National Geographic Live

On paper Jodi Cobb is a widely successful photographer who is known for being the first woman to shoot for a variety of publications, including National Geographic.  On Mar. 29th assistant editor Lauren Foster and writer Jill Sanford went to see her discuss her career as part of the National Geographic Live series at Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia. As two independent women who identify as feminists in the publishing world, Sanford and Foster were anticipating a night that celebrated a pioneer for women in the arts. What they got was so much more. (Jodi Cobb was the third and final talk in the National Geographic Live series this year. However, The Washington Center is looking to bring the talks back next year and you won’t want to miss it.)

Lauren: The first thing I notice about Jodi Cobb was the way that she spoke. She wasn’t overly bubbly. She spoke in a soft, lower octave. She wasn’t trying to sell me something, she wasn’t trying to get me to believe in something. She was Jodi Cobb and she had nothing to prove.

But earlier in her career she had everything to prove. She described proving herself as “a second job” during her early years at National Geographic. As the only woman on staff all her collogues were men and some of them no doubt questioned her abilities. But one of my favorite parts of her talk was when she discussed her assignment to shoot the women of Saudi Arabia. It was an assignment only a woman photographer could do. As Cobb pointed out, it was not only taboo to photograph a woman in her burqa but she had to get approval from her husband and father to be photographed. It was nearly impossible to gain access into their hidden lives but Cobb, through sensitivity and patience, was able to do it. Suddenly, being a woman had its advantages. She captured a culture through a unique point of view no man could recreate. After that assignment she began shooting other women from other cultures that the world knew close to nothing about, like the realm of the Geisha.


It was then that I realized her voice was in her photographs. It was sometimes loud and in your face and at other times gentle, soft and mysterious. She had nothing to prove speaking on stage, every magnificent quality she had built up over the years was in her powerful images.

Did you feel the same way, Jill? While I loved hearing about her benefits of being a woman in a man’s world, I also loved that she described aspects of her career that had little to do with being a woman. She really wasn’t on a feminist soapbox, she was just herself. Thoughts?

Jill: Lauren, I totally do agree. I went to that talk expecting to learn about how she paved the way for female photojournalists breaking into one of the most prestigious publications in the country. I was pleasantly surprised throughout the talk, though, as Cobb’s photos and the stories behind them proved her to be not just among the great female photographers, but great photographers, period.

Cobb told her story with a wry humor. When showing the black and white photos that launched her career in her 20’s—images of 60’s rockers and commune life—she needlessly admitted with a small grin, “I was a bit of a hippie.”  But even in those early photographs, there was a clarity and truth to her representations that let her viewers into her subject’s lives, just for a moment.

This clarity and truth resonated in each of the series of photos that she continued to show her audience. Yes, her gender allowed her into worlds that no Western photographer had been allowed into before, like into the secret lives of Saudi Arabian women and the Geisha, but the images from those projects were much more than a simple exposé. Take one of her most iconic images of the Geisha, for example- the bright red of her painted lips is such a stark and unnatural contrast to the woman’s white, white skin, and the painted corners of her mouth prove the artificial construction of ideal beauty. Yet there is something demure and genuinely stunning in the girl’s gesture just the same, as she turns towards the viewer and we catch a glimpse of the curve of her neck meeting her shoulder.

In this photo, and in many more that Cobb displayed that night, there is a masterful presentation of shared human experiences as she juxtaposes the familiar and the unknown. This 3 year project on Geishas gave way to a future project—an insightful exploration of beauty and self manipulations, where she found evidence to support her claim that across cultures, female body alterations usually emphasized delicacy or weakness, whereas male alterations were made to convey dominance and physical power.

I just loved seeing all her work in chronological order. We were able to follow her from one project to the next as she grew as an artist and sought out new experiences. One of the most important decisions she made about her work was to always convey women doing something, whereas before their representations in National Geographic were usually motionless and inactive. Cobb’s photography gives agency and purpose to those otherwise silenced, or at least not yet heard by many in Western cultures. Like her other project on human slavery—wait, sorry, I could just go on and on! What did you find so important about her work? You were so drawn to her voice and her presence, but for me the images are still what are rolling around in my head, 3 days later!

Lauren: Yes, exactly. I think it was her images that really spoke to the crowd. I literally can’t get them out of my head and to be honest I think my family and friends are completely sick of me going on and on about them. To be even more honest, I think at one point I was looking at her images and thought, “Wow, these are so amazing, but I’m sure part of what I love about them are the subjects in them. How they seems so foreign or mysterious or brave or mean. They were often things I’ve ever really seen, informative almost.” But at the very end of her talk she showed some images she had taken recently and not on assignment. I remember this textured shot that I was so transfixed by. It was composed of round little cylinders, they looked like mirrors almost, all lined up together. I had no idea what it was until she said, “This is a photo of raindrops on the rear window of my car.” And that was the moment when her talent and her eye really had an impact on me. She wasn’t just good because she photographed these moments in time all over the world, she was good because… well, she’s just freaking good. She has an eye and she notices things most of us wouldn’t look twice at.

One of my favorite quotes of the night was when she was talking about being nervous for her first National Geographic assignment and she said “Nothing happens when you’re ready.” I love that quote. It’s so true and I hope I remember it when I’m assigned the impossible.

Was there a life quote or moment that inspired you? You can’t say all of it!

Also, I know this is girly of me to bring up but how great did she look? She came on stage in a skirt, a leather jacket and boots. That’s my kind of gal!

Jill: Oh my gosh and she had this really beautiful blond white hair… yeah she looked great!

I love the quote that she opened and closed with, which is a family motto of her’s: “What can I do that I never have done before?” It’s simple, but so apparent in her life story and images. And I keep finding myself asking that question, what can I do? This constant search for originality is just one more reason why she was so inspiring!

I have to agree that those abstract photos that she took just for fun were something else! And so refreshing after looking at a series of photos on child slavery around the world, which were so raw with emotion, I felt it right in my gut. Her National Geographic images are made with a clear agenda, but this later work really demonstrates her eye and talent. The photos of reflections on the water in Venice looked like impressionist paintings, but with more vivid colors. I also love that after traveling the world time and time again, it was proof that she never lost her love of photography.

I can’t believe how much I enjoyed the talk!

is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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