Joshua Cogan is an Emmy-winning photographer and anthropologist whose work focuses on documenting vanishing cultures and exploring social issues through photography and new media. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, GQ, Washington Post, National Geographic and the New York Times.
Bryce Taylor Rudow: Inevitable softball question to start us off: How did you get started in photography?
Joshua Cogan: Inevitably long and perhaps needlessly long winded answer…
The first time I picked up a camera was when I studied abroad in Israel when I was 20. I had a pretty manageable, yet undiagnosed case of ADHD. I came up before folks were dosing their kids with meds, so I was just super restless and in need of focus. Walking around the old city made me want to buy a camera, so I got a job in downtown Jerusalem and bought a SLR.
It was a pretty instant fit.
It gave me the white noise in my brain that I could never achieve, I’d spend days on end wandering and shooting obsessively. I can’t say that I took any good pictures, but having the excuse to hang out with Palestinians, Hassids, Bedouins, and Orthodox Christians sparked a wanderlust that continues to this day.
When I got out of college I lived in a few peculiar places, Crested Butte Colorado, and St. Croix in the USVI. My trip to Israel had given me an incurable case of wanderlust, and I needed to see what was out there beyond my small little world.
After a few years of post college wandering I had a little bit of anxiety that I might be completely dropping out of the system, and might not be able to get back into it, so I decided to come back to the states and try to find something that fit. I had a fairly narrow lens at that time, and the only place I thought could really fulfill my requirements of a workplace was National Geographic, which happened to be in DC.
When I got here, I probably applied for 3 or 4 different jobs at Geo; Illustrations Coordinator, a few admin positions, etc, and I just never seemed to be selected. My spirit totally hit the wall when I applied for customer service position at the photo labs (did you know they had photo labs?) and I was told I was overqualified. I remember calling up my Grandmother and just dumping on her. She calmly listened to me, and then asked “Why don’t you just go work there for free? Nobody can turn down free work.”
I had no response, she was right, who could? So I did. After convincing the manager at the photo lab to let me do so, I got a volunteer pass that was generally reserved for older folks who ushered at the public programs. I remember the volunteer coordinator kind of looking at me sideways, but I didn’t care.
Next think I knew I could just hang out at Nat Geo as much as I wanted. Beyond that, Steve McCurry, David Doubilet, Bill Allard, all my heroes would just walk in from time to time to look at prints and talk shop. I wandered all around the institution, basically being a bother to anyone that would let me hang out. I don’t think anyone really knew what to make of me, but I made it seem just official enough that no one bothered to kick me out. Best part of all, I got all the leftover unshot film from the photogs who came back from assignment. Due to a combination of inventory and quality issues, the film had to be turned back in, but couldn’t be sent back out on assignment. I had free film, free processing, and an entry visa, so life was pretty good.
It took a few years of traveling around, finding projects I felt passionate about, taking A LOT of pictures, until anyone paid any attention. It wasn’t until I went to India for four months to get over some heartbreak and overwhelming existential crisis that I produced anything of real value.
When I got back from that trip, I reluctantly showed my work to one of the editors at the institution, Elizabeth Krist, fearing that if she shot me down yet again, I might never get back up. I put out my 40 strongest slides, and about an hour later she asked if she could show the work to Susan Smith the Chief of Photography. My heart laughed. About a day later, I was sitting in the photo lab when a call came down from Susan’s office asking me to come sit with her. I think the lab manager looked over at me with pride and announced it to the whole lab. She said to me, “I thought you were just that annoying anthropology kid who just hung around, I had no idea you could shoot”
The rest was kind of history. I finally believed in myself, as no one objective had ever told me I was any good at this passion I had before.
You won an Emmy (and a few other awards) because your photography was part of the LiveHopeLove multimedia website that the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting put together for their story covering HIV in Jamaica, and you yourself put out a photo series from your visits to Jamaica. What about that place did you find so compelling?
Jamaica is everything all at once, multitudes contained. I think mostly I love the total absence of BS in interaction. Jamaicans are literally the coolest humans on earth. This is not “Cool” as we use it in America, but rather, they have seen the best and the worst. Life is so rich and beautiful and so goddamn tragic at the same time. Political violence, poverty, a slavery legacy with no boundaries to its cruelty have all created a cultural DNA that cannot be shaken. If you’re bringing some of your smooth BS there, they smell it in a heartbeat, if you’re not being real with them, they’ll fake you better.
My buddy Cory Osborn once said to me, “Think about it, it’s this little rock in the middle of the Caribbean and it screams mightily across the Earth.” Who hasn’t heard of Jamaica? Why it’s so fascinating to me is a bit hard for me to put a finger on. I have a similar addiction to New Orleans, there is something about the people, the resilience, and the warmth that is addictive. I’ll keep going back until I figure it out.
Speaking of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, it shares a similar mission to that of Sweatlodge, your media company, which states it believes in “bringing untold stories into the new media environment.” What, in your mind, is the one issue not getting covered enough by major news outlets?
Pretty much everything. I have a fairly cynical view of traditional media. We are spoon fed a lot of content that essentially advertises to us. We get little to no complexity in reporting. Most of what we do see is the sensational story of the minute, and as a result we don’t make connections between our actions and the state of the world around us. America is perhaps one of the worst compared to how democratized our media is.
Let me say in full-throated clarity, I’m not doing it any better, but I am going to keep trying. I think of it as a type of service to the world that I happen to be marginally good at, and I find really enjoyable, so it feeds two birds with one hand.
Your Twitter/Instagram profile is one continuous running photo-journal. For someone whose job is to capture a moment and make it last for eternity, what is it you like about the immediateness and disposability of those platforms?
I wasn’t an early adopter to the insta-whatever phase, I think mostly because I saw the photo quality inferior to my regular cameras. In fact, I don’t know that I was an early adopter of anything much technology wise, I resisted digital camera’s until the last possible moment, I was still shooting slide film until I actually got hired to do my first shoot. Slides were just so pretty compared to early digital.
Since then, the quality of these phone cameras has gone way up, and with it, the joy of creating imagery has too. I kind of enjoy the challenge of shooting with limitations of the tool. It felt in some ways like playing ball with one arm tied behind your back. As in, let’s see how you good you really are. It’s incredibly democratizing, and I love to see the creativity and voices that come from that.
It’s also given me a platform to share my own voice. I have never tried to really fit into traditional photography roles. Some folks see me as a journalist, others see me as a commercial photographer. If you want to be a rockstar in any of these fields you kind of have to play a game that never been interesting to me. I shoot because I love it, and I think I have some insights to share, but I don’t really want to go to all the industry gatherings or have to move to New York to be big-time. Through Instagram I get a chance to be the photographer/anthropologist I see myself as.
I love to connect with humans, to get close, to make them feel heard. If I can share that with some other humans, I feel really really lucky.
Also, let’s be honest, Instagram gamified photography; you’re playing for likes, so that’s kind of a fun challenge against yourself. It’s foolish to try to compete against others, as the platform isn’t a true meritocracy; at the end of the day, like all the interwebs famous people, cats and scantily clad girls will always beat the wandering anthropologist;)
Finally, and lord knows you’re going to have to edit this Q&A down, I like the idea of everyone having eyes.
We hear all this talk of big brother watching us. You know what? He is. But even better, all those little cellphone and personal camera’s are our eyeballs back. We’re watching you too big brother, so be cool.
When you’re shooting in the field, how much of you is playing “photojournalist” and deciding what the right subject is and how much of you is playing “photographer” and figuring out what is going to look best on film?
I think photojournalism has always been a hybrid of art and storytelling. I grew up obsessed like many photographers with National Geographic, and it wasn’t necessarily because the images were the most information-packed, but because it was always balanced with beauty, it sparked imagination, and took you someplace else. Sometimes though, there could be more honesty in the craft, a recognition of our own selves in the stories we tell.
The moment you take a photo, you have made choices, whether they be aesthetic, informational, or otherwise. As we order stories, or tone the image, we make choices to fulfill a narrative. It is impossible to take a shooter out of story or a picture, as our own perception is a reflection of who we are as people. What may seem exotic to us is ordinary to another, and what may seem insightful, common knowledge. This I think is where my anthropology comes in, and I find truth to be very relative sometimes, knocking me off any high-horse I try to mount.
The second part of the answer though is simple. If you want people to pay attention, especially in this fractured media environment, you have to tell beautiful stories. Media consumers are smarter by the day, tools are democratized, we all are constantly broadcasting some version our own lives through one of the many forms of social media. So if you want to break through the noise, especially in photography, the images should be powerful either in content or in beauty, and hopefully both.
I like to take pretty pictures, no matter what I am shooting, I think it compels folks to pay attention, or at least look a bit longer.
Your passion is studying cultural convergence, and while a lot of your work is focused on happenings abroad, I’m interested to know what you think the biggest cultural shift(s) taking place in the United States is?
That’s a big question, which I don’t know if I am qualified to answer. From my work here in the states, I have seen one thing repeatedly though. While the young and affluent and oft white move to the cities, and the ranks of urbanites swell, there is a lot of our country that doesn’t share the culture we all tend to talk to each other about. DC, NY, SF, they are all wealth bubbles, and if you draw a 100 mile line from the center of any of the cities, you often find that things are drastically different. A lot of this country is poor, really poor, and as socially aware as we may think we are, we are not.
In some ways, there is enormous opportunity in this. The cities, for all our hipness, techo/app adaptation, forward-thinking idea incubation are also somewhat of a monoculture. I have more in common with a urbanite from Nairobi, than I do someone in southern PG county. So diversity has come to me to mean something completely different than we think of it in a United Colors of Benetton commercial. Drive out New Hampshire Ave past all the highrises and you’ll find that things are done a lot differently; there is an immigrant hybrid of Asian, Hispanic, Latino, African that is producing a new American identity. Culture is like a gene pool, with certain aggregates of unique identity come new ideas, and different approaches and what I like to think of as hybrid vigor.
Even though you specialize in photography, you’re very involved with multimedia projects. With the entire journalism industry on the ropes, how do you think innovative storytelling will shape where the industry as a whole ends up?
Man another big question! You won’t let me off the ropes huh?
I speak to this mostly as an outside observer, while I have had the great fortune of working on number of projects that have pushed storytelling in new directions, the entire media landscape is a lot like that Atoms For Peace claymation video; there is no solid ground. I think this is where craft and vision reign supreme.
While the web, and basic economics have totally changed the state of play for journalism, it also has made things a heck of a lot more interesting.
It’s been said before, but the gatekeepers are gone. Don’t get me wrong, they are trying hard as heck to hold on, but most of the major brands that you think of as bastions of journalism are really struggling to hold onto marketshare. If you want to know where things really stand, look where the money is going. Rupert Murdoch recently threw a huge chunk of money at VICE, tripling their evaluation. On another front, ESPN is hugely profitable mostly by being a hybrid of advertising and story, it’s all selling product. Most of the pros I know right now, have done or are doing freelance work for these outfits. I think what the most salient point to be mined from that both those outfits were born in this new age and are evolved for it. They don’t have the overwhelming infrastructure to support, and “baggage” to drop. I’ve been to so many “future of storytelling panels” which are run by the old storytellers, needless to say it feels like they are still trying to guard the castle.
I also think innovation is one of the only ways to stand out these days. Sometimes I get pretty frustrated with my own work or imagery in general, because it is so disposable. There is almost nothing that hasn’t been photographed anymore, and as a result I often get mired in my own existential crisis about what purpose the craft has. I think innovation helps circumvent this naval gazing. When you feel like you’re doing something fresh, you know it, it feels right, like you might just get enough momentum to break the atmosphere of all that noise.
We actually got to work together in a past life redesigning the website for the historic DC restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl. Now I don’t want to out you to too many potential employers, but you did that at a very significant discount (as did the agency I worked for). I know my agency’s reasons for building the site at-cost, but why did you feel compelled to help out that tiny institution the way you did?
Because Ben’s leads with the heart. Seriously, how many outfits do you know around here that think about people first? I mean truly first. This is probably the most transactional city in the world, everyone is angling, trying to figure what and how they can benefit (with the caveat of NGO, Social Mission/entrepreneurial folks, and all the rest of you good-doers out there) but for the rest, people come to DC to be something, whatever that may be.
Ben’s never seemed about that.
Ben Ali and his sons are some of the kindest, warmest, and solid folks you’ll ever meet. I remember super early in my career, I was hoping to use it as a backdrop for a shoot (way before Barack totally blew the place up). I walked in and saw Nizam, and I didn’t even get the question out before he said yes. No ask of what I would pay for a location fee, no admonitions of not getting in people’s way, just “Sure, go ahead man.”
You feel that every time you walk in; every person who works there, and of course every song on the jukebox. When I got to actually do the shoot, it was clear to me how wonderful a family of employees and operators it is. I sense there is a strong ethic of the Ali family that says, “If there is no food on the plate of those that work for me, there is no food on my plate,” and because of that, folks who work for them feel taken care of, and take care of the people who walk in the door.
It may not be the best place for your body, but it sure is the best place in dc for your soul.
If the world is screwed past the point of no return, what was or what will be the final nail in the coffin?
I don’t know exactly what I could say that much more qualified folks haven’t, but I try to remain hopeful. I get most sad when I see self-interest trumping community, and basically folks not helping each other out.
My favorite anthro professor drilled one phrase into our head: “The lone monkey is the dead monkey.”
I often worry that the machine that keeps us all on our grind doesn’t give us time to look up and see the folks right around us. We need each other, and we all need to be heard and seen, even though it seems incredibly difficult to do so sometimes.
The first time I really traveled was when I studied in Israel when I was 20. I walked around the old city for months, talking with the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Everyone said they knew the truth, they knew that the Messiah was coming to take them to the next world, screw that other guy. For me, waiting for someone/something to save us is a bit as my people would say “meshuggeh” (crazy).
We are here to save each other.
Originally posted on The Daily Banter on February 10, 2014