This story appears in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
When confronted with the limits of the known world, a 16th-century European cartographer inscribed the warning “Here Be Dragons” on a small copper globe. Beware: What lies beyond is unexplored—and perilous.
I have spent my life photographing unknown worlds: the secret life of the geisha in Japan, the tragic landscape of human trafficking. Danger often lurked nearby. My assignment on Venice for National Geographic was the exception. Nothing about Venice is unexplored. Every brick, every doorway, and every one of its 400 bridges has been mapped and painted. Every photographer since the invention of the camera has lingered on those bridges and photographed gondolas and reflections on the canal water underneath. Venice posed no danger to me beyond the curse of the cliché.
My mission was to document the city’s vulnerability to water—the threat of flooding and how the Venetians were trying to prevent it. I made a few photographs of the reflections, but I was there to investigate the only unknown: Would Venice vanish underwater? Those reflections held no clues.
Late one night the phone rang in my hotel room. It was my brother: My mother had been hospitalized, and I should return home immediately. I caught the next flight out but didn’t make it in time. My mother was a pioneer of her generation of women, escaping her small coal-mining hometown in Wyoming to travel the world with my dad, my two brothers, and me. Fearless and restless, she thought it only natural that I would want to become a pioneer in my own way, and stoked those flames through my entire life. Mom created and supported my wanderlust. “No great chasm was ever leaped in two small jumps,” she would say. “Go for it. Don’t look down.”
I returned to Venice, but waves of grief would unexpectedly overtake me at the sight of lighted candles in a church or a funeral boat moving through the canals. The sound of a choir would bring me to tears.
The reflections in the canals inexplicably enticed me. I often stopped to photograph them, confounding my young Italian assistant who knew the magazine did not publish abstract images and thought I was just wasting time. But the more he questioned, the more I resisted. I was often shooting through tears and wanted to avoid his eyes.
When I went back to Washington, D.C., to show the work in progress to the editors, several other events happened in my personal and professional lives that left me awash in confusion and dislocation. I had reached the limits of my known world.
And yet I still had one last trip to make in the fall—to photograph the acqua alta, the seasonal floods when water periodically spills into the streets, squares, and shops of Venice. Reflections would appear where there hadn’t been any, and once again I strangely found solace in them. Everything else vanished as I lost myself in the shifting movement of the dark water that, stirred by a breeze or passing boat, suddenly shattered into colors and patterns.
When the assignment was over, I didn’t show those reflection pictures to anyone. They had nothing to do with the kind of photographs I loved to make, ones that tried to explore hidden worlds, social issues, and the human condition. I forgot about them.
Five years later I found them deep in my computer files. As I began to edit, strange creatures emerged from the depths of the images: bizarre mythical beasts, cartoon characters, carnival masks, snakes, and gargoyles. They had been there all along, waiting for my imagination to bring them to life. And maybe daring me to find the courage to chart my own course in photography and life, to take time away from searching out what lies in the hearts of others to explore the depths of what lies in my own.
But beware: Here be dragons.
Jodi Cobb has photographed stories for National Geographic for more than three decades and has worked in more than 65 countries.