The most powerful impact often happens when we empower the underserved. TED Fellow and photojournalist Isadora Kosofsky spends years with her often-overlooked subjects, from juveniles in jail to isolated senior citizens. At 24, Kosofsky has already spent a decade traveling the world documenting life with her camera.

Fresh from her TED talk, Kosofsky explains how your own issues can become your strength and why your gut can lead your best career decision.

What in your life made you super curious about other people's stories?

Since childhood, I was always searching for connection. I felt excluded from my peers. My home life was unstable. I was drawn to marginalized people. I think I was intrinsically and intuitively drawn to people who felt separate of the mainstream or who felt unseen. I always gravitated towards the lonely kid or to the lonesome aged woman in public spaces even from a young age. I think I was born to listen and when I found photography - it became my way to listen with other senses.

I learned the power of story from my grandmother and my father. My father, who had me very late in life, is a Holocaust survivor who shared his story with me when I was young. I knew the reality of the human condition from a young age, not only from the pain I felt, but also from the despair I experienced through the stories of those around me.

Your work follows into creative nonfiction of the New Journalism back in the sixties. You don't learn that in school. How did you find your path outside of traditional boundaries?

Learning to sit in discomfort with people allowed me to find my path outside traditional boundaries. Long-form documentary is about sitting down when others would normally get up. I learned my method from spending years with the people I document. My method has been built through experience.

My process is emotion based, intuitive and immersive. I usually have a curious idea of a community or location that I want to document. I then go there and wait for the subject. Sometimes I wait months before I meet someone who becomes the focus of a long-term work. I usually see the person and know right away that I want to know them. I have to know them. It is a familiar, yet unfamiliar feeling. I imagine that that feeling is my truth, whatever that is. It is a mixture of empathy, curiosity and truth.

One of the best career decisions I have ever made was when I dropped out of art school at NYU. I was 18 and knew that I had to hit the road and go from one juvenile detention center to another, documenting incarcerated youth. I had to go. The feeling of needing to be somewhere is something that persists today and has led me to many projects.

I think almost everyone has that itch, but it is on you whether you pursue it or not. I left school and moved around the country, working on a photojournalistic documentation of detained youth. Eventually, I found Vinny, age 13, at a juvenile detention center in Albuquerque and he became the subject of what is now a 7 year documentation of him, his brother and family. 

The reality is that there is nothing you can say to convince someone to allow you into their most intimate moments. They allow me because the sense something in me that is safe and non-judgmental. My subjects sense into me, as much as I do with them, but many photojournalists do not want to admit that.

After I meet someone, I spend months and years with them, working on their story. Often the relationship I form with them is tantamount to the image making. I work with people on average for five to seven years. The relationships are indefinite and so is the long-term work. I have one subject, Bianca, who I have been shadowing for ten years for a writing, photo and video based work. I met Bianca when I was 14. I find that long-form work is the most humanizing way to approach storytelling.  

You wanted to really enter the front lines early, but your age prevented you from going into the more challenge environments. How did you facilitate your growth despite other people underestimating or perhaps just trying to protect you?

I didn't listen to authority. When I was 15, I was told I would never get into a juvenile detention center. I had superintendents of facilities call me and tell me they thought I was crazy. When I was 16, I went to Romania and documented in a youth prison there. I was given access after writing to something like a hundred facilities worldwide. I was determined to be about the same age as my subjects while working on the project. I persisted and when I was 18 I was allowed into the criminal justice system in the US as a documentarian. I was given access to many institutions as a teenager that no one thought I could get into, working closely with women in hospice and healthcare facilities.

How do you build bonds with your subjects and still stay objective in telling their honest story?

I think that the balance between relationship and objectivity is rooted in the authenticity that I carry into the private sphere as a documentarian. My ability to tell the truth about my subjects actually brings us closer together. I print images for them. Often, in the harshness of some shots, they feel seen because they know someone is holding space for the complexity of who they are. There is a safety when you know that someone is gazing at your lightness and darkness and accepts you as a mixture of both.

After the subjects get used to me, I am able to become invisible in order to capture spontaneous moments. Recently one subject said to me, "You're so good at what you do. I forget you're here." It's as if the invisibility I felt growing up benefits me in the work I do now. When I show images to the subjects, they often don't remember that they were taken. 

You've described your photography as a collaboration with the subjects. Can you expand on that? How is what you do differently than traditional feature photography?

I see my "subjects" as collaborators because subject denotes a power differential and an authoritative dynamic. I see my work as a collaboration between humans. When we view a subject as an object of a social issue, that objectified perception limits closeness. Seeing the work as a collaboration instills that the subject takes the most risk, which she or he does. The courage of those I document greatly inspires me.

I have been working with a young woman for the last nine months who is taking a risk with her safety to be documented. Her desire to share her story and to be silent no more, as she has expressed, has altered my life forever. I am continually taken aback by the will and spirit of the people whose lives I have been witness to.

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Published on: Apr 11, 2018