Photojournalist Nadia Shira Cohen was born in Boston in 1977, with a great curiosity for the world and the unknown. Her creativity was first nurtured by her parents, both of whom are artists. At the age of fifteen, Cohen received her first camera and began exploring and documenting the world around her. She continued to pursue her passion for photography at the University of Vermont and a semester abroad at the SACI School in Florence, Italy. Cohen worked as a photojournalist in New York City, primarily as a independent photographer for the Associated Press, before working as an agent for Sipa Press, where she represented documentary photographers. In 2005, she joined the world-renowned photojournalism agency VII, where she was director of North American sales and assignments and director of special projects. In 2007, Cohen moved to Rome, Italy, where she continues to compassionately tell stories of the people who interest her.
Beyond the Literal
What is your biggest challenge as a photographer? Getting into people’s lives, getting access. Every shoot I do, this is different and proposes unique challenges. Taking pictures often feels like the easy part. It’s the human interaction, asking someone to open up their life to you, and essentially to the world, that you need to spend a lot of time on, and it can be very delicate. I usually don’t shoot pictures on my first encounter with a subject if it’s a project that I have plenty of time to shoot. I sit with people, eat with them and talk; it’s a process. I try not to make false promises, as much of the time I’m photographing people who are in difficult life situations. Some people say no, but I often find that people want to share their story with someone and have it shown to the public. It’s often cathartic.
You’ve said that you feel a great deal of responsibility toward your subjects. Can you give an example and explain the decisions you made? I was working on a story about police and drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro, and how they both often come from the same poverty. Getting access to people willing to be photographed was more difficult that it’s been for any story I have ever worked on, and for good reason—the police risked being assassinated by the dealers and the dealers risked assassination, imprisonment or worse. I finally found a police officer who was anxious to tell his story. When I began documenting the officer, a member of his family confided in me that he was involved with drug trafficking. So here I had the exact family that I was looking for, with individuals on both sides of the fence, but I had to treat the information I had with real care, because exposing them in the wrong way could be deadly. I decided that the work could not be published in Brazil and I limited publication on the Internet.
How do you address storytelling in photojournalism, which is expected to present the truth? Even though we’re journalists and what we show needs to reflect the truth, we are also portraying what is in front of us through our own vision, choosing what we want to show and how to show it. I don’t consider myself to be a very “literal” photojournalist and I loathe what I call the “checklist,” which is all the preconceived images I feel I need to get in order to tell the story. I’m more drawn, in my own work as well as other people’s, to images that leave you a bit perplexed and wanting to know more. The image might be more abstract; a gesture that makes you understand instead of a literal picture of someone cooking. I think we, as photojournalists, don’t always think beyond the literal and include images that make you feel. If we tapped into this more, we could explore an alternative language of photojournalism.
Do you work in motion, and do you think it’s important for still photographers to work in motion as well?
I have begun to work in motion a bit. There is an obvious trend in news media to include motion. The problem is that we have become expected to do this at the same time as shooting still images without either one suffering, which I find quite impossible. If I am shooting video I go out that day only with an eye for moving images, although I have to say it’s difficult, because when I see something really spectacular, I want to shoot a still. I think still photographers need more education about motion. It’s a whole other medium, a different art form and should be treated as such. Some situations lend themselves more to motion, and others to stills. There is so much potential for photographers, since we pay so much attention to the frame. If we can learn how to transform that into motion, it can be really explosive.
Why did you begin working as an agent? Well, quite frankly, I had started as a stringer for the Associated Press and was pretty much tossed aside one summer when they decided to cut their budget and use mostly staff photographers. I realized how inexperienced I was, and that I would not be able to make it as a photographer on perseverance alone. I began to research issues of copyright, and the difference between an agency that owns your images and one that represents them. My heart wanted just to continue shooting, but my head knew better. My knowledge, experience and opportunities grew until I was able to channel it all back into my own work.
What tools do you find indispensable in your work?
My best tools are more mental than physical. I’m not one to need to the latest equipment to take a good picture. My most indispensable quality is intuition. It will let you know when to shoot and when to put down the camera and lend a hand or a hug, or just leave someone alone. In some cases, it will save your life. I have become so hyper-aware of people—their body language, their words or lack of them—that I can read people very quickly and often anticipate things that are going to happen. It helps me to know what to do in an ever-changing environment.