Jodi Cobb was among the first female photographers almost everywhere she worked early in her career, including National Geographic. Rather than be thwarted by the adversity she encountered—including the dangers and discomforts of traveling as a single, working woman—Cobb found ingenious ways to turn these situations to her advantage. As she broke through these barriers, one after another, her career advanced.
Now, Cobb is sharing her stories in New York with her National Geographic Live tour, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In honor of Women’s History Month, Cobb answered some questions about her career, inspirations, world travel, and her new tour.
What women have inspired your work?
I was inspired by the great women photographers who went before me like Margaret Bourke-White. I didn’t want to take pictures like her, but I wanted a life like hers. She had an incredible life. She worked for Life magazine and she had its first cover photograph. She was fearless.
I guess the fact is that there were not [a lot of] women doing what I was doing. I think that was an inspiration in a way. Without mentors or without someone to show the way [I was just trying] to figure it out on my own. That can be inspirational. That can be incentive. It can also be disincentive.
Talking about what you witnessed when exploring cultural notions of beauty in 10 countries, you once said, “The changes that were made to men’s bodies all made them appear stronger and more powerful, but the women somehow ended up maimed or their movements inhibited.” Could you elaborate on this thought and how standards of beauty are evolving?
The story was called The Enigma of Beauty but at its heart it was a science story about what men and women find attractive in each other. Essentially it was about mate selection. We were looking at things like symmetry and waist-to-hip ratio—things that the scientists were studying—but I just started to become so curious about how all these bizarre cultural traditions had been born and what they were all about. And, this was a wonderful opportunity to go explore it and find out.
The people of the Mursi tribe in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia cut a slit in the lower lip and they insert these larger and larger clay plates that distend the woman’s lower lip. The exact origins are not known—but it was [possibly] done to protect the women from slave traders. To sort of scare the slave traders away and therefore keep the women in their villages. And those lip plates became a status symbol and it became something a man would look for in a wife. It determined the bride price of the woman.
And the same thing happened with the bound feet of the women in China. The Chinese bound women’s feet for a thousand years. They broke the foot and wrapped the toes under the arch. The size of the foot then determined the bride price of the woman—and therefore the worth of the woman. Three to five inches was considered ideal.
And also the neck rings on the Padaung women of Burma [and Northern Thailand]. Those rings were wrapped around the women’s necks. And they say that it was used to protect the women from tigers, but there’s a loop on the back of it that some people say was once used to tie up the women. And, you know, it just brings the question of why didn’t the men have them? Men needed to be protected from tigers too, didn’t they?
So, these examples of the bound feet, that women couldn’t walk, couldn’t leave, couldn’t run away. The lip plates made it a problem for them to eat and clearly maimed them. And, the same with neck rings on the Padaung women. And, if it’s true that they were used to tie women up, then it is just another way of physically controlling women.
When you are photographing communities that are hard for outsiders to break into, how do you gain entrance and the trust of your subjects?
I found that in order to be trusted, you need to be trustworthy. You don’t make promises you can’t keep. You’re honest with the people that you photograph about what you are going to do. You pay attention to their wishes and respect them. In general, just try to maintain credibility as a journalist and as a photographer.
Switching gears to your National Geographic Live series, could you tell me a little about what you are discussing in your “Stranger in a Strange Land” tour?
That’s sort of how I describe myself, and the crazy life that I’ve had. I grew up in Iran and went there in third grade and came back to the states for high school. We lived on an island where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come together, and it was a desolate place. At that time, it was the world’s largest oil refinery where my dad worked. And it was a very eye-opening experience. We traveled a lot back then—back and forth to Iran and visiting a lot of different countries. I saw how diverse and strange and fascinating the rest of the world was.
You know, I’d go back to the states where my friends in school had no idea. They were all really comfortable in their own towns, and high schools, and lives and things. And they had a certain sense of belonging that I certainly never ever had. I’ve always been the outsider and that, I think, has informed my photography from the very beginning. The whole world looks strange to me, so therefore interesting to photograph. And I think that desire to be interested and interesting is the most important thing a photographer can have.
What most excites you about the “Stranger in a Strange Land” tour?
I never thought that I would enjoy standing up in front of people and talking. The whole reason I became a photographer was to hide behind my camera! I’ve been finding that people are actually interested in the story. There are a lot of things that people can relate to. People respond to a lot of the universal feelings that I talk about.
Lastly, what advice would you give to women photographers starting out today who want to take photos in remote places?
It’s such a new world. The digital revolution has changed everything and photographs are ubiquitous now. It used to be really hard to take pictures and it used to be really hard to get to the places that were interesting to photograph. And there were a lot of things that had never been seen before by outsiders, and had never been photographed before. All of that’s over.
The other obstacle is the economic problems of the publishing world. The traditional outlets for photographers to publish their work are disappearing. On the other hand, it’s opening these huge new avenues to explore and that’s what the young photographers starting out now are going to have to do and have to figure out on their own. The Internet has allowed your photographs to be seen by millions and millions of people, even if you’re not a professional photographer. And it’s allowed millions and millions and millions of people to take photographs all day, every day. But that doesn’t make them good photographs and it doesn’t make them storytelling photographs.
So, I think there will always be a need for the photographers to, in a very thoughtful and in-depth way, investigate stories and abuses and problems—but also to celebrate the best of human nature in a way that creates a narrative. I think that storytelling is the most basic human endeavor. Everybody wants to be told a story. Cultures evolved by storytelling. So, I think that’s still a very powerful force.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]
Come see Join Cobb in New York at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on April 8 for more stories about her life and career. For tickets and information, visit the National Geographic Live event page.