Photojournalist Nadia Shira Cohen

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / June 9, 2021

“I want to convey the injustice in the world which exists”

(Courtesy of Nadia Shira Cohen)

(Courtesy of Nadia Shira Cohen)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?

Nadia Shira Cohen: When I was 15 I was diagnosed with cancer and at the same time given a Pentax K1000 by my dad (an avid photographer) for my birthday. I managed to stay in high school while I went through my chemo treatment and began a black and white photography course. I had a lot of time to kill in the hospital while on chemo so I began to photograph the other kids who were sick around me. At the time I wasn’t aware that what I was doing was documentary photography, it was just instinctual and gratifying and also sad because many of the kids didn’t make it. But I did and I went on to study photography and work as an assistant. Although it wasn’t until I took a life changing photojournalism class at ICP, a night class after work, taught by Ellen Binder, that I decided that that would be my career. Our first assignment was to stay and photograph on one city block for 8 hours. The day started out terrifying but as I eased in and began shooting it became exhilarating.

Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I’m not a big technical photographer. I shoot Canon 5D IV and upgrade as they do. I use fixed lenses, primarily 35mm F1.4, 50mm F1.2, and 28mm F1.8 (when I need the wide range). I sometimes shoot analogue on a Contax 645. I also recently bought a Fujifilm x100v Mirrorless to experiment with shooting with less gear.

Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I have a twitter account but It’s mostly used to monitor people and organizations, for my stories and research. I have a Facebook account which I used to use far more often and I use Instagram often, almost like a visual life journal. I sometimes post my already photographed work on it but it’s mostly just candid every day moments.

Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I find it really necessary to do a lot of research before arriving. Reading about what I’m doing and the place I’m going helps stimulate visual ideas beforehand and then I lose less time finding them on the ground. When traveling I pack extremely light, always a carryon bag since I have had my luggage lost or delayed too often. In my photo bag I make sure I have two camera bodies. I rarely use both but the second one is just in case I have any problems with the 1st. I have my three fixed lenses, plenty of batteries and memory cards with a lot of memory. I sometimes find myself in places where charging is difficult for lack of electricity, so the extra batteries and cards are essential. I was traveling with a mask and gel even before covid since often I’m in dirty places without the possibility to wash my hands and in polluted cities traveling for example in a tuk tuk or motorbike. I always have a copy of my passport and press card (except when it’s dangerous to carry a press card for some reason). And I often have a light scarf in case I need to cover my head in religious institutions (which can pop up when you least expect it). This can be doubled as a lens cleaner ;-)

Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

Nadia Shira Cohen: My work is very intimate. I like to take my time, stay a while and let things happen. I hate more than anything to be on a deadline but sometimes that’s the reality. With the intimacy of my subject I am trying to create an empathy in the viewer. I want them to be moved by the photo to look at that person or that place or that issue. I see beauty and want to create beauty even out of what is not.

Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

Nadia Shira Cohen: It really depends on how long I’ve been on the story and what is happening. I try not to over shoot but if there are good things going on sometimes I get carried away. I recently shot a 3 week story and arrived to 16,000 images!!!

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

Nadia Shira Cohen: Since the Covid Pandemic began which is over a year ago, I have not travelled which is really unheard of for my usual schedule. In January 2020 I went to Mexico to finish the last leg of my work on the Mennonite Soy Farmers and Mayan Beekeepers.

Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I’m continuing my Mennonite work in other countries and I am working on a story about surrogacy that has been halfway shot and on hold until I can travel again.

Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite?

Nadia Shira Cohen: What makes them so special to you? That’s hard, I have so many favourites for so many different reasons. I think the ones that stand out more for me are mixed in with my personal experience while taking them, like the one of Maria Teresa in El Salvador when she was freed from jail after having spent 4 years there accused of having killed her new-born when really she had suffered an obstetric emergency. The experience of being in the courtroom and having the privilege to finally witness justice was overwhelming.

Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I want to convey the injustice in the world which exists.

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?  

Nadia Shira Cohen: It needs to make you stop and look again.

Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

Nadia Shira Cohen: An element of striking beauty or something which is not what you expect to see.

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

Nadia Shira Cohen: The people in the photos and their stories. Doing research for stories is one of the most motivating tasks I have and stimulates me immensely.

Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I think it was really at the start of my career in New York City. I quit my job as a photo assistant for two successful theatre photographers and was determined to become a photojournalist. I would wake up every morning at 6am and find something to shoot on spec and then bring in my film to the A.P. office where they would develop it and edit my negatives. Sometimes I would sell pictures and other times not. In the end I couldn’t make it financially and had to take a job at a photo agency which was hard because all I wanted to do was shoot but in the end it was a blessing in disguise as I went on to learn the art of the photo business and made loads of contacts at publications. When it was time to go back to shooting my eye had matured from all the photography I had seen over the years and I was in a position to oversee my career, knowing how to move within the world of photojournalism.

Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

Nadia Shira Cohen: A trip around the world, to be able to wander from one story to the next, find the stories on the ground.

Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

Nadia Shira Cohen: Number one patience! You may have to be bored a lot of the time but it will pay off for those moments that are magic. Following your intuition (your gut instinct) and being an intuitive person is very important and will also help keep you safe. Being a good listener is essential, I often sit down and talk to people and don’t even shoot the first hours I meet someone or a family (depending of course on how much time I have). Anticipating what people will do is also essential, it will allow you to be ready for what is coming. I often feel a bit handicapped if I’m working somewhere I don’t speak the language because I can’t pick up on what they are saying or understand what their next moves are but I try to understand by their body language and interaction with each other.

Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Nadia Shira Cohen: Clearly it should not be accepted or considered documentary photography but there has also been another kind of manipulation going on for some time which involves that of people, what is considered staging and is widely accepted in many countries’ news photography circles. This to me is just as serious.

Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

Nadia Shira Cohen: I think the most important is to make sure that the people you are photographing will not be harmed in any way by their publication and that means even in an economic way. Consent is also very important, meaning that the people you are photographing are aware of what you are doing, what the photos are and where they will be published. This is sometimes hard to convey for people who might live without exposure to magazines and newspapers or the internet. I often find myself in difficult situations photographing people that are usually in a very dire economic state that clearly need help. Ethically it would be wrong to pay them since this would be considered payment for cooperation. However I often stay friends with people I photographed and when I am not longer documenting their lives for a story I often try to donate something. I’ve also been part of campaigns in which fundraising has been done in light of a publication. I think this is really important when possible because even if your photos might shed light on these peoples difficult situations it’s not necessarily going to directly put bread on their table. If we can help as journalists we should.

Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance? 

Nadia Shira Cohen: I actually think that photojournalists are and will become even more important in the coming years as we are all threatened by fake news. Perhaps social media companies will come to understand our importance and somehow support us.

Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?

Nadia Shira Cohen: Being a woman can actually be an advantage in the field. I am often invited into orthodox religious homes which my male counterparts would never be allowed into. I feel that people I approach to photograph are less threatened by me as I’m a woman. I have to say I often work alone and not around other photojournalists unless I’m covering a big news event like an earthquake, a revolution, etc. and in that case I’m much often on the fringe of what is going on because of the nature of my work. I am drawn to the side stories in those cases.

Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

Nadia Shira Cohen: Sounds cheesy but really lead with your heart and the rest will follow. Do what you are interested in. Understand how the business works and the sensibility of the publications you are pitching to, what they publish, etc. This is vital to getting work. Also there are no limits to practicing and getting experience since you could do a documentary story on your neighbour for example. You will need to build up your portfolio to be able to get work from publications. Put the work in, this job feels like constantly climbing the biggest mountain you’ve ever seen. Also be persistent and don’t take it personally if you don’t get responses from editors, keep at it.

Nadia Shira Cohen

Nadia Shira Cohen is an American documentary photographer based in Rome. Her work focuses on issues stemming from human rights, environmental conflict, women’s reproduction, social unrest and urban violence. She’s a regular contributor to the New York Times and other publications including National Geographic and Harpers Magazine. Cohen won a Getty-Women Photograph Grant for her work on the criminal abortion law in El Salvador. She is an IWMF Fellow and Grantee, as well as a Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting Grantee for her work on Romanian Gold Mining. Her work has been exhibited in Italy, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, and Russia.