For all the media attention surrounding North Korea, its surprising how little we still know about North Koreans themselves. Kim Jong-un may be infamous for his agonizing buffoonery, but aside from the eerie facade of state-sanctioned images circulated, it’s rare to catch a glimpse of everyday North Koreans. For her project “The Atlas of Beauty,” Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc visited the secretive country to take a series of portraits that show the individual beauty of North Korean women.
Noroc travelled through North Korea accompanied by local guides. Though her movement through the country was restricted to typical tourist locations, she said she was able to meet and interact with many local women. “The guides helped me with translation,” she wrote in an email interview with Women in the World. “More than 90 percent of the women kindly accepted to be photographed.” Her photos show women at work and leisure in a range of locations, from factories and restaurants to parks and beaches. The women appear open before Noroc’s lens, staring boldly and warmly at the camera. The details we can see of the women’s surroundings — a row of fishing boats, or light reflecting on a hardwood floor — offer a sense of familiarity in otherwise foreign spaces.
North Korea presented a unique challenge for Noroc, who has photographed diverse women in countries all over the globe. “In other countries you feel insecure when going on the streets with a camera, because most of the areas are dangerous” she wrote. “In the case of North Korea the challenges were totally different … but I was honest about my purpose from the beginning and maybe that’s why I was able to walk a lot in the streets and meet many ordinary people. Nobody stopped me from interacting with them.”
Reports and firsthand accounts from North Korean defectors paint a disquieting picture of life there for women. According to the UN’s 2014 inquiry, human rights abuses like sexual violence, rape, and forced abortion were being carried out on a level “without parallel in the contemporary world.” This year, an anonymous defector told The Guardian, “if husbands are violent towards their wives the government doesn’t interfere, leaving women to bear the consequences alone. In my hometown, I’d say domestic violence occurred on a daily basis in three out of 10 households.”
See more of Noroc’s work on her website, or by following the project on Facebook or Instagram.