race or social status.”
In effect, Mihaela travelled and compiled pictures 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, and also in upscale areas of Paris, in downtown New York, and in Beijing,” she says.
Beauty beyond boundaries
Mihaela’s conception of feminine beauty, removed from notions of glamour, determines the book’s purview. The selection of women is remarkably diverse, and the unknown characters offer endearing personal stories.
“When I say ‘beauty’, I mean more than the beauty we see today, which is usually about sexual attractiveness, in service of selling something,” explains Mihaela. “If you put the words ‘beautiful woman’ into Google, you’ll mostly see images of seductive women: mouths pouting or lips parted, hands pushing their hair into a bed-head tangle, not many clothes at all. But in this book you will see that beauty means much more.”
Mihaela insists, “Real beauty has no bounds. You can find it in Africa or in Europe, in a village or in a skyscraper, in a smile, a gesture, in an intense gaze, in some wrinkles, or in a story. Real beauty is much more than what we 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.”
For more reasons than just pageants, the timing of the book couldn’t have been better. “Now, more than ever, our world needs an ‘atlas of beauty’ to present the struggles and dreams of everyday women, to empower all of them,” offers Mihaela. “An atlas to prove that diversity is something beautiful, not a reason for strife.”
She adds, “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.” Her message, in essence: “Beauty can teach us tolerance, honesty, and kindness — values that our world needs more than ever. We shouldn’t build walls based on gender, ethnicity, color, sexual orientation, or religion, but find paths that connect us.”
Stars in their eyes
For her portraits, Mihaela prefers “natural faces, without a lot of make-up”. She explains, “I focus on capturing the environment around them, as this is a part of their lives. Many of the women were in front of a professional camera for the first time, and this is not bad at all, as they are more authentic. For more authenticity, I use natural light, to create a feeling of cosiness, to capture that magic moment when a woman opens up.” The eyes, in particular, form an engrossing element in her portraits. “I try to dive into their eyes, to explore what is inside too,” says Mihaela.
On her travels, Mihaela noticed that “there’s a lot of pressure on women to look and behave in a certain way”. She says, “In some environments, it is the pressure to look attractive. In others, on the contrary, it is the pressure to look modest and cover up as much as possible. But every woman should be free to explore her own beauty without feeling any pressure from marketing campaigns, trends, or social norms.”
The book is in many ways intrinsically inspirational. “Real beauty comes from inside, inspiring serenity and humanity,” offers Mihaela. “So if our outsides are natural, 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.”
A bevy of Indian stunners
To keep Manushi company, a handful of Indian women represent Mihaela’s conception of beauty in the book — including Anisha, a Parsi of Persian Zoroastrians descent in Mumbai, a few unnamed women in Varanasi, Delhi and Goa, and also at railway stations in Mumbai and Jodhpur, including one whom she caught by the window of a train, moments before its departure.
There are others in elaborate attire at Pushkar, and one woman at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, with a traditional kirpan (knife) on her belt, “a symbol of a Sikh’s duty to come to the defense of those in danger”, notes Mihaela. In Mumbai, she also finds a deaf girl, at an NGO-run school in the slums of Dharavi, showing her hands clasped, in the sign language gesture for friendship.
At the temple town of Pushkar, Mihaela comes across a woman police officer. “Travelling from country to country, I was happy to see that women have joined public forces all over the world,” notes the photographer. The picture finds relevance alongside another portrait, of a woman officer in Pyongyang, North Korea. “Rarely have I seen such a concentration of uniforms, they are everywhere in this society,” notes Mihaela. “This woman was a guide at a military museum.”
In Mexico City, she finds Captain Berenice Torres, a helicopter pilot for the Mexican Federal Police. “The fact that I can help people in need and I can inspire my daughter motivates me every day,” says Captain Berenice.
The women they want to be
In an introductory foreword to the book, Mihaela describes her childhood in Romania in the 1990s, in the midst of “difficult years in Eastern Europe, with a lot of unemployment and poverty”. As a result, her family was often forced to move, says Mihaela, which eventually allowed her to easily adapt to new environments.
In the beginning, this was a small personal project, funded by her own savings, and known only in her home country, recalls Mihaela. “After a while, because of social media, it became popular all over the world. This took me by surprise. Suddenly, I realised that millions of people see my photos.”
A trip in 2013 set things rolling for her, following a trip to Ethiopia. And she has been travelling ever since, “photographing everyday women in a natural and serene way”. To date, Mihaela has clicked pictures of more than 2,000 women across the world. “When there was no language barrier, I listened to their stories,” she notes.
Mihaela picks up many motivational stories along the way. Anja, a Belgian with Polish origins living in Paris, for instance, wears a prosthetic, keeping her dreams alive of competing in the Paralympic Games. Cornelia, a German journalist, is a two-time cancer survivor. And Lisa, who survived an accident in Germany, tells Mihaela, “I had many broken bones, some smashed organs — but also, plenty of angels by my side.”
Among others, the book introduces Thorunn, a singer and activist who runs the community Good Sister in Reykjavik, Iceland; Samira, an ethnic Muslim Tigrayan at the coffee shop of her best friend, a Christian, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Mahsa, a graphic designer in Iran; Pinar, a Turkish Cypriot theatre actress in Istanbul; and Magda, another accident survivor who now hosts fashion shows in Bucharest, for women in wheelchairs.
Mihaela meets a few refugees too: a mother and her daughters fleeing the war in Syria at the Idomeni Refugee Camp, Greece, apart from Alice, a British volunteer and other Kurdish refugees at the same camp. “Moments like this give me hope for the world,” remarks Mihaela. She also finds Amal (literally ‘hope’ in Arabic), a Palestinian who moved to Saudi Arabia aged five and returned to Ramallah for her
studies. “I feel I can become the woman I want to be,” says Amal.
In Chichicastenango, Guatemala, Mihaela has a revelation. As she puts it, “Many women of the world carry great burdens every day, literally or figuratively. And they do it with so much tenderness and positivity.”
A little shot of fame
Her travels brought along some challenging times too. “I’ve been close to war zones and wandered through dangerous slums,” reflects Mihaela. “I’ve been freezing, overheated, emotional. I’ve been out of money, and I’ve been ill while far from the comforts of home. But meeting so many incredible women kept me moving forward on my path with enthusiasm.”
Hundreds of women, in fact, refused her a picture. “A few sources of hate and intolerance can ruin all this,” reflects Mihaela. “Many times, the victims of intolerance are women, and while on the road I hear many heart-breaking stories. I saw how discrimination and societal pressure weigh on the shoulders of so many. Some were simply scared to be photographed, even if they might have loved it. Others were not confident enough.”
On many occasions, the women she approached told her that they didn’t feel beautiful, or that they needed to be dressed and wear make-up, recounts Mihaela. “After I posted their story on social media, receiving thousands of ‘likes’, they understood how special they are. They needed a little shot of fame to recognise their own beauty.”
All said, Mihaela conveys her gratitude to all the women she met, regardless of whether they allowed her to take pictures or not. “I owe everything I am today to these women. Each encounter taught me to be a better person, to see beauty everywhere, in everything, and not just on the surface,” she says.
And while many people now thank her for changing the way they look at women, Mihaela remarks that she’s particularly happy that not just women, but also men, are interested in her work. “I now have a mandate,” she says. “To work harder, capture more diversity and find more inspiring stories, in order to send a message that will be really heard.”
The Atlas of Beauty, Particular Books/Penguin Random House, `1,499.