Photojournalist Jodi Cobb reveals how she uses her craft to uncover hidden worlds.
Photojournalist Jodi Cobb says that she is not one for the spotlight. She’s more at home behind the lens. She traveled the world twice by the age of 12 and during her career, documented the Japanese Geisha, international slavery and women’s rights — to name a few.
Cobb, National Geographic photographer and winner of the Missouri Honor Medal that honors distinguished service in journalism, attended the University of Missouri as a journalism student in 1968. It was during the remaining few months of her senior year that she took her first class in photojournalism: “It was like love at first sight, when you first see the print developing in the developer and the image appearing in the murky chemicals, and you’re just like, wow! This is absolute magic.”
Cobb says she is a bit of a shy person, but the camera gave her the opportunity to be anywhere in the world. After graduating and working at House and Garden, Cobb said that she still had not found her fit and returned to MU for a master’s degree in photojournalism. She said that her desire to “hang back” and watch other people live their lives has driven much of her success as a photojournalist.
Cobb, now one of the most sought after photographers of her generation, was denied her first chance at working at National Geographic. Undeterred, Cobb tested her skills at different newspapers and further strengthened her skills and portfolio. Later, National Geographic called her.
Cobb has shared her experiences as a photographer and a National Geographic staffer — unveiling the hidden world of Geishas in Japan, exploring the seedy world of international human trafficking, and unearthing the world’s secrets, one photograph at a time.
*Global Journalist: You were one of the first journalists allowed into China when it was reopened to the West. In going there, what were you hoping to discover?*
Jodi Cobb: China was a big cipher. Nothing had been written or seen about it for years. There was very little research that I could do that was in any way current. Anything I could find was 30 years old. Nobody was allowed in there. So I didn’t really know what I was looking for. It was just going to be an adventure.
Most of the people I encountered had never seen a Westerner before, and people were falling off their bicycles when they saw me. Huge crowds, hundreds of people would gather within seconds. When we would pull into the village, the car would be completely surrounded by hundreds of people. We would go in a building and the windows would be completely covered by people trying to peer in and see what was going on, but none of them were allowed to talk to me.
Because it was still [under] very strict government control and people were terrified to talk, it was the most isolating and lonely experience I ever had in my life. I was alone with my interpreter from Beijing for six or seven weeks. She was a young Chinese woman whom the government sent to monitor me and make sure I didn’t do anything wrong. She was adorable. We had a ball. I completely corrupted her: painted her fingernails red, gave her some bright, colorful T-shirts that she was wearing under her Mao suit. We had a blast.
But she was the only one I could talk to. She spoke a few words of English, not very much. So it was really something.
I had a bag of film I was carrying around. Two-hundred and fifty rolls of film that I couldn’t lose. I had no idea if my cameras were working. There were no phones. I couldn’t call anybody. I couldn’t call back to the office or anything. That was quite something.
The big regret is that I didn’t know what I was looking at. If I had realized this was a cultural tradition of one sort or this was a temple, I would have had background information to know what to look at to be kind of anticipating certain things that might happen. I know a lot of photographers like to be completely spontaneous, and it doesn’t matter to them what is behind sort of the street things, but I’m not that kind of photographer. I want to know.
GJ: How did the access problems you had in places like China affect your work?
Cobb: It was a constant battle with the Chinese government. At that time, in theory, they gave us permission to photograph, but in practice they really didn’t want it. They wanted lots of pretty pictures.
So we would have a van and a local guide with us everywhere we would go. There would be four to six people in the van, including government officials, and if they didn’t want me to photograph something, they would simply not stop the van.
I remember one big argument. It was an amazing picture. A woman was carrying a heavy stick across her shoulders, and in each of the two baskets hanging from the ends, there was a baby. I thought, “Wow that is so amazing. Stop. Stop.” And they wouldn’t stop. I said, “Why don’t you stop?” Their answer was, “You’re going to say that she is taking the babies to the market to sell.”
My heart broke. Why would I even think that? Then, I started to think that maybe she was. Does something like that happen? So operating in that area of the unknown was quite astonishing.
GJ: Looking back at your work, was there a moment that you captured that sort of gave you chills and to this day, still resonates with you?
Cobb: The project called a Day in the Life of Japan was part of a life series for which 100 photographers were sent to a country to photograph for 24 hours. We photographed Japan, Russia, China, America, Spain, and the Soviet Union — all these great places to go.
In Japan, geishas were my assignment. I parachuted into that world in 24 hours or less. It was something I had never seen before in my life. It was a magic, secret fantasy-world that I couldn’t even imagine.
That day, I was photographing inside a geisha house. The geisha was putting on her make-up and getting dressed. She was behind a screen, and when she stepped out from behind the screen, there was a shaft of light coming in from the front window of the house. It was just the reflection of the sun on the car window parked outside, but it just shot this beam of light at her, outlining her in this very beautiful way. I made a few frames of that before she moved on. One of the pictures was the close-up of the lips — one of my signature pictures, and the other one was sort of a three-quarters picture of her that ended up as the cover of the book A Day in the Life of Japan.
All of the other photographers and the editors thought I spent a lot of time setting up the lighting to do that and shot a whole day with this lighting. But it was one minute, maybe two minutes. That was sort of very magic for me, and it still resonates.
GJ: How do you take every day concepts of love and beauty and present them as journalistic photography?
Cobb: Well those concepts were actually stories. They were entire stories for National Geographic. One was a story on beauty and one was a story on love. I had pitched them both as science stories.
The first one, beauty, was a science story on beauty, what attracts men and women to each other. It was a biological sort of thing about the science of attraction. The love story then was a successor to that. Once men and women are attracted to each other, then the science of love came in. And we were studying what scientists say are the three stages of love: attraction, lust and then long-term attachment. So I was trying to illustrate those concepts.
But my stories always seem to take a turn to the dark side. When I start getting into the topic of human-trafficking, I sort of become human rights issues: a love story turned into a project on child brides, men buying brides in China, women voluntarily meeting men and agreeing to marry them the same day after 10-minute interviews. I was able to get into the room where the men interviewed the women. That didn’t run in the magazine. I started straying a little bit from what their original intent was, but it ran on the National Geographic website where they continued that love as a human rights issue.
In this country, we think of marriage as the natural result of attraction and love, but in many cultures in the world that is just not the case at all with arranged marriages and all those other things. That interested me a lot.
And on the beauty story, it was about the science of attraction. I ended up going around the world to see what various cultures did to themselves in the name of beauty or status and how they altered their bodies. What just seemed like a simple story about men and women being attracted to each other, again turned into this sort of global exploration of how people have altered their bodies for the sake of beauty, status and marriage chances.
GJ: What draws you toward photographing hidden cultures?
Cobb: As a journalist, you want to go in where nobody has been before. When I had a story idea, I could go to the editor and say this has never been done before. Then, you’re more than halfway there.
There were several instances of places where women’s rights issues hadn’t been covered because there weren’t that many women photographers who were allowed in. That doesn’t sort of exist now. Everybody is a photographer now. And everybody is taking iPhone pictures from all these places, so it is not as exclusive a situation as probably it was back then.
Curiosity really drives me, and I cannot wait to see what’s around the next corner, what’s around the next bend, what’s in the next room. So, when I am presented with something I don’t know anything about that involves humans, women and women’s rights, specifically women’s lives, their situations in the world and their relationships with the men in their lives — I’m all over that.
GJ: What was most difficult for you during your slavery series?
Cobb: The slavery story was difficult in every possible way. I ended up spending a year on it, most of which was on research. I needed to go where I could find examples of the kinds of slavery we wanted to illuminate. I needed evidence; I had to show the victims, the perpetrators, and the saviors — how many different kinds of examples of 21st century slaves I could find.
The picture editor and I came up with this list of all the kinds of horror that were going on in the world. And there are more than you think. Of course, nobody wanted me there in any of these places. So it was dangerous and difficult in every regard. The victims broke my heart every single day. I was in tears or in fear every day through the entire project.
I wanted to rescue every single person I encountered, but I knew that wasn’t possible. So that ate at my soul every day while doing it. The concept of “raising awareness” goes only so far. I thought, “40 million people are going to see this, and among those 40 million people, there are going to be some who can actually do something, help. I’m a journalist. I can show this and illustrate it, but I can’t fix it.”
You would be in a brothel in India in these horrible conditions, stinking and just awful, and you would think that the abstract concept of raising awareness was not enough at all. Your heart would just be broken.
We found a lot of cases of prostitution in India, because it is visible. However, it is really difficult to photograph it in the United States, though there is a lot of slavery in this country. There are several reasons why it is not as visible, but for one thing, people don’t recognize it for what it is. They think it is more an immigration problem than all sorts of 21st-century slavery.
In India, I was working with the guide, a young Indian woman, and we would go into the brothels. We would spend the day or the evening there, and once back into the car, we would sit and cry. She was appalled because she didn’t have any idea at all that these things were going on in her country. And I was appalled just because I had never seen such things.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for seeking out evil every single day and finding it. I had no idea. I had no idea that there were people who were so ruthless and so heartless that they would hold others in enslaved conditions in the sex industry, in agriculture, in industry, making things, domestic slavery.
In Washington, D.C. there have been instances of trafficking where young domestic workers held in slave conditions managed to escape and received help from organizations. It is going on in front of our eyes. But we don’t see it for what it is, and it’s not getting enough attention.
It is such an entrenched part of certain societies and economies that it is sort of impossible to combat. When I went on these brothel raids with the International Justice Mission in Thailand, we would get to the brothel, and it would be empty. Nobody would be there. Everybody was sort of complicit. So it is something that is hard to let go of.
GJ: FBI agents began training after your human trafficking piece was published. Do instances like that make it all worth it?
Cobb: Originally, there was a reluctance because it was so different from the other stories that usually ran in the magazine. But the editor at the time was Bill Allen, and he got behind it from the beginning. He said this is a story that we have to do no matter if subscribers drop their subscriptions in droves.
We had to do the story.
We were all just so gratified that it got such an amazing response. And it wasn’t just people who were writing and saying “great story.” People sent money. We ran a list of organizations who were helping on the website, and those organizations got a huge boost from our readership.
I had a source at the Justice Department who was helping me locate instances of slavery in this country and he got back in touch with me afterwards. He said there was a young FBI agent in Alabama who said he hadn’t realized anything about this and that he asked to be trained in trafficking issues. And he got 22 of his buddies to sign up to be trained in it.
This was one of the problems in this country: trafficking is not recognized. They see a brothel and they arrest the young women for prostitution and then deport them back to their countries. They go back to the villages where they were kidnapped from in the first place, taken from their homes, told that if they try to escape, the traffickers would kill their mothers. What young girl from Mexico is going to be responsible for having her mother killed? So they go along with it. So, what happens, then, when the brothel is raided, the girls are sent back to the village, the traffickers know right where they are, and they go back and get them again.
Some experts estimate that maybe 10 percent of American farm workers are held in slave conditions. FBI agents want to learn about this and they look at things in different ways. Well, maybe these guys aren’t illegal aliens. Maybe they’re held against their will, exploited for profit, brutalized and held captive.
Those responses were so gratifying. They give me hope.
By Kevin Dubouis and Raven Maragh.