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A life behind the lens: National Geographic's first female photographer shares her stories

Photographer Jodi Cobb gives a retrospective of a distinguished career that has spanned four decades on Friday March 1, at 8:00 pm in the Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks
Jodi Cobb
Photographer Jodi Cobb gives a retrospective of a distinguished career that has spanned four decades on Friday March 1, at 8:00 pm in the Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks

Jodi Cobb is appearing in Ventura County on Friday.

Jodi Cobb has spent a life behind the lens. The first female photographer on staff at the National Geographic…and the first woman photographer to win the White House News Photographer of the Year, in 1985…ground-breaking considering women were denied membership until 1942! But it’s not her shattered glass ceilings and prestigious awards which give her most pride…but the light she has shone on secret worlds and untold stories, in her over 30 years with National Geographic.

"What National Geographic did was throw me into the real world, full tilt, and made me start being aware of the big issues in the world," she said.

She examined the Japanese Geisha’s ancient traditions - gaining insight into the beauty and the cruelty of their lives.

"Nobody had photographed inside the geisha world before.," explained Cobb. "I spent six months living with geishas, essentially over a three year period, and I had never seen anything like it before in my life - her world and her makeup and the beauty of the surroundings and the intensity that she brought to her art and her craft and her role - her business," said Cobb.

"And for me, it was just sort of opening up this hidden world that outsiders would never see. And everybody in the whole world is an outsider in the geisha world except their few clients that they have who are the richest and most powerful men in Japan," she said.

For a 2003 article, Cobb exposed human trafficking.

"That was the hardest story that I ever did. And I had to do a lot of research and talking my way into situations that I had no right to be in," she said.

Cobb ended up at the door of a notorious gangster and human trafficker.

"That was in Bosnia," said Cobb. "Because I needed to do three things: I needed to show the victims, the traffickers and the saviors - uou know, the people trying to help to give it some kind of positive or hopeful aspect to the story. So I concentrated on doing those three things."

"I heard about this notorious sex trafficker in Bosnia who ran a motel that was filled with trafficked women. I just showed up on his doorstep at his motel, and I said I was from National Geographic, and I wanted to take his picture," she said.

"He had a zoo in his back compound of this motel, and he had tigers, live bears, pitbulls - all the dangerous animals that you can think of in cages. So that's what he wanted to show me because I was from National Geographic. I'm obviously there to photograph his tigers! But he was also taunting us, I think, too. So I photographed him with them, and he made us stay for lunch, and we had to sit down there and have the most agonizing lunch of my entire life. And we were surrounded by men with rifles, I guess AK 47 or whatever. So we finished the lunch. I finished the photographs. When we left, he said very menacingly to my assistant, 'I know where you live in Sarajevo'. That was intimidating. And our car was followed. We drove as quickly as we could back to Sarajevo. The whole thing was just surreal," she recounted.

But she says there’s one person she would still like to photograph - the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger.

Jodi Cobb – 4 Decades Through The Lens is at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks on March 1 at 8 p.m.

Caroline joined KCLU in October 2020. She won LA Press Club's Audio Journalist of the Year Award in 2022 and 2023.

Since joining the station she's won 7 Golden Mike Awards, 4 Los Angeles Press Club Awards and 2 National Arts & Entertainment Awards.

She started her broadcasting career in the UK, in both radio and television for BBC News, 95.8 Capital FM and Sky News and was awarded the Prince Philip Medal for her services to radio and journalism in 2007.

She has lived in California for ten years and is both an American and British citizen - and a very proud mom to her daughter, Elsie.