Bringing Photography’s Truth to the Classroom

by Christine Nappi, Contributor

While being surrounded by 200 prisoners and only two prison guards, Lili Kobielski was photographing her documentary book “I Refuse for the Devil to Take My Soul: Inside Cook County Jail.” Cook County Jail, located in Chicago, is the largest mental health institution in the country, as well as being a jail. Kobielski was inspired to capture the stories behind the inmates and jail employees, while also shedding light on the topic of mental illness, through her photography skills, a passion that she’s turned into a career.

Kobielski recently began instructing photography classes at Manhattan College this past fall semester, in addition to teaching at New York University. Other than teaching, Kobielski has published two photo documentary books while also taking photographs for a plethora of publications such as Vogue, The New York Times, The New Yorker and Vice.

“I’m interested in what’s there,” Kobielski said. “The camera is such a beautiful way to see the world and get access to places that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

Kobielski developed an interest in photography during high school, often finding herself in her school’s dark room learning on film camera. She describes photography as being her “niche,” where she feels most comfortable.

After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from NYU and a masters in digital media from Columbia University, Kobielski began to venture out into the world photography. One of her goals was to have her photography featured in an edition of The New York Times, which she soon did upon graduating. To delve further into the art of photography and pursue a deeper meaning in her work, Kobielski began working on documentary style pieces.

Her book on Cook County Jail was released in Dec. 2018, and documented the struggles prisoners faced while highlighting the issues of incarceration. Kobielski has also published her book “Rockabye” in 2015 which illustrates the impact Hurricane Sandy left on the Rockaway Peninsula.

“I really believe in and I hope photography, and especially documentary photography, can effect change and highlight issues and problems in society,” Kobielski said. “It’s really important to shed light on these issues and share and at least provide and outlet for people that don’t have a voice.”

Kobielski chose the subject of Cook County Jail in order to educate others and create awareness about the issues in jail by documenting it for the world to see. Like any other shoot, Kobielski was nervous and stressed at first but was determined to encapsulate a compelling narrative of those in the jail.

The stories Kobielski heard from prisoners were often about trauma, mental illness and social ills, with most of their crimes being drug or gang related. She described a majority of the prisoners emerging from backgrounds of poverty with little room for opportunity in life, and then being incarcerated as young teenagers. In addition to the inmates, Kobielski interviewed numerous employees, and describes how they’ve done “incredible social work.”

“I was so grateful and amazed by how incredibly generous all of the inmates were in giving their stories and giving me their time,” Kobielski said. “We think about jail and all the ills of jail, but it’s so much about the community and what’s happening in society. Racism, poverty, all of these things are so directly related to incarceration and that was something that was really important to hear and to put into the book,” she said.

After three and a half years of conducting countless numbers of interviews, directing photo shoots and crafting a story, her book was finally published. Kobielski believes this to be the work that she feels “best” about because it brings recognition to a serious issue.

“If I wasn’t a photographer doing a book, there’s no way I would go inside a jail and work for three years. That’s one of the incredible things about photography is the places that it takes you,” she said.

  Although she’s mostly interested in documentary work, Kobielski also enjoys being assigned to shoot for publications. When shooting assignments for magazines such as Vogue, Kobielski will spend most of her time travelling to various locations, researching places to go, where celebrities will be or finding out topics everyone’s talking about. As she describes, many see the job as “high profile” it brings a long challenges, such as the need to shoot a handful of assignments a day to be successful.

“It’s a very intense lifestyle and as much as I like doing these short term assignments, I really like doing longer documentary projects,” Kobielski said. “I like doing this mix of things, I think good photography is good photography, whether you’re doing fashion pictures, photojournalism or you’re doing longer form documentary work.” 

On top of her documentary and assignment work, Kobielski is also passionate about teaching photography and finds it “fulfilling” to help students improve their skills.

“The reason that she loves photography and that she’s so passionate about it really comes out in her teaching style,” junior Brittany O’Malley said. “She wants to teach us what’s really important about photography.”

While she originally thought that Kobielski’s class would simply teach her how to use a camera, O’Malley feels she has learned the value of photography. Although her plans for the future don’t include pursuing photography as a career, she has been able to apply her photography skills to her interests as well as advertising internships.

O’Malley describes Kobielski’s curriculum as being “open” and that it allows “creativity.” Students were able to take the same assignment and interpret it in unique ways by photographing different subjects such as fashion, street and personal photography.

“If you’re interested in doing anything creative it’s definitely worth it to take this class. Even if you’re not necessarily interested in being a photographer it’s a really good class to take just to get the creative juices flowing and to learn how to look at things differently,” O’Malley said.

Kobielski’s background in photography has allowed her to bring a creative and effective teaching style to the classroom. As junior Harriet Carino describes, Kobielski would bring in other professional photographers to share their experiences too, which set examples for the class and inspired students. In addition, Kobielski’s assignments challenges students to go onto the streets of the city, expand their creativity and capture significant subjects. Carino describes having learnt a great deal from Kobielski and her experience.

“Professor Kobielski has definitely impacted me as a photographer in the best ways. [She] has always encouraged me which meant a lot coming from a professional,” Carino said.

While she continues to teach, Kobielski hopes to be more “selective” of her photography expenditures in the future. She hopes to get into another long-form project, and is planning on pursuing some of her own work.

Cook County Jail

Kobielski enjoys teaching at Manhattan and working with her students. She describes them as “dedicated” and “hard-working” and finds it rewarding to seeing them learn and grow in the field of photography. She advises those interested in building a photography career to persevere and to “hustle” toward reaching the goal. Although it can be challenging at times, she has built her career off of her passion for meaningful photography and is helping and encouraging students who wish to do the same

“[Photography] is beautiful, rewarding, it gives you really amazing access if you like adventures and seeing new things and exploring the world,” Kobielski said. “It’s a really beautiful field for that reason.”