Jodi Cobb: Telling Big Stories

By Neva Knott

In May of 2013, saw National Geographic photographer, Jodi Cobb, speak. She was the first–and only–woman photographer on staff at that iconic magazine. In her 30 years there, she roamed 65 countries to, “illuminate worlds never seen,” to play a role in shaping our consciousness of people, places, and the human condition.

Cobb showed theatre-screen sized images as she spoke. As her words explained her personal journey through life via photography, the images explained her passion, her perspective, and her heart. Cobb share a childhood photograph of herself, standing alongside her brother. That particular day her brother, age 4, had asked her mother, “What can I do today that I’ve never done before?” Cobb explained that her brother’s little-boy words helped her shape her perspective in finding stories to tell with her camera.

Through her work, I was given passage into her visual stories of American cultures often ignored, into the intimate details of of a commune in the Ozarks, backstage with bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, afloat on the houseboats of Swannee River dwellers, and inside Nashville’s opulent yet dying country music industry.

Then Cobb took us overseas. She explained that she looked for big stories, stories that became about ideas and that made up narratives, rather than being just pictures about places. Her new storied places included Jeruselem, Hong Kong just at the time of take-over and the end to British rule, where she road along with marine police as they monitored arrival of immigrants from Viet Nam. Cobb was the first photographer allowed into China when it opened to the world.

by Jodi Cobb
by Jodi Cobb for National Geographic

And she shared that, as she began to work for National Geographic, she began to notice women were depicted in the magazine as objects. She made it her goal to show more women doing something.

The most heart-wrenching story of Cobb’s, the one with the rudest awakening for the audience, or at least for this viewer, is that of Human Trafficking. Her images of child slaves depict a global problem that touches the lives of all of us–because of the vast amount of goods we unthinkingly or habitually consume are made by these children. Children who are forced to work inhumanely long hours in harsh conditions and toxic environments.

I didn’t go the the presentation because Cobb is a woman, or because of her gendered first. In fact, I was telling a friend about the even, and he commented that it seemed odd to point out her gender in relationship to her work. As I watched the presentation and listened to Cobb speak, though, I saw that her gender did matter–I began to understand how her access was gained to so many of the hidden cultures and communities she photographed because she is a woman.

I went to the presentation out of personal interest. I took my young friend Sophie, a sweet girl who has a passion for photography, because I wanted her to see a possible career path. I took Sophie because I love her, and because I wish someone would have shown me such examples of such professions when I was 15.

I left with a profound sense of the cultural connections that can be made through the lens. I left with Cobb’s question resonating inside of me, “What can I do today that I’ve never done before?” I left with a renewed faith that that which I can do, what any one of us can do anew each day has vast impact on the rest of humanity.

Sophie left inspired. She recently visited her grandmother in Palm Springs. In a tour of the city, the grandmother waved off at an area and said, you don’t want to go there, that’s not a good part of town–that’s where the poor people live. Sophie wanted to go there, to take pictures. She told me, “If Jodi Cobb can, why can’t I?”


Originally written for The Diary of Beautiful Enchiladas


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