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"Becoming an artist was an accident," she says. "I always tell people to discourage your kids because you have to fight to be an artist. You have to be sure you really want to do it."
Tufts had an affiliation with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and required all undergraduates to take two art classes. Cohen enrolled in photography.
"George Bush the first was president at the time so I started photographing protests," she says. "I liked what was happening with the camera."
She liked it so much, she wound up changing her degree to a dual major in philosophy and ethical theory and studio art.
After college, Cohen was at a crossroads. Forced to decide between pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy or becoming a photographer, Cohen grabbed her camera and headed to Panama. She spent four years photographing transgendered sex workers along the Panama Canal, and found, in a roundabout way, the inspiration for her current work.
Panama is a country with strong economic ties to the United States and strong cultural ties to Colombia, its closest neighbor. As a first-generation Colombian-American, Cohen says she also felt very connected to the country.
"I started thinking, 'What are my responsibilities to Latin America as someone who is first generation? And what is the relationship between Latin America and the United States?'" she says. "It's a complicated relationship, and Panama is the perfect spot to look at this because it's a gateway with the canal. Panama's history is super-linked to the United States and it's linked to Colombia, so it's the perfect spot for me."
Cohen started out wanting to photograph daily life on the military bases near the canal, but quickly found herself bored. In 1996, when she began the project, the U.S. military was in the process of withdrawing troops and preparing to turn control of the canal over to the Panamanian government, an exchange that went through in 1999.
"I realized it's boring hanging out on military bases, and I realized this is probably what a military base looks like in Japan or anywhere," she says. "I thought, 'Maybe if I pretended I'm Panamanian and dated one of the soldiers, maybe that would be interesting.'"
So acting on the advice of a friend, Cohen went one Saturday night to a fence near the base, where she'd heard local women who wanted to meet soldiers tried to get dates.
There were three other people at the fence: a drug dealer, a sex worker and a hot dog vendor. Realizing there was no way the night was going to end well unless she left, Cohen started driving around the Canal Zone an area of jungle and military bases that fortifies the canal.
As she cruised the main drag La Avenida de Cuatro Julio, or Fourth of July Avenue ("Hmm . . . wonder who named the street," she says now, sarcastically) Cohen passed a group of sex workers. She stopped and realized they were transgendered. They told her they were going through a large economic shift because the bases were closing and most of their clients were American servicemen.
Cohen pinpoints this conversation as the moment her Panama project came together. The street, which locals call La Avenida de los Martires (Avenue of Martyrs) in honor of university students killed there in the 1970s for taking down an American flag to hang a Panamanian flag, was historically significant. Something about the sex workers changing biological and economic environment, and the place they stood on the historic street, struck a chord with her.
"I started photographing them all the time," she says. "I started thinking about the price people pay to have acceptance, and I started making a metaphor for that, connecting to the history of Panama. Panama's behavior is kind of like that of a prostitute to the United States, but it gets the things it wanted. Panama is a lot richer than Colombia. There's not a civil war in Panama like there is in Colombia. It's interesting the things you give and the things you take."
She worked on the project for the next four years, going back and forth between Panama City and San Francisco, where she'd begun her master's of fine arts at the California College for the Arts (formerly the California College of Arts and Crafts). She got to know her subjects extremely well, visiting their homes and spending countless hours on the street with them. Eventually, she realized she had pushed the project as far as possible.
"Lynette, one of the sex workers, started dressing me up, and I was like, 'Okay, this has gone as far as it can go,'" she says. "What's next? Am I supposed to be inside a room taking pictures of people having sex? The exploration had ended."
But the experience sparked an idea that would eventually turn into her current project.
"I started thinking an interesting way for me to push my documentary practice would be to become part of what I was looking at," she says. "I started to think about things I'm just not supposed to be a part of and how I could become a part of it during the process of photographing it. I keyed in on building a car and becoming a lowrider."