Portrait of Humanity: Meet our The Guardian Editors’ Pick People’s Choice Winner, Toby A. Cox

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For Toby A. Cox, one of our first Portrait of Humanity People’s Choice Winners, photography and travel are inseparable. Having grown up in the US, she only started taking pictures when she travelled as a student. Since then, she has come to use photography as a way of exploring different cultures. The Guardian editors picked her image, which captures two young children waving through a car window, as one of the best Portrait of Humanity entries so far.

The picture, taken in Kyrgyzstan, captures a moment of joy. Cox has made it her mission to confront rising Islamophobia by documenting day-to-day life in Muslim-majority countries, tackling what she sees as an ‘us vs them’ mentality. Her photographs show that regardless of race or religion, we all experience the same emotions – making us far more similar than we might think.

© Toby A. Cox, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019

Can you tell me about your background as a photographer? How and when did you first get into photography?

I took photos when I started travelling, but mostly of landscapes and things, not people. Until this past year taking photos of people felt intimidating and invasive.

As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, I learned to take photos of people. I traveled throughout Kyrgyzstan talking with people and taking photos that captured elements of Kyrgyz culture, identity, and religion.

One of my main focuses for this project was to learn about religious identity in Kyrgyzstan and to share these stories with the world. Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim majority country with a complicated history with religion and Islam. One of my goals was to show through narrative-based stories and photos how diverse Islam is across cultures.

© Toby A. Cox, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019

Can you tell me about the photograph you entered into Portrait of Humanity? What is the story behind it?

This photo was taken on the way back to Bishkek from field work in Naryn, a mountainous region in Kyrgyzstan. I had just put my camera away and was looking out of the window when movement in the car ahead of us caught my eye.

I saw these children, smiling and waving to cars passing by on the highway and people in these cars smiling and waving back – it was such a beautiful moment of human connection. When our car got close, the children turned to us and began smiling and waving and, of course, I smiled and waved back. I reached for my camera and took a few shots before we passed them.

Why did you decide to enter the Portrait of Humanity award?

I passionately believe in the Portrait of Humanity’s slogan – there is more that unites us than divides us – and I can’t think of a mantra the world needs more right now than this one. Through photography, we can make the world more accessible and can show that our similarities outweigh our differences.

© Toby A. Cox, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019

What would it mean for you to exhibit your work in Portrait of Humanity’s global tour?

Separately, these photos will be works of art. Together, these photos will display the emotions, feelings of vulnerability, and values that make us all human. To have my photos of Kyrgyz culture featured as a part of this ode to humanity would be an honor.

What do you think makes a compelling portrait? 

The photographers who inspire me are those who take photos that can resonate with anyone, regardless of background. These are the most powerful kinds of images.

Do you have any advice for other entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

For those selecting a portrait to submit, I would suggest choosing the one that captures a dimension of humanity and that adds something to the narrative of our collective human journey.

Do you want to be part of the movement? Together, we will create a Portrait of Humanity

© Toby A. Cox, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019
© Toby A. Cox, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019
© Toby A. Cox, Portrait of Humanity Entry 2019