After a career that spans three decades, 65 countries and 30 pieces published in National Geographic, there comes a time when even the most inquisitive, energetic photojournalist wants to take a break. That’s what Jodi Cobb is doing now, as she prepares a book—a retrospective of her life’s work—for publication. So much looking backward isn’t comfortable, she says. And while she’s temporarily stepped away from her examinations of cultures unseen by outsiders, in favor of personal projects that lean to abstract fine art, she’s not done making pictures that reveal the unknown corners of the world, warts and all. For Cobb, this is how it’s always been.
As a child, her father’s job took her family around the world. She’d traveled to 15 countries by the time she entered high school, and every time she returned to the United States, she was amazed that nobody seemed to know, or care, very much about the rest of the world. It became her mission to show them what she’d seen.
“My eyes were opened,” Cobb says, “to how big and diverse the world was. In those years, nobody had been anywhere. Nobody traveled. We went by ocean liner and Pan Am clipper; it wasn’t the jet age, that’s for sure. It seemed like I spent all my time telling everybody what the rest of the world was like. It was pretty interesting, and I was always singled out as the one who was different in high school.”
Cobb attended the University of Missouri’s acclaimed journalism school with the goal of becoming a writer. Having found photography in the last semester of her senior year, she knew what she really wanted to do. Alas, it was too late to change her major. After graduation, she moved to New York to work as a writer for House and Garden magazine. Photographing her musician friends at night, her love for photography grew, and she returned to Missouri for a master’s degree in photojournalism. From there her work quickly garnered attention in the relatively tight circle of news photographers.
“Photojournalism was a small world back then,” she says. “It’s hard now to realize it, but we all knew everybody. The Missouri people and the newspaper people, everybody followed the monthly NPPA clip contest, and the Pictures of the Year contest was huge. And at Missouri, every year they’d bring in all these journalists from all over the world, so we met all the people who were big in the business back in the day.”
She stayed in touch with editors at National Geographic, and in just a few years Cobb was offered her first assignment—a few shots of California’s Owens Valley to illustrate an article. She took it and ran, and remained on that assignment well beyond what was expected—an approach that would become one of the trademarks of her career as a National Geographic staff photographer.
“They needed a fill-in,” Cobb says. “They needed seven pictures for someone else’s story in the Owens Valley of California. And I went out there, and I wouldn’t leave. And I ended up with a 30-page story of my own.”
Cobb specializes in long-form photojournalism, surveys of a scope unthinkable anywhere except National Geographic. And she has always been drawn to subjects that are particularly unique—things that have never been done before. Her Geisha project, which eventually became a book, took three years of off-and-on work to complete. She took a two-month hiatus every year to complete the project on her own. It wasn’t until a new editor arrived at the end of the project that the magazine agreed to publish it.
“No one had ever photographed in their world before,” Cobb says of Geisha: The Life, The Voices, The Art. “The magazine was not interested in that at the time, so I did it on my own. Over the course of three years I was an outsider looking at how people live in worlds outsiders will never see. I often feel like I’m just sort of an interpreter of other people’s existences.
“It was just stubbornness that kept me going,” she adds. “I couldn’t give up. If I gave up, what do I have to show for it? I just couldn’t! It was just the stubbornness of showing up day after day after day in the geisha community. Eventually someone would say yes, and then I’d work on them to find other people for me, and I was able to get into the dances and the geisha houses and things. And I befriended two geishas in particular who really opened up to me.”
GEISHA PROJECT: A man could not have done [this work]. Everything about a geisha changes when a man walks in the room. She’s so trained, to be an entertainer and to be a perfect woman, that she’s never relaxed around men. They’re businesswomen and artists, that’s how they consider themselves. They’re actually very strong women, because in traditional Japanese society they were independent businesswomen, they weren’t married. Once a woman was married in traditional Japan, she disappeared into the house, never to be seen again. And the geisha were in the world of the pleasure quarters, and they were in the big world of the nightlife and entertaining men. But she was an entertainer in the brothels and the places of the courtesans. She entertained courtesans with their clients. But the geisha wasn’t a prostitute in that sense.
They still are the entertainers at the business functions of the richest and most powerful men of Japan. Wives never go with the men for their big business meetings, so there has to be some sort of grace note at these parties to facilitate conversation. They dance and sing and pour sake, and especially they’re skilled in the arts of conversation. And ideally they would acquire a patron who would support the extremely lavish lifestyle that they live. Usually a very wealthy elderly man. And what the men got out of it was the sense of being connoisseurs of the geisha world, which was a very prestigious status thing.
Secrecy is the world. Because these are the richest and most powerful men of Japan. Doing all their business dealings and plotting wars and things in the geisha houses in those restaurants.
The whole thing has sort of transitioned a bit, but it still is very exclusive, and I was able to get to a few parties. They were known to the geisha that I knew. And they were finally able to get me into a couple of parties, but that was the hardest part of the assignment.
After Geisha, Cobb spent a full year dedicated to working on a story about global sex trafficking for an article called “21st Century Slavery.” On staff at National Geographic, she spent four months in the field, covering 12 countries, and spent the rest of her time researching and working to gain access to the locations and people that the piece relied on. This access, again, was unprecedented. And it meant that she put herself constantly in harm’s way.
“I could safely say I was in danger the entire time,” Cobb says. “That was often because I didn’t know where I was supposed to be or where I shouldn’t be. And afterwards they would tell me things that would make my hair stand on end. Like in Tijuana I was photographing the brothels with the 14-year-old girls outside on this one particular street. I got the organization that was working on that, people running a shelter there, to help me. And we got in a car and I blacked out the back windows and was photographing out the back windows, just a little slot. And we would just cruise down the street hoping no one would see me, but they would stop at the beginning of the street and wait a long time, and then they would finally go. And we did that three or four times down that street while I was collecting my evidence. And afterwards I asked them why did you wait so long on that street and they said we were blocking the street. We couldn’t go if there was a car in front of us because if we stopped and we were spotted, on the second floor of these buildings there were all these people with guns trained on the street. And we could have gotten in quite a bit of trouble if that had happened.”
Cobb also showed up on the doorstep of a notorious sex trafficker in Bosnia to ask if she could take his picture. He said yes.
“The writer had been before,” Cobb explains, “and couldn’t find anybody to interpret because everybody was so afraid of him. He was kind of boasting. He started posing around, and I found out later from my interpreter, this young kid who was willing to go with me, that his wife was in the background the whole time saying why are you doing this, you’re crazy, why are you being photographed. And he was just posing away. And he made us have lunch with them, surrounded by his armed guards. It was just really terrifying.”
Such harrowing experiences, Cobb speaks about as a matter of fact. But she acknowledges the profound impact they have had on her personally, in the long term, even if she didn’t understand it at the time.
“It changed my life,” she says. “I didn’t know that people could be so evil. I guess I was just naïve. After ‘slavery,’ I did a story on love because I thought it might cure my PTSD. It affected me really deeply. I don’t think I ever really appreciated how much until I was just talking to someone who did have PTSD from being a journalist, and the things she was describing, I thought oh my god, that sounds familiar. But I’d been looking for other ways, like the story on love. To be clear, I don’t have PTSD myself, but I’ve seen journalists who do.”
While it would be impossible for any sane person to enjoy photographing the sometimes-disturbing and dangerous subjects normally hidden from view, Cobb’s complete and utter fascination with the unseen has made her pursuit worthwhile. And she has always found ways to pursue topics of personal interest in her work. It was always driven by what the public had never seen but also what the photographer needed to see for herself.
“I knew if it interested me, it would interest a lot of people,” Cobb says. “I’ve just operated on that since the very beginning. That’s how I had any confidence at all in my photography. I thought if I thought it was interesting or beautiful or something, there were bound to be a lot of other people who did.”
For a project exploring the concept of beauty, Cobb crisscrossed the globe, piggybacking shoots onto other assignments, largely because she had a bucket list of places and people she wanted to see, and only so much time to do it.
“I did a story on beauty,” she says, “and what it means in different cultures around the world. I went to 10 countries on six continents. I was dying to know why these women put the lip plates in their lips in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia and why the women in Thailand wear those rings around their necks and what was up with those men in Papua New Guinea, the cannibals who dress like birds of paradise. I managed to get to all those places doing this story, just because I desperately wanted to see for myself. My eyes just want to travel.
“I’ve had one client most of my life,” Cobb says, “and I’ve satisfied the needs of my client and done that work, and very luckily what they wanted was what I wanted to do. So that was just unbelievably wonderful. I found it fascinating. Maybe the fun part is the intellectual discovery of things. I loved it.”
While taking time to work on her retrospective, Cobb has been experimenting with abstract photography of water. It’s not work she has shown, and she has no need, ultimately, for it to have the far-reaching audience she’s accustomed to. Because unlike most of her life’s work, these images aren’t made for the explicit benefit of an audience.
“I’ve spent my whole life pleasing other people,” Cobb says. “That’s what I had to do. Especially with this particular job, there was not much time for myself and my own life and making a life and doing things just because I wanted to was just not a concept. I’m just at the point of my life where for me, now, when I’m shooting these abstractions, the water series, I’m finding a Zen place, and I’m loving the shooting, I’m loving the process. I loved it at the beginning of my career until I started having to make the pictures that people would publish and that pleased others. Back then, it was just fun, because it was a byproduct of my life, photographing my musician friends and rock ‘n roll concerts and the hippie life. I was just photographing my life. And then I went out and photographed everybody’s life all over the world. The things that were wrong with them, and the things that were right with them.”
“I can’t believe it when I look back at what I have done,” she adds. “If I had known what was in store, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I look back, and I can’t believe it. The places and the people and things, the experiences were just incredible. Even to me.”