Feature: University professor Jon Cox utilizes photography for worldwide storytelling

Feature: University professor Jon Cox utilizes photography for worldwide storytelling

Co-Managing News Editor

Jon Cox never expected his entomology and plant pathology degree to take him where it did.

Despite starting as an Integrated Pest Management Specialist for a tree company, Cox now spends his life traveling the world to capture the stories of marginalized populations. Yet, even with his massive change in career paths, he remained certain that the switch was the right decision for him. 

“You never know where your career is going to take you,” Cox, the associate professor in the Department of Art and Design, said. “You can kind of pinpoint sometimes these little moments where it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the moment where my career path and the whole trajectory of my life changed.’”

Since his occupation switch, Cox, who also serves as the president of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research, has taken his photography passion worldwide. Through his travels, he has worked with Indigenous communities, refugee populations and underrepresented groups both in the United States and abroad. 

Courtesy of Jon Cox

His first big trip was to Peru, for which he received financing through National Geographic’s Legacy Fund. There he worked with the Ese’Eja People of the Amazon and earned the title of National Geographic Explorer. Since then, his recognition – and his projects – have only grown.

Recently, he earned a Fulbright Specialist Award, which gave him the opportunity to travel to Slovakia and work with Ukrainian refugees. 

Cox, in conjunction with his project partner and university alum, Andrew Bale, worked to make the photography process as hands-on as possible.

To do this, they utilized cyanotypes. Cox explained that the process of creating cyanotypes is different from the “standard photo digitizing process” and is more hands-on, which made it something that everyone could partake in. 

According to Cox, participants would spend around two hours with one image, allowing them to feel more connected to it. As a keepsake, they were allowed to take the photograph home with them after they were complete.

Exhibits throughout Slovakia displayed a combination of work from Cox, Bale and community members. Locations ranged from event centers, community gardens and local galleries in the middle of villages.

“I love the community aspects where it’s not just showcasing what we did, but also really embracing what community work is all about and having them be in the exhibition too,” Cox said. 

Cox’s Slovakia visit was part of a larger project called the “Arrivals Project,” in which he worked to highlight the different diasporas in Idaho.

According to Cox, the “Arrivals Project” began when he met Palina, a refugee from Laos who escaped in the 1970s. Throughout the project they photographed over 100 people in Idaho from 100 different countries. 

Boise, Idaho has had a very high immigration population since the mid-1970s, explained Cox. While Idaho as a whole has a white population of just over 86%, Cox stated that Boise is a hub for refugees, making it the perfect place to celebrate commonalities within people through this project.

“When you break it down, people want clean water, they want shelter, they want a better life for their kids,” Cox said. “And it comes down to some real basic elements really that, oftentimes, we take for granted.”

Cox’s work on the “Arrivals Project” will next be taking him to Ireland, where he plans to continue his work with Ukrainian refugees, as well as connect with Irish travelers and African immigrants.

The photographic storyteller mentioned that he tends to latch onto other people’s trips or ideas, but is no stranger to solo trips. Just the same, his passion for photography and traveling has led to him running numerous study abroad programs at the university. Through these trips, he has taken students to places like Cambodia and Vietnam.

Courtesy of Jon Cox

“Getting to plan study abroad trips is a great way to experience something for the first time, where everyone’s just in it together and really embracing it,” Cox said.

His next pending study abroad trip is to Tanzania in January 2025, where he plans to take students to various national parks and local towns in order to immerse them in the culture and community. 

Cox explained that through photography, he is able to share messages in a unique way, and thus draw in varying viewers to share important knowledge. 

“As an artist, we’re oftentimes able to communicate things in a much different way than a scientist would,” Cox said. “You can get a completely different audience, and your impact can be totally different. You’re still looking at the same issues, just in different ways.”

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