Focused fortitude: Jodi Cobb looks at life behind the lens

Partygoers at Carnival 
 in Venice, 2008.  Jodi Cobb Partygoers at Carnival in Venice, 2008. Jodi Cobb

Photojournalist Jodi Cobb is one of those rare people who walks toward danger. And when she meets it, she usually introduces herself.

“I’ve never disguised myself or misrepresented what I was doing,” says Cobb. “I even introduced myself as a National Geographic photographer to the most notorious human trafficker in Bosnia.”

Cobb has spent the better part of four decades as the only female staff field photographer at National Geographic-—the only one in its 130-year history, actually. But she says gender was never top of mind for her. “I was always really surprised when the first thing out of people’s mouths was the woman angle. It’s like asking people what it’s like to breathe.” Still, she admits, “You feel like you need to hold up all of womankind, and it’s an extra thing that men don’t have to think about all that much.”

Cobb grew up in Iran, where her father worked for Texaco, and she had been to 15 countries by the time she entered high school in the U.S. The global exposure gave her a head start in finding her passion. “I spent my life explaining the world to people, then I realized that was what journalism was,” says Cobb.

On Thursday, she hosts a live retrospective about her life behind the camera, including her wide-ranging exposé on human trafficking, her book on geisha culture from the inside, and a look at Venice celebrating Carnival against a backdrop of looming environmental peril.

Geisha  Kyoto, Japan

“I did a book on the geisha of Japan and spent six months over a three-year period just immersed in their world, going to the geisha districts every day.

“You don’t realize how hard that [image] was to get. It was a moment in the geisha house that shows how inside I was at that moment. No one had ever photographed behind the scenes in the geisha world, with candid photographs, so that was a real accomplishment.

“The smoking was common and no one wanted to be photographed smoking. It makes her real to me. Instead of this sort of icon that geisha are. It makes her a real person.”

Brick kiln workers  Agra, India

“This is from the story on 21st-century slaves. I photographed in 11 countries over a yearlong period, trying to put together as many kinds of human trafficking [images] as I could find.

“National Geographic was going out on a limb to do that story—it was my idea—and it was so outside of what they usually did. It was before there was so much consciousness in this country about human trafficking. We knew bits of it–child labor existed and about sex trafficking—but no one had put it all together into a look at how pervasive it was.

“The brick kiln workers are often held in debt bondage for generations. The owners get workers by lending them money for an emergency, then charge outrageous interest rates. The debt can never be repaid and gets passed on for generations. That story broke my heart every single day.”

Carnival  Venice, Italy

“I did a story on Venice that was about whether Venice was going to survive floods and the rising sea levels. That was a party during Carnival. People in their incredible costumes come from all over the world. We are used to seeing all of these setup images taken on the piazzas and things. But I was able to get into the private parties…and that’s where I’ve always wanted to be in my career—on the inside and behind the scenes. That sums up my body of work: being inside these hidden worlds and secret places that outsiders wouldn’t see.”

National Geographic Live will be at The Paramount Theater February 28.