Larger than life. Out of this world. Unique. Fierce and unbeatable. Force of nature and talent. That’s what Hoffman’s photography should be. Idolizing the creative force, laying the brickwork for unshakeable foundation of celebrity status.
Larger than life. Out of this world. Unique. Fierce and unbeatable. Force of nature and talent. That’s what Hoffman’s photography should be.
You started your career as a music photographer. How did that come about?
My roommate for the first year in college was in a band called Jonas Brothers and they were playing at tiny pubs in New Jersey trying to make it. He said this band is going nowhere I just need photos of myself. I took pictures and sent them to the management team, never expected to hear from them again. Then they made it and became this huge thing. Band hadn’t exploded to the phenomenon yet, but they were playing shows in New York City and asked me if I could come to their shows there. I took a bunch of pictures of them. A year later I got a call from California number I didn’t recognize and answered it.
“Hey Rob, This is Phil McIntyre, Jonas Brothers manager, would you tour with us?”
I was like umm let me call you back (laughs) and I called my dad and said, this band wants me to go on tour with them. I didn’t even own a digital camera of my own at that point; I was just using the school’s equipment. I didn’t know what to do, they wanted me to go for a week and I was going to miss too many classes. My dad was like - drop out! We ended up calling the camera store for them to stay open later. I remember my flight later that night was at 9pm, my dad picked me up after I dropped out and went to the store and get camera and then to the airport.
How did everything unravel from that? Was the celebrity realm all accidental?
With Jonas Brothers I ended up going on tour that was supposed to be for a week. The day before I was meant to go home we got on a private plane and flew to LA. I’m sitting at the hotel room realizing, week is over! I called the manager and asked ‘hey, what’s up, you asked me to come out here for a week’ and he asked me if I just wanted to stick around and I was like...ok?! I ended up working for them for five years (laughs). Never went home. I had a pet snake that I got a week before taking this gig. Told my roommate he could keep the snake (laughs). Everything after that just lead to what happened next.
Your style...what is it that makes your work you?
I have always been extremely emotional, moody person. I wish I wasn’t but I am. So take Beyonce, right?! My job is to go out there every single night and make her look unbelievable, make her look larger than life, like a superhero. Me, personally...that’s my job, I love doing it, it was really easy, but...at the end day what I’m most proud of and what I think represents me the most is just a quiet picture of her where she looks ...normal. When the guard is down, you know?! When she’s not onstage, when she’s not posing for me. It’s finding that moment where she is within herself. It’s about finding something else.
What influenced you the most?
I always think about Avedon’ s portrait of Monroe where she is off the set just pouting. It’s most unique photo of her. Especially when taking someone’s portrait the desire is to have them look at that photo and think “that’s me!” not the projection of what I want the public to see and somehow still be happy with it. That pretty much sums up where my work is with celebrities and to always find something different and something unique. As far as shooting something else...it's always a search for a moment of nostalgia I guess. The older I get the more I realize that I just want simplicity. That’s why I mainly shoot in black and white. Once you start worrying about the other elements you are losing the sight of the connection you are trying to make with your subject. I simply want intimacy.
If money wasn't an object?
The Caravan! That’s the project! I loved doing it because it was a chance to help someone else, to use my privilege and work to try and open eyes, bring compassion...to show these people for who they were.
Submitting Caravan to different publications and media outlets I quickly found that unless you have pictures of desperate people in desperate conditions it won’t work. It’s not necessarily the publications fault because I understand where they are coming from: people don’t want to react to it. There’s something to be said for the photos of the baby that drowned in Greece and the refugee photos. Its beyond important! At the same time, when I went down to Tijuana, it was very deliberate to bring a white backdrop because I’m watching the news and the portrayal is that all these people are animals. Everyone’s running it because that’s what people want to see, their readers are there for, what draws people in for clicks, tweets and advertising. In the end of the day their answer was “we’re all good on this coverage”. And then you look at the coverage and it’s all poverty porn. It’s people in cages; it’s terrible! That’s not the whole side of the story.
So what happened?
Something snapped in my head and I felt like I have to go down there. I started out admiring Leibovitz and the older I get I’m moving more towards Avedon. I put blinders on things. I respect how he worked; I understand what he did. I think In The American West was the greatest photo project ever. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. He hit the timing perfectly. So what’s my time? I went down to the border and as soon as I saw the media coverage. Little voice in me just said: this is it; this is my time and place for this.
The idea that Avedon had of stripping everything in the background down was very important then, is still very important now. These people needed to have a voice and to be seen as people, not as roving band of immigrants trying to break down the walls of the United States. It’s not the truth! They are coming from the most unbelievably brutal situations, from gang violence. Most of the people we talked to!
Was it lack of choice pushing these people to extremes?
The quote that hit me so strong was - no mother would put her child in the boat if the land were safe - and it’s totally true. It makes me sick to my stomach that this is a political game for somebody. And exploit these people. Where is that in the story? There’s never the empathy. You imagine how hard it is to leave everything behind? Take this dangerous 3000-mile journey to risk your life with your child...that’s crazy! Do you know how bad your life needs to be to do that? That’s never in the story. It’s ridiculous.
Do we need more honesty? Unfiltered things that people need to see but don’t want to?
Platforms like Twitter, Instagram are still so relatively new to society that people see an issue that they care about and sure, they feel certain levels of empathy and it’s just so easy for people to exploit the suffering of other on Internet. It’s all click and re-tweets but nobody is stopping to think about the situations that lead to that point. Nobody has any empathy anymore, you know?
Biggest thing you came back with?
It was kind of a fog for few days after. My biggest takeaway is that these people became family, they looked out for each other, and they protected each other against all of this crap. How you can look at that, how you can see that...that kind of bond, the kind of protection and say that these are the people you wouldn’t be happy to have as your neighbor in United States or wherever, is unbelievable to me.
How do you feel about being white male in today’s political climate and taking on this project?
Someone accused me in doing it out of white guilt. I don’t even know how that factors in, but I feel responsibility coming from a place of privilege to use what I've been given to do anything I can to help the ones who come from less fortunate place. I’m trying not to preach, or to make myself look good. It’s just basic human decency at that point. Take music for example, I feel like white people always try to interject themselves, right? Black culture, appropriation ...we are so outraged by the issues all the time, but what do you do about it? You have to say at certain point, no, I don’t have to be part of it. It's better that I just sit back and appreciate, applaud that, right? Its kind of same thing. The outrage shouldn’t be mine. The outrage is felt but I don’t own it. It's for somebody else and the best thing I can do is to do whatever I can to help in my way. It’s hard to draw that line and say that this broke my heart because it did break my heart, but what are these people going through? There's no equivalent. It is impossible for me to know what’s that like. I’m the most privileged demographic in the world today - straight white man who lives in America. When you go down there and meet these people you get one percent of all of it. That’s enough to make me depressed for a week, can you imagine? You can’t! It’s heartbreaking and terrible to think of what they are going through.