The Journey to Capturing 500 Portraits of Women

January 11, 2018

By Libby Peterson

The Atlas of Beauty
By Mihaela Noroc
Ten Speed Press

Mihaela Noroc was a hobbyist photographer back when she was working at a TV station in her native Romania. Whenever she had the opportunity to block out a few weeks here or there, she traveled the world. In 2013, she flew to Ethiopia for two weeks. Enchanted by the differences in the country’s religious sects and cultures, most immediately visible by traditional dress—from partially nude tribal women in one region to the Muslim women wearing burkas in another—Noroc was amazed that such diversity could coexist in one country. What about in the world? she wondered.

That year, Noroc, 27 years old at the time, decided to embark on a mission to photograph beauty around the globe, taking portraits of women of all kinds and asking each for their story. This past fall, she shared them in The Atlas of Beauty: Women of the World in 500 Portraits, with the aim to illustrate what she felt back in Ethiopia: that diversity shouldn’t be a catalyst for conflict but a treasure to marvel.

You mentioned in the introduction to your book that this project has helped you discover yourself. In what way?
Mihaela Noroc: I think I’m much more confident as a woman. I’m photographing women because I’m a woman. It’s easier for me to connect with them and there’s instantly going to be more trust. It’s difficult for a man to approach women on the street and photograph them. And also for me to approach and photograph men is very different—I’m not interested in that. So photographing women is probably going to be something that I’ll do all my life. I hope so. It’s such a never-ending, diverse subject that I want to follow.

How did you find your portrait subjects?
MN: I have social media followers from all over the world, so before I go to one country, I will post a message on my Facebook account asking locals if they have any information or if they know of places I should go to. I usually go in really crowded areas. I also have recommendations from people who know somebody I should photograph. The Mexican police wrote and told me to photograph these female firefighters there, so I did. When I find somebody that I have instant chemistry with, I go and approach them. The answer is not always yes, you’ll have a lot of no’s, too. It depends a lot on the culture.

What was your strategy in approaching people?
MN: Just talking with them, that’s the easiest way. Also, being honest and explaining exactly what’s going on and taking the time to get to know each other.

At what point did you decide to make the work into a book?
MN: It came to mind after two years or so. When you look at pictures on the Internet, it’s a different experience than when you have them in a book. And it’s easier to tell stories with the juxtaposition of pictures. You see pictures that were taken from different corners of the world, but when you see them together in a book, they speak to you in a certain way. So I think the book is a better medium to express myself and the project.

What did you learn in putting the book together?
MN: In this book, my intent is to allow women to feel comfortable showing themselves as respectful and powerful women. I think this is a very good tool for education, and this is one of the reasons why I think I will continue the project. People need more images like these. I mean, people are leaning more and more toward a natural way of portraying women, which I think is very good and healthy for our mentality. And now, I know exactly how to make a second book, to make it more powerful and better for educating our peers.

How so?
MN: I need more diversity. I need more countries, there are so many places that I want to go. I started this project when I was 27 years old and now I’m 32. Imagine how much in those four or five years you grow up as a person. My interests then are different from my interests today, so I think going forward, the project is going to have more depth. I didn’t have the chance to go as much as I wanted to in the African continent. I just have a few Ethiopian and Egyptian women. But I didn’t go there much because it’s difficult to travel there and it’s kind of expensive. But next time, I’m really aiming for Africa. I’ve been dreaming of some places there, like this festival in Niger in September, but it’s a very dangerous area because of Islamist groups. I don’t have organizations to give me security.

You travel alone?
MN: Sometimes I travel with my husband, sometimes I’m by myself—it depends on the situation. But when I go and work, I have to be alone because the women there are going to be very suspicious otherwise. Like, “Who’s that guy?” So I have to be alone. Also, I’m never sure how much time I’m going to spend with the women I photograph. Sometimes it’s going to take a few seconds because she’s not going to want to be part of my project and that’s it, but sometimes she wants to be part of my project and I try to spend as much time with her as possible. Sometimes I’m invited in their home. I might stay a few minutes, I might stay five hours. So it’s difficult to stay with me.

It’s sort of bewildering to think of all the stories you have in your head now after talking to all of these women.
MN: I have a lot of stories, but the problem is because I’m not a native English speaker, it’s more difficult for me to express myself with words and writing. I’m very good with speaking in instances like this with you, just opening up to one person, but it’s more difficult to write things down, which is why my book doesn’t have so many words. I will try to improve that for my next book.


Cameras: Canon 5D Mark II and III
Lenses: 27-70mm f/2.8, 40mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.2

Wise Words

1. Be prepared for hard work. I think about this project every day. For the last four years, there’s nothing I’m more focused on in my life, and that’s been essential to producing the work.

2. Don’t give up. I had so many times when I wanted to give up because it was so difficult. You have to have a positive attitude to continue. People are not always going to get your message, things can sometimes go wrong, so trust your instincts and just keep going.

Related: Empowering Portraits: Raw Beauty Project Tackles Stereotypes

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