"Put yourself out there, explore, find out what is around the next corner, and stay curious, keep learning."
Jodi Cobb, National Geographic photographer
Only in retrospect, according to Jodi Cobb, are pathways to achievement clear. This lauded staff photographer for the National Geographic Society has met her greatest successes with giant leaps into the unknown. "You have to follow your heart," she said.
That philosophy landed her the job of most photographers' dreams and has since allowed her to penetrate some of the world's most closely guarded secrets. She has gone inside the private world of Japan's geisha, behind the veil of Saudi Arabia's women, and into the underworld of the 21st-century slave trade. See some of Cobb's personal favorites in our online gallery.
Cobb discovered she "had a knack" for photography during her final semester as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. "But I was on a career path that I thought was unchangeable at the time," she said.
Leap Into the Unknown
Committed to the life of a writer, Cobb took a job as a reporter for House and Garden magazine in New York upon graduating with a degree in journalism. She continued to practice photography on the side, however, and after a year she pursued her true passionshe enrolled in a master's program in photography arts back at the University of Missouri.
"I didn't even know any photographers at the time, I had no idea how a photographer worked," Cobb said. "That was a huge leap into the unknown."
When she finished her master's, Cobb worked as the only female photojournalist at the Wilmington, Delaware, News Journal and later the Denver Post, taking every assignment editors tossed her way. "I had to be able to do it all, otherwise they'd say women couldn't do it," Cobb said.
Cobb's break came after eight months in Denver, when she was given a trial assignment for the National Geographic Society. She had to decide between the comfort of a staff news job and the unknown of freelance photography.
Cobb called her parents. Her mother told her that "no great chasm was ever leaped in two small jumps." Cobb leaped, and two years later, in 1977, she was on staff at National Geographic magazine.
Discovering Her Passion
Cobb took every kind of assignment at National Geographic, until she eventually discovered her passion for closed worlds. Perhaps her best known work came while on sabbatical in 1994. She went to Japan to document the secret lives of the geisha "without having any idea if they would let me in at all," Cobb said. The project resulted in the 1995 award-winning book Geisha: The Life, The Voices, The Art.
In addition, Cobb has photographed 26 articles for National Geographic magazine as well as worked on several books. Her most recent article, "21st-Century Slaves" (September 2003), generated more positive feedback than any article since a story on Chernobyl in 1987.
The U.S.-born Cobb had 28 different addresses around the worldincluding a five-year stint in Iranbefore settling in Washington, D.C., where she lives today.