Jon Cox

Photographer/Cultural Mapper

Legacy Fund Grantee

Picture of a man crouching by a river

Photograph by Jon Cox

Picture of Jon Cox showing a photograph to a woman

Photograph by Lindsay Yeager

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I grew up in the rolling hills of Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I would spend the majority of my days in the forests and fields collecting wild edibles and fishing in the streams and ponds. I loved berries so much that I remember wanting to be a berry farmer when I grew up. I've always been fascinated with the intricacies of the natural world, which led me to study entomology and plant pathology as an undergrad at the University of Delaware.

How did you get started in your field of work?

As a junior in college studying entomology and plant pathology, I had just finished an internship with a biotech company and saved enough money to buy my first camera, the Pentax K1000. My great-aunt "Slim" helped me take my first study-abroad trip to Tanzania in 1996. She said, "When you're in Africa and you pick up a handful of soil and smell it, you feel like you've come home." She was absolutely correct. I fell in love with Africa, the camera, and the act of photography, using the medium as a way to bridge cultural differences. I've been back to Tanzania 15 times and spent six years on and off working as a photographer on a collaborative cultural mapping and documentary book project with the Hadza hunter-gatherers and Daudi and Trude Peterson.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to photography?

Nothing feels more right than following in the silent footsteps of a hunter-gatherer as he or she walks through his or her environment. Whether I'm in the hot and sticky rain forest of Peru or the dry savanna of Tanzania, I feel the deep connection indigenous people have to their native lands. They know all the plants, they know the sex and timing of all the animal tracks, and they have a conservation ethic from which we can all learn. Our last remaining hunting and gathering indigenous cultures are disappearing and I want to help them tell the story of their people, help influence public policy, and empower them to decide their own fate.

What's a normal day like for you?

My interests are diverse and I play multiple roles. I explore in the field, teach as a professor of art, act as a project liaison in an interdisciplinary science and engineering building, and am a study-abroad director. The excitement and variety of my work keeps me interested. In the field I'm up photographing at the first light and usually don't retire until the sun has set. In the classroom at the University of Delaware, I teach design, photography, and digital printmaking, where I often engage my students with the community. As a project liaison I wear business attire and meet with a diverse group of individuals both inside and outside the walls of academia. As a study-abroad director I've taken over 300 students on documentary photography programs to the ends of our planet, including Antarctica, Southeast Asia, Tanzania, Australia, Argentina, and Tasmania.

Do you have a hero?

I don't have a single hero, but I do have many people I admire, including a few listed here: William Eugene Smith for his tireless efforts to uphold strict ethical standards when photographing his subjects; Peter Hill Beard for his book The End of the Game, which opened my eyes to the widespread poaching of African wildlife; E. O. Wilson for his environmental views and contribution to the field; and Nelson Mandela for his life-long fight for social change.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

One of my favorite experiences was fishing with the Ese'Eja outside of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park in Peru. We left at dawn with freshly sharpened machetes in hand to hike deep into the jungle to collect barbasco vines [which contain a poisonous compound]. Once we had as much as the three of us could carry from a palm strap around our heads, we gathered women and children and boarded a dugout canoe with a piki-piki [motorbike] engine that looked like a weed whacker with a propeller. After about an hour on the Sonene River we walked among towering trees to a small pond near a clay lick. We pounded the vines until we got as much surface area as possible. Then we all walked barefoot through the water dousing the vines and spreading the poison. Within about ten minutes the fish began to float and in less than an hour we had collected well over a hundred fish and plenty to share with the Ese'Eja who stayed behind.

The most challenging aspect of this project for me is seeing the destruction of the rain forest, one fallen giant at a time. Logging companies trespass onto Ese'Eja lands and remove the largest and most valuable trees first and leave a six-foot swath of devastation through the forest.

What are your other passions?

Gardening, hiking, canoeing, teaching, and, most recently, yoga.

In Their Words

Nothing feels more right than following in the silent footsteps of a hunter-gatherer as he or she walks through his or her environment.

—Jon Cox

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