What is life? Even though we don’t quite answer that question, I feel like my next guest, Joshua Cogan, and I cover off on just about every other philosophical question there is. If you don’t know Josh, you should. He is quite possibly one of the greatest photojournalists of our time who has won more awards than one can count. As a true citizen of the world, Joshua’s thirst for curiosity, wonder and exploration have taken him to the hidden corners of the earth to capture the stories of indigenous cultures through photography.
On this episode, Josh and I talk about his unusual journey as a self-taught photographer, how he hustled his way at National Geographic to fame and recognition, the mental process he takes to capture rare emotions through his photos, what he has learned over the years in his photojournalistic career, the future of photographic storytelling and even his most vulnerable life moments. Throughout our conversation, Josh and I go off on various philosophical tangents that I am sure you will enjoy. This was hands down one of my favorite conversations to date.
So join me today while Josh and I go deep into the meanings of culture, life, passion, resilience, work, happiness, and much more. All this and more on today’s episode.
Now, That’s Unusual.
About Joshua Cogan
Joshua Cogan is an Emmy Award-winning photographer and anthropologist whose work has taken him to 40 countries and 5 continents to produce his unique brand of ethnographic storytelling. Using his passion for culture, ecology and imagery, Cogan has consistently produced work across print, motion and web platforms. Recognition for those projects has come from standard bearers of journalism such as The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences as well as SXSW and the Webby Awards for his partnerships creating new approaches to storytelling and cultural exchange.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Cogan craved adventure. This idea of seeking ‘something more’ grew into an interest in archeology and anthropology, as he was drawn to understand different notions of community. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a BA in Anthropology and Art History, Cogan did some traveling before moving to DC with the intent of pursuing work at National Geographic, perhaps as a researcher or writer. Unfortunately, the magazine industry was experiencing massive transition and there were few jobs to be had. At the suggestion of his grandmother, he visited the volunteer office at Nat Geo, and convinced them to allow him to help in the photo lab.
A self-taught photographer, Cogan pursued his first story alone, covering a Jewish community in southern India. He has grown into one of the most sought-after journalists of our time, capturing the stories of indigenous cultures through photographs as well as film. His most recent production is a feature length documentary of New Delhi’s last magicians’ ghetto, Tomorrow We Disappear. Widely published and exhibited, he has done work for the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Smithsonian Institution, The New Yorker, and many others. He is committed to capturing the way cultures operate and evolve via visual media.
Key Interview Takeaways
We all want to share our stories – to be heard and to be seen. Cogan finds that his camera illustrates his interest and gives him an excuse to spend time with people, thus allowing him to document their experience.
To capture emotion in a photograph, one cannot treat the subjects as objects. Cogan employs an immersive process, letting go of his own cultural framework and submitting to the rules he is operating under, in order to be as clear a vessel as possible.
‘Nobody can turn down free work.’ When Cogan was struggling to find a job after college, his grandmother suggested that he volunteer at National Geographic, where he gained invaluable experience in the photo lab.
Everything is an opportunity you can’t really see coming. Because Cogan didn’t have a proper apprenticeship at National Geographic, he was able to carve his own path forward. By continuously cutting away from the crowd, he has developed his own unique approach.
Cultures don’t die, so to speak. Cogan argues that they transform, sublimate and regroup. Like DNA, cultures combine and become new things.
Humans tend to strive for predictability and control, yet Cogan finds that there is more authenticity in indigenous cultures that embrace animism – the sacred, real and breathing nature of the world. He finds his brain to be most alive when he allows himself to release control and submit to the process of immersion in such environments.
Human suffering pain, inherent inequalities in the world, witnessing physical trauma shook loose what had been building watershed moment how conceived own work see the way I see attunement to topics of cultural loss and marginalization allows him
Our realities are constructed by our experiences. Cogan recognizes that his attunement to topics of cultural loss and marginalization is due in no small part to the traumas he has witnessed. Our own experiences create a siphon through which we are able to see particular details in the world around us.
A ‘good’ photograph is one in which you feel connected to the people in the picture and the image itself tells a story. The deep meaning is what gives a photograph its value, and culture adds layers to that meaning.
While it’s difficult to say whether or not platforms like Instagram have a positive or negative effect on the evolution of photography, Cogan admits that social media has challenged him to find what it is about photography that drives him. Because he doesn’t have to serve anyone else, he can generate work that comes purely from his soul, focusing on what he believes is important to be shared with the world.