MEET. Rob Hammer

© Rob Hammer

Meet San Diego-based advertising and documentary photographer, Rob Hammer.

Do you have a favorite podcast?
If we’re strictly focusing on photography-related podcasts then I’d have to say The Candid Frame and Visual Revolutionary. Both of them are very educational. 

Who are your top 5 favorites that you’re following on Instagram?
I hate Instagram in a lot of ways. It’s a gift and a curse. As far as living photographers, I’m currently getting a lot of inspiration from people like Walter Iooss Jr., Kurt Markus, and Andy Anderson. The rest of the inspiration comes from gallery accounts that share a lot of iconic photography that they represent. 

What 3 words describe your photography style?
No idea. Never think about that and don’t plan it. 

What do you listen to when you’re shooting? 
It all depends on the client and the type of shoot. If it’s a commercial fitness client then it would probably be some type of Spotify hip-hop playlist or something else that would provide energy. When I’m on the road shooting, it’s a mix of audiobooks, podcasts, country, rap, and rock. If I’m home editing then it’ll be a Spotify ‘Focus’ or ‘Calm’ playlist. I love them for editing because it’s relaxing background noise without any words that keeps you entertained but is never distracting. 

What inspires you?
Can I just say everything? Photo books are probably the biggest source of inspiration and my collection is starting to get out of control. I can pinpoint a drastic positive change in my own photography/career to when I started incessantly digesting photo books. I also travel a lot and try to visit photo/art galleries whenever possible. They have been great. Seeing different styles of art is so informative. Movies/documentaries are great too. They give me so many visual ideas. Reading has also been an amazing tool for learning different ways to tell a story. Sounds weird to type that, but it’s true. Travel, in general, is inspirational. People are inspirational. You can find inspiration anywhere as long as you’re open to it.  

What’s your favorite thing about being a photographer?
That’s changed so much over the years and hopefully it continues to change. Early on I photographed a lot of famous athletes and thought that was so cool and figured it was the way you built a name/career for yourself. Then after a few years, I realized it was all bullshit. Now I could care less about photographing anyone famous. The important thing for me is the final result. If a client wants to make interesting images that happen to involve a famous person, then great. Otherwise, I’m just as happy to shoot a no-name that’s into collaborating and making great images. I love making images. I really do. It’s an obsession more than it’s a profession and my favorite place to do that is on the road wandering around America. Not sure what I’d do without the camera. Making photographs of anything is pleasing to me. Whether that’s for a client or images that will never be seen, it doesn’t matter. 

When you aren’t making photographs, what other pastimes do you have?
Backcountry snowboarding, fly fishing, hunting, backpacking, food, and travel. Most of those still involve making photographs though. There isn’t much separation for me, which is a gift. The only activity I ever put the camera down for is snowboarding. That’s a full checkout. Otherwise, I’ll have anxiety about missing a photo during all of the others. The thing I most recently got into is learning to ride horses. 

Describe your daily or weekly work habits. (Pre-Covid and currently)
A disorganized wreck. 

Who were your biggest influencers?
That’s a really long list of which I’ll certainly forget a few names. William Eggleston, William Albert Allard, Fred Herzog, Bresson, Saul Liter, Martin Parr, Alex Webb, Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, Ernst Hass, Andy Anderson, Walter Iooss Jr, Harry Benson, William Klien, Yousuf Karsh, Kurt Markus, John Langmore, David Allen Harvey, Stephen Shore, Frank Hurley, Annie Leibovitz, Dennis Hopper, Wyatt McSpaden, Darius Kinsey, and on and on and on. In order to be good at anything, you have to be a student first and never stop your education. And I don’t mean that in the traditional sense. “School” is a very flawed system that needs a massive change. 

What was the best piece of advice you were given starting out?
One thing I regret about starting out was that I didn’t do much assisting. At the time I was arrogant and thought I could do it all on my own, young and dumb, so I was never really around other photographers to get that advice from. I never learned much about photography or the business, which held me back a lot. Even now after doing this full time for however many years, I still think about asking people if I can assist. My desire for knowledge is greater than anything right now. 

What are the current challenges that you face as a photographer?
I’ve always hated marketing so the business side of photography is the biggest challenge for me. And the “business” is always changing. For instance, mailers used to be a way of reaching new clients, but who knows if clients are even in an office anymore so where would you send a mailer? What is the best way to get your work in front of people these days?? Instagram? I have no idea. Setting aside time and energy for advertising has never been a strong point for me but that needs to change.

What have been some of the highlights and challenges of your career so far? 
Any photographer that is honest will tell you that their career is full of peaks and valleys with really high highs and really low lows. Mine has certainly been that but I’m so grateful for all of the lows, no’s, and downtimes because that’s where you learn the most. In the past, there have been stretches of months and months at a time where the phone just stopped ringing and that’s never good for your head. There are certainly some extremely fun commercial projects I’ve worked on in the past, but the things that stand out the most are the personal projects, simply because of the experiences I had during them and what they lead to afterward. My “Barbershops of America” project was and continues to be really special to me. It started ten years ago documenting traditional barbershops in all 50 states and is still going today. “American Backcourts” has also been a lot of fun and connected me with so many like-minded people. One thing I always find myself grateful for though is the ability to just document things I do with friends and later turn that into a paycheck somehow. This goes back to what I said earlier about not really having a separation between my life and my photography. I photograph what I’m interested/active in and worry about everything else later. I don’t shoot things because I think it will make me money. Clients tend to be drawn to the images because they are real so they’ll end up licensing them. That’s really rewarding. 

What were you doing before you became a Photographer?
Had a long string of jobs from private investigator, to carpenter, to bartender, and everything in between. 

If you weren’t a Photographer, what would you be doing?
If I were born a couple hundred years ago it would have been a blast to be a pirate. 

What do you do when you get stuck?

What is your best advice for your peers?
Personal projects. Personal projects. Personal projects. I can’t stress enough how important, in my opinion, personal projects are. Anything of note that’s been gained in my career has been the result of a personal project. They organically connect you with like-minded people/clients. They are incredibly satisfying and take away the need to ‘sell’ yourself.  People know you’re genuinely interested because they see the passion in the work. And on top of all that, it’s yours. It’s not just something you did for a one-time, soul-suckin’ paycheck. They are photographs that give you the ability to earn from them for the rest of your life. I try to think about my career in the long run and it’s never been about money. The photographs come first. Money comes later. And when it’s all over I’d rather have built something of my own than look back on a body of work that was only created for big companies to profit from. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of really fun commercial clients that have also brought about great relationships. Most companies don’t give a shit about you though. They just want to get as much from you for as little as possible. So why not create something that’s your own that will cause people/clients to come to you instead of the other way around??? 

What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back 10 years? 20 years?
1) Don’t be an arrogant prick
2) Don’t go to college. Instead, spend those 4 years assisting and soaking up every bit of real-life knowledge about photography and the business as you possibly can. 

What is a photographer’s role now that technology has made it so much more accessible to the masses?
Photography has changed so much because of technology but the goal/role of a photographer shouldn’t change in my opinion. Whether you’re shooting for a client or yourself, you should always be striving to make the best images possible and then do whatever you can to get them out in the world and seen by the people that matter. 

What do you see yourself doing in five years?
Working on my own projects with select commercial projects peppered in along the way. Telling stories. I love telling stories, especially about people/professions that are often overlooked.

Check out more work from Rob Hammer.