Documenting the World

An in-depth conversation with National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb

At the turn of the millennium, National Geographic took a huge gamble on a vague pitch by photographer Jodi Cobb: documenting 21st century slavery. What she discovered, and captured on film, led to a 20+ page story that elicited one of the strongest reader-responses in Geographic history. Cobb, soft-spoken, generous and deeply thoughtful, does not consider herself one of the great photographer-heroes of our age—which she most certainly is—but as a storyteller, as someone compelled to document the world through such complex lenses as women of Saudi Arabia, beauty, slavery, geisha culture and the abstract symbology of water. American by birth, she grew up in Iran while her father worked as an engineer for an international oil refinery, thus beginning her life as a traveling explorer destined to put the oft-unseen parts of the world into people’s hands. We caught up with her while she was involved with Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment at the Orlando Museum of Art and grounded during the great northern snows in January. On Feb. 23, she appears at The Straz with a retrospective of her work, Stranger in a Strange Land, part of our National Geographic LIVE! series.

Jodi Cobb on assignment_CR Viron
Jodi Cobb on assignment. (Photo by Viron.)

Caught in the Act: The title of your talk, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” did that come from the book by Robert A. Heinlein?

Jodi Cobb: No, it didn’t come from the book. I made it up because that’s how I felt my whole life. I grew up in Iran and was a stranger there back then—and that’s where I feel like I’ve been ever since.

CITA: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in Iran; what was that like?

JC: It was an island where the Tigris and Euphrates come together. At that time, it was the world’s largest oil refinery where my dad worked as an engineer. We were an American family, and it was a very small international community. We had an international school and two grades in each room, so like 5th and 6th grade in the same room. It was quite small, quite basic living, but it was wonderful, like the Wild West for us kids. We had horses we could ride. [laughs]

CITA: How long was this time period for you?

JC: Five years. From third grade to high school.

CITA: So, a formative time in your life. Did this help you down the road when you got the assignment [in the 1980s] on Saudi Arabian women? Did you already feel a connection to the land and the area of the Middle East?

JC: Yeah, absolutely. I came back to the States in high school and was sort of shocked by how little everybody knew about the rest of the world. So, I spent an awful lot of time trying to explain to everyone what I’d been doing. I’d been to 15 countries by the time I was 12, so it was quite an amazing education.

CITA: This was at a time when the experience was especially unique, to have been around the world and traveled.

JC: It was. This was before the age of jet travel. We took propeller planes when we first started going. In fact, we took ocean liners across the Atlantic, the old ocean liners. It was really fun.

CITA: I was going to ask about siblings. Did you have any partners in crime in these travels?

JC: I traveled with two brothers, and they were so much fun. We were the Merry Pranksters. [laughs]

CITA: The story you did for Nat Geo on the Saudi Arabian women was so pioneering, so ground-breaking. You’ve crossed so many borders literally and figuratively—you were there in 1987, so we’re talking about the state of the world in the 80s, and you’re able to photograph something that forbidden. There’s no internet, no other access to the people in these countries. So, you’ve had very unique experiences in the Middle East that other people didn’t have access to.

Saudi woman_CR Jodi Cobb (1)
Saudi Arabian woman. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

JC: Yeah, it was pretty remote. And it was really hard. The Saudis considered photography a taboo—especially photographing a woman. That was completely forbidden. So, I really had to go on the inside and get permission from every single woman I photographed. And then she had to get permission from her father or guardian and/or her husband, sometimes even her son. Whatever male was an authority in her family had to allow her to be photographed.

CITA: In film studies, we talk about the concept of the “male gaze.” Or the “male eye,” with the lens being a look at the world the way men see it because that’s the way it’s been, with men traditionally behind the camera. Did you find, subconsciously or consciously, that when you were taking pictures of the women that your photographer’s eye was taking that male gaze—or were you trying to see them in a different way?

JC: Well, I always was trying to see women in a different way. When I started at National Geographic, there were so few women portrayed in the magazine, and when they were, it was as decorative objects. You know, I remember a caption that said “a pretty co-ed strolls the campus.” Women were rarely shown doing things. Mainly, they were mothers in different cultures or attractive women that male photographers were drawn to or attracted to. So, I made it my mission to photograph women doing things. I was the first photographer to show the first woman coal miner [in the magazine], dock worker, and that sort of thing. The evolution of that was “what comes next?” They started running pictures of women actually doing things. But I was very conscious of my choices from the beginning. I never thought the magazine would publish stories about women themselves, so when they came to me with the project on the women of Saudi Arabia, I was amazed. Interestingly, it started as a story on women in Islam.

CITA: Oh, wow.

JC: It was going to be a big, global story. Then we found we had unique access into Saudi Arabia. No one had done that before, so we thought, “let’s give it a shot.” It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, in terms of trying to put someone in my viewfinder. To actually take the picture. I was so excited about the concept and the idea of the story—it was the first time I was able to go into a culture in depth. Then, in terms of making the photographs, it was almost impossible. They were so few and far between. I’ve never taken so few photographs on a story in my entire life. Before or after.

CITA: Because of permission and cultural taboos, everything you had as an obstacle for the story?

JC: Yes. Just finding people willing to be photographed was difficult. I knew I was putting the women in a precarious position if I didn’t have permission. It could be difficult for the women themselves. Not for me—I knew I was always on the verge of being deported, but, you know, for them it could affect their lives. So I made sure to get the proper permission from people, but boy, was that hard.

CITA: I can’t even imagine. How was their reception of you?

JC: Well, the women were so welcoming and so warm … the problem was that the image was going to be seen by other men. Everything in their culture was to keep their faces hidden from other men. So, that was the only issue. Women were just like every other woman around the world: they wanted the same things, and a lot of them were Western educated. Inside their homes was a life we’d consider completely normal to Western eyes. By the time I was able to get permission to get inside the house and photograph their lives and families, it looked just like everybody else. The most exotic things were on the streets … the way the women were dressed, you could see how they were invisible to the outside world. They were shadows on the street.

CITA: Now that you’ve built your retrospective and you’ve been able to look back on your work—if you were to do this assignment now, do you think it would be much different?

JC: Oh, totally different. First of all, the digital revolution changed everything in photography. So, different on many levels. One would be the size of the cameras themselves and the ability to see the pictures as you take them. To know what is and isn’t working is huge. In the days of film, you wouldn’t even see what you had until you got back to the office. I could have done a more in depth story with today’s technology. But, a lot of things have changed there, though not as much as you would think. In fact, Lynsey Addario has just finished a story on the women of Saudi Arabia for National Geographic. So, she’s gone back. I’m dying to see her pictures.

Brick Slaves, India, 2002
Debt laborers in India. National Geographic reported with Cobb’s article that there were more slaves in 2004 than were seized from Africa in the four hundred years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Washington Post reported 30 million slaves worldwide in 2013, with 60,000 of those in the United States. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: Let’s talk a little about the story you did about human slavery. Of the research for this interview, reading the details about what goes on in human trafficking, sex slavery and debt bondage was galling. Going to Saudi Arabia is one thing: then there’s dedicating months of your life where you volunteered to go into this parallel universe and take pictures. What compelled you to stand up and volunteer to witness this horror?

JC: I don’t really know. I mean, I really didn’t know anything about the issue. I knew it was under-reported in this country. I found that other countries were trying to deal with it because it was in their face, but in America it was hidden. I just sort of got drawn up in it. I wasn’t sure that Geographic would even let me do it. I fully expected them to turn it down since it wasn’t the typical National Geographic story. To my surprise, they approved it. Then I had a moment of panic that I was actually going to have to do it. But, everybody got on board. The main researcher helped me find the situations, and the photo editor was completely behind it. She was working hard to find the organizations working to help on the issue. It took a year.

CITA: A solid year of you traveling from place to place or were you able to take breaks?

JC: It was about 14-16 weeks in the field. In between was steady research: working leads, trying to find people who would help, trying to isolate the examples of human trafficking around the world: where I could find it, see it, get in and out safely. Or, relatively safely. We were looking for the most variety of human slavery, agriculture and industry to the sex trade to child labor. To bondage labor, illegal adoptions, organ selling … I mean, it was really a catalog of horrors.

A ten-year-old boy winds thread on a loom in Kanchipuram.
A ten-year-old boy winds thread on a loom in Kanchipuram. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: It’s a rough story. There’s a tough background to it. When you were in the field and taking the pictures and doing the research, immersed in this story, was there any point where you were like, “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m not going to do this.”

JC: Um, no. Because I’m really stubborn.

CITA: It’s a quality we admire.

JC: [laughs] The only thing I can figure out is that I’m not brave, I’m just stubborn. There was this sense of I cannot fail on this as soon as I started. I’d gotten myself into it, I had a whole lot of people depending on this story breaking, now—a whole lot of organizations whose hopes I’d raised that it would be published in the magazine and 40 million people would see it. I felt a huge responsibility to those people. And then, when I would meet the victims—from the children to the young women trafficked into the commercial sex trade, especially in Bosnia … Oh my God, it was just horrible. You would talk to them, and you would look at them and say, “I can’t not do this. These people deserve everybody trying to help them.” Then, I had to photograph the traffickers. I had to find the perpetrators themselves and look in their eyes. And I just got really determined about that. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had to figure out a way—and I did. I divided up the story into three categories in my mind: the victims, the perpetrators and the saviors, the people who were trying to help. Organizations or individuals who were fighting to end human trafficking. So they were just as important. I had to see it because what I was doing was collecting evidence. I wasn’t about photographic merit or whether the photograph was art or something. Not in any way. It was evidence: “Here, look in these eyes.” So, that was what I was looking for. The other thing I was looking for was not re-victimizing the victims.

CITA: Can you talk about that a little bit? What do you mean?

JC: People had suffered enough, and I didn’t want to have readers turn away from them [in the photographs]. I wanted to draw people in to find the beauty in these victims and to make people care. Show their humanity. Photographs that show the evils of the world … it’s too easy for us to turn away, we’re repelled somehow. War photographs and those kinds of photographs are hard to look at. So I wanted to make mine not hard to look at. I wanted you to be able to look at them.

CITA: Perhaps that’s why the photographs of this story are so compelling because you can look. You can stomach the information. That desire to turn away from suffering isn’t present in this photo-essay.

JC: Good. I’m glad you feel that way. That’s what I was trying to do. People have suffered enough I didn’t want to make them more … well, you know, I wanted you to look at the women in the commercial sex industry, in the red light district in India, and think, amid these horrible conditions they’re being held in, that they have not lost their self-respect. They’re the courageous ones. They’re the brave ones.

Prostitutes, Mumbai_CR Jodi Cobb (1)
Trafficked sex workers in India. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: This story was published around 2003, 2004, the human slavery story, so you were in Bosnia after it was trying to regroup after Slobodan Milosevic (ethnic cleansing). You wrote a blog shortly after where you were still at the point that you couldn’t write out the name of the Bosnian sex trafficker you photographed—Milorad Milokovic—out of fear. You went to his castle and took his photograph. I know other interviewers asked and you’ve talked about how long it took you to recover from this story, but did you? Can you ever recover from this story or is this now something that you live with?

JC: You know, I’ve not recovered from it. You can never recover from it. It’s just a complete destruction of your faith in human nature. I must have been very naïve up until then. I couldn’t believe that humans were doing this to each other. I refused to believe it for the longest time. And I kept thinking, this can’t be true, this can’t be real. But, when you hear the same story over and over and over again by women in Mexico and women in Bosnia, telling the same story, you think, okay, you know, this is really real. And, shame on me for not knowing about it.

CITA: But there you were, taking the photographs of it so we [the audience] didn’t have to be there and be in the midst of it. We could learn about it through you. You actively stood up in the role of witness, put yourself in danger, and took the photographs and got them published. Here, in Tampa Bay, we have a thriving sex trafficking circuit*. We’re 10+ years away from this story that you broke, and slavery is still thriving, we’re still in the thick of it. Why do you think that is?

JC: It’s gotten worse, actually. I thought I’d do the story and the world would be saved. That’s the only reason documentary photographers and photojournalists work: we just kind of think that we’re going to save the world. It’s so naïve. But, destruction in the world has gotten worse; human trafficking really thrives in political chaos, in conflicted societies, and there’s a whole lot more of those now than when I was doing that story.

CITA: I want to bring up something you said in a lecture you were giving about this very thing. You didn’t get enough time to expound on it. You said: “Suppression of women is the most de-stabilizing thing in these countries. They’re mired in poverty and conflict because women are uneducated.” Is that something you still believe to be true? Is educating women an antidote to trafficking women and children as sex slaves?

JC: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the societies in which women are held in the lowest regard are also the ones in the lowest socio-economic stratum of the world. You’re disenfranchising more than half the population, and you’re not counting the work of women in the economic picture of a country. If you don’t educate a woman, you’re keeping half the population in ignorance. If you educate a woman, you’re educating the whole family. And then women have the freedom to work and contribute to the economy of the country and family. I certainly don’t think that’s the only reason the world is in conflict, but it’s certainly not helping.

CITA: Certainly a contributing factor that deserves a lot closer scrutiny than we’re giving it as a human culture?

JC: I think there’s a lot more awareness now. A lot of organizations and individuals, like in Afghanistan, for example, [educating women]. There’s a long way to go, but there is a start.

Dance of the Ages, Kyoto, 1993
Geisha. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: One of the things you talk about is being a storyteller and being an interpreter as part of your role as a photographer. What is it that you love about photography as a narrative medium?

JC: Well, I started out as a journalist, as a writer. I think I started out that way when I came back from Iran trying to explain the world to people who had never been anywhere. I realized there was something very pleasurable about it. Then, when I took my first photography course, I fell in love because it was such an immediate, powerful, emotional means of communication. I was essentially a shy person, changing schools every couple of years, being the new kid … I tended to stay in the background. But then I found having a camera was a way into places I wouldn’t normally be. As an observer, it was comfortable for me. I didn’t have to speak out in class, you know, so I just fell in love with the power of photography. I discovered the reaction of people when they saw the photographs, how they were moved. Photography as self-expression never really interested me because I never thought I was that interesting. But, I thought the world was that interesting. Photography was about documenting the world, documenting what exists.

CITA: When you’re observing the world and telling a story through your photographs, are you conscious of what you’re looking for in the image or are you hoping for some combination of luck and light and angle?

JC: Well, here’s what you do. You decide what the story is or where you’re going to be, what you’re thinking you’ll find. And then you do all the research you can –this is what I do, this isn’t what everybody does.

CITA: Okay.

JC: Then you research, find out what you might see and what you might encounter, then you decide where you’re gonna put your feet, where you’re gonna go, and then you put all that in the back of your mind. You get in a zen state of relaxed concentration. [laughs] What you think you’re going to find can be completely opposite of what you do find. It’s sort of … you have the idea in your brain, and then you put yourself where you think things are happening—and you wait.

CITA: How many times have you been shocked to go back through your photographs and say “wow, I didn’t expect that moment to happen” or “That’s a surprise, that’s not what I thought it was going to look like.”

JC: Well, we have this saying at the Geographic that “a Geographic story is what you end up with when everything you tried to do fell through.” That sums it up.

CITA: That’s good advice about life, right?

JC: [laughs] Exactly. We also never finish a story so much as abandon it.

CITA: So, do you have any stories about failing miserably in the field or thinking you failed miserably until you looked at your photographs—then, aha!, “this actually worked out well.”

JC: Um, the whole story on the women of Saudi Arabia.

CITA: …what? Really?

JC: I thought I’d failed miserably. I didn’t think it was a story when I finished because it was so unlike anything I’d ever done. I didn’t think there were enough images. There were not many pictures from the Saudi Arabia story that didn’t get published. So, yeah, it’s funny …usually the things you think are really good don’t turn out that way and other ones you think are hopeless, well, something comes out of it, a surprise. So, yes, most of photography is a surprise, especially the kind of photography I do. You know, there are a lot of photographers who love to pre-visualize a situation and create that photograph, and there’s a whole school of photography like that. I could never in a million years imagine a photograph in advance. My whole career has been a surprise.

CITA: Do you have anything coming up you’re really excited about?

JC: I’m doing some abstract photography which makes me very happy right now. I’m going to show some at the talk. I’m working on my retrospective book, going through 30 National Geographic stories and 40 years of photography … so as I’m looking back, I have to have something to look forward to. I’d like to do a foray into the fine art world and just do a completely different kind of photograph. That’s looking forward, so I can look backwards and look forwards at the same time.

Jodi on Instagram.

CITA: That’s cool. For your abstract photography, are you traveling to exotic locales to do this or is it a backyard project?

JC: It’s a lot to do with water, and I like to spend time around water. Are you coming to the talk?

CITA: Of course.

JC: Okay, good. A lot are reflections, and it sounds so cheesy, but it took me awhile to get confidence in these pictures.

CITA: So we’ll get to see some of these water photographs?

JC: Yes, I’m going to show them at the end. The whole show is a progression of the career.

CITA: Florida is a fantastic state to live in if you have any affinity at all for water or an artistic connection to it. It’s very inspiring here.

JC: I know, I’ve been going crazy since I’ve been here. I did not expect to be here this long; I was supposed to have left on Saturday [but the blizzard snowed her out of Washington], so I didn’t even bring my real camera with me. It was going to be an in and out trip, but now I’m gnashing my teeth seeing all these beautiful birds. At any rate, it’s beautiful.

Jodi on Instagram.

CITA: It’s gorgeous everywhere. When you come back for your talk, bring your real camera. Which is probably like when you take your umbrella and it doesn’t rain, right? You’ll have your camera and nothing will happen.

JC: I’ve been shooting with my iPhone and that’s a certain kind of picture though that’s not what I’m doing, but I am taking a lot of pictures with my iPhone photography, which I find really fun.

CITA: Annie Leibovitz said somewhere the best affordable camera out there is in an iPhone. Is that true or was Apple paying her off and we didn’t know it?

JC [laughs]: Well, I’ve always said the best camera is the one you have with you.

Jodi Cobb, Papua New Guinea_CR Jodi Cobb
Jodi Cobb in Papua New Guinea.

For tickets to Jodi’s talk, Stranger in a Strange Land, visit

*For more information on organizations in Tampa Bay helping to end human trafficking in our area, WEDU compiled this list following the release of the documentary Too Close to Home: Human Trafficking in Tampa Bay.

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