'The Atlas of Beauty': Mothers around the world

Posted May 9, 2018 1:20 p.m. EDT

— Now five months pregnant, photographer Mihaela Noroc has been trekking through India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Japan and South Korea, taking pictures of women, including many mothers with their children.

She has encountered extreme heat, mosquitoes that carry deadly diseases and -- for the first time in the five years she has traveled the world as a photographer -- a huge smile and direct eye contact from an infant.

"It was a nice moment, a very nice moment," said Noroc, 33, thinking of the incident in Tokyo with a girl in a blue jumper being held by her mother, both grinning joyfully. "She was only 7 months old, but she was so enthusiastic."

Most young children, she said, look surprised or confused when they see her huge camera, like the boy in Tehran with an "analytical" expression or the baby in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, with a perplexed gaze. Not this time, though, just a few weeks ago.

"It was as though she had seen me before," the Romanian photographer said. "Maybe she was communicating with the baby inside."

Always drawn to children

Noroc, who has a recently published book, "The Atlas of Beauty: Women of the World in 500 Portraits," is continuing her portrait project, seeking to demonstrate that all women are beautiful. She posts photos on her website and on Facebook, anticipating a possible second book.

She was always drawn to children, she said, but now she finds herself taking more mother-child photographs. Also, she has noticed, women smile more in her images -- perhaps because she is "more positive" or because "I choose people in a happier state."

Naturally, her thoughts have turned to motherhood and to Mother's Day, celebrated in many countries in March or May: "I will experience that on my own skin very soon."

Her pregnancy came as a surprise, she said. She was determined to pursue her planned trip to Asia, partly because she felt a duty to continue recording women's sometimes sad stories for future generations, now including her own.

She took precautions though, bringing along her supportive script-writer husband Stefan Marinescu, not walking or running excessively and carefully covering her skin with lotion to repel mosquitoes that could infect her with malaria, dengue fever or Zika.

A life of privilege

She didn't avoid painful encounters, however, like one in late March in Kutupalong, a refugee camp in Bangladesh that houses thousands of Rohingya, a minority fleeing ethnic cleansing in neighboring Myanmar.

Accompanied by a translator, she approached and photographed a young pregnant woman.

"We had two opposite stories. The life I have is one of privilege, and hers is one of the worst that you can think of. I was going to go away, but she cannot get out of that situation."

Noroc also has more common choices, including how to continue working. In many countries, she noted, women carry their babies in front or in back as they labor.

"In the Western world, we can maybe give up work to spend time with our children, to pamper them."

Her husband is ready to care for their child at home, but she hopes "to carry the baby in front of me, because on my back I have my backpack with my camera."

And when she takes a photo?

"That's what I don't know. I have no idea."