Even in the bleakest corners of the earth, if you're searching for beauty, you're guaranteed to find it. So when photographer Mihaela Noroc went to North Korea as part of her project, Atlas of Beauty, the stunning portraits she was able to capture tell a story not often told about the Hermit Kingdom. But is it the truth? Noroc has made a name for herself traveling to more than 40 countries and photographing women, in natural light, who stare directly into her camera. "I think everybody has to cultivate their own beauty, rather than copying something that doesn't [suit them]," she writes in her mission statement. "Beauty is everywhere, and it’s not a matter of cosmetics, money, race, or social status, but more about being yourself." Through her work, Noroc hopes to celebrate diversity around the world, to celebrate the beauty of diversity. But what happens when she's capturing beauty in a country that doesn't celebrate diversity, and punishes its citizens for presenting anything other than a very narrow, government-dictated image of what is appropriate?
It's no secret that North Korea is a country where personal liberties are limited — even in what its citizens are allowed to wear. "Women’s trousers are scrutinized carefully; skimpy clothing would be utterly outre; sunhats invite suspicion... Anything too decorative or simply too unusual will invite censure," a Guardian article reported last year. The fact that more women are wearing high heels was worthy of international news. "North Korea came naturally in my mind," Noroc told Refinery29 in an email. "I knew that they live in a different world, far away from global trends, and I wanted to observe how beauty evolved in this kind of environment."
Past reports do claim that North Korea's strict fashion rules are loosening, at least a little in relatively well-to-do Pyongyang. "Prada in Pyongyang: North Korea's New Look," read a Dazed headline several months ago, citing fashionable First Lady Ri Sol-Ju as a cultural influencer. But still, "most North Koreans remain too poor to think much about fashion," the AP noted in September of 2014, and dress codes still apply — jeans are still frowned upon, for instance, and for a long time women were restricted from wearing trousers. Noroc, however, writes in her statement that women "usually wear classic outfits, always accompanied by a pin on the chest representing one of the country's leaders." She fails to note that when Ri Sol-Ju defied convention and replaced the standard pin with a decorative brooch, she was rebuked by the Workers' Party and didn't make a public appearance for at least 40 days.
Noroc, however, seems unconcerned about the politics that govern the nation — even if those politics also severely limit the ability of women to express themselves in ways as small as through their personal style. "My project is about normal people, not about politicians," she tells us — and to her credit, she does find a variety of women to photograph, from factory workers to waitresses to singers. But if her definition of beauty is contingent on the ability to "be yourself," then these North Korean portraits have not fulfilled her mission. Yes, the photos are an interesting look at the women of North Korea. Out of context, the photos are objectively beautiful, and the women are, too, because all women are beautiful, especially when they appear happy, healthy, and empowered. But when you consider that these women live in a nation where the United Nations estimates some 84% of households deal with "borderline or poor food consumption," the photos start seeming like a red herring that distracts from those very problems to tell a false story in which the women living there have agency. Looking at Noroc's photos, with the background slightly out of focus, and her captions simply stating things like "uniforms are very common in North Korea," you might be tempted to forget such realities. Let's not.