There’s a common challenge all women face—to define our own identities in a world that so often sets boundaries for what and how a woman should be and, in particular, how she should look. After working as a fashion photographer in New York City for nearly three years, Sara Melotti (born and raised in northern Italy) felt compelled to use her talent to illustrate beauty in a more truthful way—one that represents all kinds of women, in all kinds of places. In October 2015, she set off by herself, photographing and interviewing women and girls across the globe to find out what beauty means to them.
We caught up with Sara to learn more about her groundbreaking project, Quest for Beauty, and the women around the world who are shaping a better future for us all by being proudly themselves.
How did the idea for “Quest for Beauty” come to fruition? Tell me about your intentions with the project, and the mission behind it.“While I was working as a fashion photographer, I started noticing that more and more of my girlfriends were saying horrible things about their appearances, which I was guilty of doing as well. One day, it hit me that I was part of the problem, because the kind of work I was producing was making countless women feel like they weren’t good enough if they didn’t look a certain way. I started asking myself, ‘What is beauty?’ That question led me to start my project, Quest for Beauty, which is an actual quest around the world to rediscover and redefine the meaning of this word. I want to give a voice to all kinds women around the globe, and hopefully change those narrow standards of beauty that are forced upon us.”
You mostly travel solo. How have you found the experience of traveling alone as a female?“Traveling alone as a woman can be more dangerous, especially depending on the political situation of the country you visit and the status of women’s rights in a specific culture. With that said, I think the world is a much safer place than most people believe it is. In most places, people are incredibly nice if you give them the chance to be—I’ve met so many generous local people on my trips. And it’s important to remember that bad things can happen anywhere, even right outside your front door.”
How do you approach the women whom you photograph?“I usually just stop women I see and ask them politely if I can take their picture. Unfortunately, since I’m still self-funding the project and can’t afford a translator, it’s hard to interview the women I photograph if they don’t speak English. But with every woman whom I can communicate, I ask the following questions:
- What is beauty?
- What’s the most beautiful thing in the world to you?
- What makes a woman beautiful?
- What makes a woman unbeautiful?
Do you feel beautiful?”
What’s your favorite response you’ve ever gotten to the question, “What makes a woman beautiful?”“Empathy. After many, many interviews, I found that almost all of the answers women gave to my questions had nothing to do with physical appearances. A lot of women answer ‘kindness’ or ‘confidence’ too. I find it inspiring and encouraging!”
Do you have a favorite experience from working on this project? An interaction that sticks out to you?“In Sapa, Vietnam, I walked through a rice terrace for 15 miles with two ladies of the Hmong tribe (who spoke some English). I kept trying to ask them the five questions I always do for the project, but I just couldn’t get answers. After a while, one of the two women took some leaves from the side of the track and bent them into a heart shape. She handed the leaves to me and said, ‘Heart is what’s important.’ It was one of those magical moments where you feel you’re on the right path.”
What have you learned about the universal female experience from this project?“Women are tired of being told how they should look and what they should be like. I’m learning that, despite our differences, we are all much more similar than we think, and we all want the same thing in the end: happiness. But there are many differences in the female experience, and most of those differences lie in the fact that we don’t all get the same privileges. Women in so many countries don’t have the same rights, opportunities, and freedoms that we have on this side of the world. There are so many things we take for granted—things that countless women around the world don’t even get to dream about.”
What is your travel philosophy?“I’m traveling full time until I finish the project—which gets tiring sometimes—but nothing makes me feel more alive than seeing a new country and culture. Travel, if done with an open heart and mind, is such a humbling experience. It teaches you how little you are in this world, and how much there is to learn.”