The world according to Jodi Cobb

Among her many accomplishments, photographer Jodi Cobb produced a book that looked inside the mysterious world of the Japanese geisha. Photo: Jodi Cobb

Jodi Cobb’s fascination with the world started on a desert island off the coast of Iran. The island was the home of the world’s largest oil refinery and her father was an engineer there.

“We moved there when I was in third grade and we stayed until I was in high school.”

The family would travel back and forth to the U.S. every two years. Along the way they would visit other countries.

“I had been in 15 different countries before I was 12. It was amazing. Back then Americans didn’t travel like they do now.”

Jodi Cobb. Photo: Rebecca Hale

When she would return to the States, she would spend time “telling everybody about the rest of the world.”

That love of travel and storytelling would evolve into a life’s work.

“It seemed like journalism would be the best way to do that.” So she went to J-school. But she didn’t settle on a career in photography until she took a course in the last semester of her senior year. The next thing you know she enrolled in a Master’s degree in photography.

“I realized it was a quicker, easier, faster and more emotionally connecting way of telling a story.”

Her own story is marked by the places she has gone and by the people she has met. She’ll be telling many of those stories at an event at the National Arts Centre on March 3, part of the National Geographic Live Speaker Series.

After a few years working for newspapers and freelancing, Cobb joined the National Geographic magazine. At the time she was the only female staff photographer.

“I started there when I was very young. It took quite a bit to prove myself to the editors. Also I was the only woman on staff for most of my career. I spent an enormous amount of time trying to prove I could do what the guys could do … adventure and sports and wildlife and landscape. I was trying to be all things to all people which in the beginning, helped my photography. I got a lot of experience the hard way — by trying.

“On the other hand I didn’t know who I was as a photographer and what interested me.”

Cobb is always interested in the daily lives of people around the world such as these boys in Papua-New Guinea. Photo: Jodi Cobb

That took time. She said she was always interested in the way people around the world lived.

“That was a curiosity born of my childhood (in Iran). Iran was really the wild west back then. There was pretty much nothing there. My parents were really adventurous. They wanted to go everywhere and see everything.”

Her parents met during the Second World War. Her mother was on her way to New York, after obtaining a home economics degree — “the only one women could get then” — when the war broke up. Her mother then joined the war effort and was working with the team building the Alaska Highway. That’s where she met her husband.

“My mom was incredible. She would have been a CEO of some major corporation today. She would take three children and would do trips halfway around the world while my dad would usually have to stay in Iran.”

This love of travel and adventure has served Cobb well especially as stories for the National Geographic last for months.

Cobb was one of the first to be able to photograph the lives of Saudi women. Photo: Jodi Cobb

“In the days of film, we could not see our pictures until we got back to headquarters.

“I crossed China when it had just reopened to the West. I was one of the first photogs to do that and I had to carry a bag with all my exposed and unexposed film with me for two months hoping I wouldn’t lose it, hoping my camera was working and hoping the exposures were right.”

She was based in Washington D.C. for the Geographic and that did put her in touch with politics. She covered Jimmy Carter’s run for the White House in 1976 and Al Gore’s bid in 2000.

In 2008, Cobb became a relatively late convert to digital.

“I was the last living photographer to make the switch. Nobody told me how easy it was. I could suddenly see in the dark and I suddenly didn’t have to count frames before reloading the camera or how many rolls I had before coming back to civilization.”

She had always “loved photographing people in their lives and how they related to each other, but as the years went by I started realizing that I was really interested in was the lives of women and how they got by.

A 10-year-old boy winds thread on a loom in Kanchipuram, India. Photo: Jodi Cobb.

“I made it my point in my early stories — stories about countries or cities — to try very hard to make sure I had pictures of women doing things because women weren’t represented that way. They were represented in a different way by male photographers.

In the days when the editors and the photogs were men, women were decorative objects or stereotypes in photographs … adoring moms, beautiful bombshells, in colourful native dress, she said. The real lives of real women weren’t shown.

“I’m not so sure it was because men weren’t interested as much as I think they didn’t have access to those real lives. There are many cultures in the world where male photographers are considered a threat.”

Cobb was allowed inside the veil, in a series on the women of Saudi Arabia for example.

“It was going to be one of these big survey stories on women in Islam and the writer, Marianne Alireza, was the first American woman to marry a Saudi man. She married the Saudi ambassador to the United States who was best friends with King Faisal. It took six months, but Cobb eventually got a visa.

These debt labourers in India are “brick” slaves. Photo: Jodi Cobb

The stories produced by the National Geographic come from the photographers.

“They are always driven by photos. In most of my stories the writer came along after everything was well underway.The Geographic was famous for photos, not so famous for its writing.”

“Every picture in a huge survey story is diving deep into a person’s life or a particular situation. You are working on it extensively to come up with that one picture that tells the story or represents that one particular aspect of the story.

“A picture may be worth a 1,000 words, but a good idea is worth 1,000 pictures.”

One of her most important stories examined human trafficking around the world.

“It was groundbreaking at the time. The Geographic editor who handled it now says that’s the story of which he is most proud.”

It was, however, a tough sell. There was a perception that readers of the magazine wouldn’t want to read about modern day slavery.

So the story had to fit the Geographic’s idea of a story which “meant it couldn’t be all sex trafficking,” Cobb said. “I had to figure out all the human trafficking that existed in the world.”

That meant finding each form of slavery and where each was most prevalent from farm worker slavery, organ sales, child labour, illegal adoptions, industrial work slaves, sex slavery and more.

“Then I had to figure out how I could see (these forms) in action.”

Even after months of research and field work, she still had to make sure the people she interviewed and photographs were in fact “an actual slave, not someone with a horrible job, but were actually held against their will. That was a huge burden.”

It was all worth it when “it got the biggest response in the history of the magazine. I have never been as proud of anything I had done.”

It took her talent and the resources of the magazine to get that done, but that kind of investment might be more tenuous today.

The Geographic, for example, doesn’t have staff photographers any more. It has become a more tenuous world for journalists of all stripes. While Cobb enjoys her freelance freedom now, she does worry about the futures of younger photographers.

Cobb was fascinated by the mysterious world of the geishas. Photo: Jodi Cobb

Perhaps her most significant work so far as a freelancer is a book that she made of the mysterious world of the Japanese geishas.

“It started with those A Day in the Life books. These were really fun to do. I did most of them, one of which was a Day in the Life of Japan. I was dropped into the midst of the geisha world. I had never known such a thing existed.

“I only had 24 hours with them. It was just the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen. It was mysterious, beautiful exotic and erotic and all those things. I knew I wanted to do a book. But the Geographic wasn’t interested in the topic at the time.”

So she got a grant from Kodak, took a leave of absence and did the book on her own.

Ironically, Cobb said she always wanted to be a freelancer.

“I didn’t want to join the staff. It wasn’t the magazine that is is now. My generation of photographers really changed it a lot. It was stodgy then.

“I stalled and stalled until the director of photography said, ‘Make up your mind. You can always quit but I’ll never ask you again’.”

NAC Presents the National Geographic Live Speaker Series
With photographer Jodi Cobb
Where: Babs Asper Theatre, NAC
When: March 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.