Why do we find a person beautiful? Is it the symmetry of the face? Is it an expression of vitality or moral integrity? Beauty is determined by our subjective perception. But it can also be depicted – and who can do that better than photographers? Much of their work, after all, involves getting to the very core of what it means to be human and grappling with the myriad exteriors people have to offer. For this project, we invited young, developing talents as well as award-winning professionals to share their perspectives with us. Fourteen of them sent us their photos and descriptions.

“Monalisen der Vorstädte”, Giulia, 2009 © Ute und Werner Mahler/​OSTKREUZ, Monalisen der Vorstädte, Giulia, 2009

We have always been interested in faces that look timeless. Faces that are unique and thus stick in our memories, not ones that convey glamor and fashion. We went looking for Mona Lisas of the Suburbs on the periphery of major cities, and we found them. Women who are strong and sensitive, reserved and demanding, sensual, self-confident and smart. Women who, despite the noise and bustle surrounding them, don’t hide behind a pose and instead exude authenticity. Women who possess great beauty.

We shot Giulia in Florence. Her face has a timeless beauty, without adhering to any specific ideal. You can look at it over and over again. It won’t leave you, in part because it doesn’t reveal everything. A secret remains.

In East Germany, the photographer couple Ute Mahler (born in 1949) and Werner Mahler (born in 1950), captured their humanist worldview in photography projects. Once the Berlin Wall came down, they founded the Ostkreuz photo agency and the Ostkreuz School of Photography in Berlin. Ute Mahler is a professor of photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg.

© Alena Schmick

Beauty is ambivalent. It is blurry and confusing. Beauty is masculine, feminine, athletic, languid, gentle, violent, presumptuous, shy, vulgar and loving. It hides from the gaze of some and leaps out at others. Beauty doesn't provide answers, it asks questions. I'm on the lookout for these tensions and try to withstand the uncertainties. In my photography, I seek to give people space to discover their own beauties, to play with them, to embrace them – free of definitions, false ideals or material superficialities. 

Alena Schmick, born in 1986 in Russia, grew up in a small village in the western German state of Lower Saxony. She studied photography at Dortmund's University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Her work largely explores people and intimacy. She lives in Berlin.

© Rankin

I qualify it as attitude! This is what Amanda has got in abundance. Throughout my career, I have always chosen subjects, especially models, for their attitude and personality long before I would judge them on what they look like. Now more than ever, we have to find the truth in the subjective. We need to truly embrace who people really are. That is the most beautiful thing about human beings. That is where true beauty comes from.

I think Amanda summed it up best when she said, "It is up to all of us to challenge the narrow definition of beauty peddled by commercial interests. We are who we are and we are proud of who we are. We may have scars, but we are all beautiful".

Rankin, born in 1966, is a British portrait and fashion photographer. He has worked with stars such as Kate Moss, Heidi Klum, Gisele Bündchen, Keira Knightley, Vivienne Westwood, Madonna and David Bowie. He is also a co-founder of the fashion magazine Dazed and Confused, which was launched in 1991.

"Inevitable", 2013 © Roger Ballen

If the cycle of nature can be viewed as one of the ultimate forms of poetic beauty which we intrinsically accept, it goes without saying that there is equal beauty in life and in death.

Roger Ballen, born in 1950 in New York, has lived in South Africa since the 1970s. He is considered one of the world's most influential photographic artists. His photographic oeuvre includes both fictional and documentary works, and his images have been exhibited at MoMa in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

"Bildnis einer Marktverkäuferin II", Kaliningrad 2014 © Lia Darjes

When I saw this woman on the side of the road in Kaliningrad selling the paltry harvest from her dacha, I simply had to photograph her. With my few words of Russian, I was able to ask her for permission, but otherwise, our encounter was a silent one. The moment of shooting a portrait of someone is always extremely intense for me. I disappeared beneath the hood of my large-format camera and focused my concentration entirely on the old woman's face and posture. With such a camera, the process is extremely slow, because the technical set-up is so complicated.

That enables a different form of relaxation both for the protagonist and the photographer. Her face recounts to me entire books full of stories – the wrinkles, the silver gaze and how her apron nestles up against the glare of her polyester jacket. She is so at ease with herself – that for me is the source of her human beauty.

Lia Darjes, born in 1984, studied under Ute Mahler. Since 2018, she has been teaching at the Ostkreuz School of Photography in Berlin. Her work has received several awards and has been exhibited internationally.

© Charlotte Schmitz

"Me siento bonita," I feel pretty, Gianella says, holding the Polaroid in her hand. A heart covers her face and glittering nail polish lifts her body and envelops the wall and the bed. Three stars above her, one on her belly button, her head tilted slightly to one side. "I like stars. They signify something bigger. Something infinite. Hope ... a star means hope to me." Gianella chose in which pose I would photograph her and she later painted her Polaroid with nail polish. Her family and friends are unaware that she works at one of southern Ecuador's largest bordellos.

I learned a lot about beauty from Gianella and the other women in La Puente. Her photo shows how she wants to be seen, not how she is perceived by society. With my work, I strive to amplify and reinforce ideas, to shine the spotlight on the abnormal amid the normal. It's in these margins, which are still foreign to me, that I often find something radically relevant and new: an alternative existence as an instructive contrast to my own.

Charlotte Schmitz, born in 1988, studied photojournalism in Hannover and developed her own artistic-documentary style in her visual language to address contemporary issues. She lives in Berlin. Her book "La Puente" came out in November 2019.

"Refugee Halfway House, El Paso, Texas", 2017 © Mitch Epstein, Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

Everyone deserves a safe and comfortable place to sleep at night. This El Paso halfway house bedroom welcomes strangers from afar who have likely made an arduous journey to reach this juncture  in their lives. Beauty is evident in the choice of vivid wall colors, and the juxtaposition of a blue pillow and white towel on the top bunk and a white pillow with a green towel on the bottom. Beauty is manifest in the soft curtain-filtered light that creates harmony in the room. While beauty in the photograph begins with these mundane details, it culminates with what this room means as a sanctuary for those in need.

Mitch Epstein, born in 1952, is considered one of the most important color photographers in the United States. His works are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He has published 13 books to date.

"Sleeping Beauty" © Donna Ferrato 2019

Before mom died, she began to live. She accepted pleasure for its own sake and surrendered to receiving care rather than giving it. To serve her was my command. The Groucho glasses were her demand.

She showed her granddaughter and great-grandson what it meant to be a hard-headed woman. She talked about loving a demon until his cruel lies nearly killed her.

As she prepared to spread her wings, she wanted to do things with her family – eat cookies, sit in the backyard by the light of the moon. We got back in the womb.

One day, as she took a catnap, I saw a light inside her that made me smile. Voila! a photograph of my very own sleeping beauty.

Donna Ferrato, born in 1949 in Waltham, Massachusetts, is a photojournalist and activist known for her coverage of domestic violence and for her work in documenting New York's Tribeca neighborhood. In 2016, Time magazine recognized a picture taken by her of a woman being beaten by her husband as one of "the 100 most influential photos of all time."

"Banned Beauty" © Heba Khamis

This image is from the Banned Beauty series. In Cameroon, mothers massage the breasts of young girls between the ages of seven and 12 with hard or heated cooking instruments in the hopes of delaying breast development and ultimately warding off unwanted sexual attention from men and boys. They hide the feminine beauty to protect the girl. Despite the harm inflicted upon the bodies of young girls, the practice is viewed by the women I met as a means of safeguarding the girls from the realities in which they live – a reality in which rape and early marriage are common threats and where one in five girls is a teenage mother. Some girls practice self-ironing out of fear for their own safety.

By asking the breast-ironed girls to draw themselves, I could see how beauty standards are shaped by the surrounding community. All the drawings were princesses wearing fancy dresses, high heels and jewelry, and all had shaved heads, flat breasts and big behinds. The concept of feminine beauty had been reshaped by the practice.

Heba Khamis, born in Egypt in 1988, documented the Egyptian revolutions and their aftermath as a young photojournalist. She won the World Press Photo Award in 2018 and now works for Save the Children and lives in Amsterdam.

© David Uzochukwu

I meet Ilka Brühl through a common friend at an artist meetup somewhere in Belgium. I have the feeling that the person standing in front of me is reserved, someone who knows how to protect herself. We hardly know each other. But Ilka sits down with me in the wet grass anyway and continually drips puddle water onto her face as I disappear behind my camera.

In the evening light, Ilka's light comes at me. Her freckles look as though they have been perfectly matched to the color of her hair. Her upper lip is raised slightly, her eyes are profoundly large and deep, the color of the ocean.

She thanks me kindly as we get up. I thank her.

David Uzochukwu, born in 1998, is a Nigerian-Austrian artist and self-educated. In his works, he seeks to unite the beauty and tragedy of life. He studies philosophy in Berlin.

"Nonnie Louise Bonito, April 3, 2016, right before her 104th birthday" © Lynsey Addario

My Nonnie.

She is 106 years old now, and to me, her age, wisdom, experience and personal history define beauty. There aren’t many people who live so long – through the inventions of more than a century, through poverty and heartbreak, and through survival as a single mother in the 1940s and ‘50s with five children, as the daughter of Italian immigrants. As long as I can remember, Nonnie has been standing over her stove, cooking Sunday pasta for her children, for their children, for the spouses and for anyone who stopped by for a Sunday meal. Her life has been a tradition of hard work, love, good food and family. She still lives at home with her 79-year-old son. Her secret to longevity? Forgiveness. "Don’t hold grudges." We should all learn from the wisdom that accumulates over 106 years.

Lynsey Addario, born in 1973 in Connecticut, has been documenting the consequences of war and displacement since the early 1990s in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur. She is among the most important war and crisis photographers of the last 25 years. In 2009, she was a member of a New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize.

© Stefanie Moshammer

On a warm summer day in June 2017. Claire and Madita in my garden, shortly before their birth. Everything about this photo and its creation embodies beauty to me. The passage of time, past, present and future, all united. The magic of the female body, when a human is growing and maturing inside. A life imminent, and the anticipation and uncertainty that comes with it.

Stefanie Moshammer, born in 1988, is an Austrian photographic artist. Her works blend her personal impressions with a poetic rendering. Her work has been exhibited at C/O Berlin, Foam Amsterdam, Photo London and elsewhere.

"The Shed", 2013 © Gregory Crewdson /​ Courtesy Gagosian

In The Shed, a woman is engaged in a private ritual of some sort, the exact nature of which remains a mystery. She clutches the broken stems of flowers in her hands, and wears a soiled nightdress, almost as if she might be a somnambulist. She is framed by a doorway, creating a slight air of alienation or separation from the viewer. In the case of this picture, the subject is Juliane, my partner, so it is both an invented narrative and a portrait of her. I made this picture on the property of her childhood home, so there are deep cross-connections between past and present, fiction and reality, life and art, beauty and sadness.

Gregory Crewdson, born in 1962 in New York, made a name for himself with his elaborate depictions of small-town North America. His work has been exhibited internationally and he teaches photography at the Yale School of Art.

"Witness Change" © Robin Hammond

Beauty is fundamental to Tasha’s identity. But how she presents herself puts her at risk. Persecuted for being transgender in her home country of Uganda, she is now seeking asylum in Kenya.

For many of those whose stories I’ve recorded for my project on LGBTQI+ survivors, Where Love Is Illegal, the beauty that makes them who they are comes at a high price. They have been ostracized by families, imprisoned by laws that should protect them and beaten by people they’d never met before. Their stories may be tragic, but they show courage in their telling, and beauty in the way they show up for these portraits. I do my best to show that beauty with this project so that these are not just stories of tragedy but also stories of love and survival.

Robin Hammond, born in 1975, focuses on human rights in his long-term projects. He has received several awards for his work, including the World Press Photo Award, and he is a four-time winner of the Amnesty International Award for Human Rights Journalism. He lives in the United Kingdom.

Concept: Caroline Scharff
Editing: Caroline Scharff, Rabea Weihser
Translation: Daryl Lindsey, Charles Hawley, Rabea Weihser
Design: Christoph Rauscher

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