We had the good fortune of connecting with Rob Hammer and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Rob, other than deciding to work for yourself, what else do you think played a pivotal role in your story?
One of my favorite musicians right now is Sturgill Simpson. I recently listened to an interview he did with Rick Rubin where he was asked a very similar question. In his answer he talked about going to Merle Haggard’s (country music icon) house and meeting him for the first time. Merle is one of Sturgill’s heroes and at that point Merle was already a living legend. In his house was the only Grammy award he’d ever won, which was all banged up and sitting on the ground being used as a door stop. Sturgill’s takeaway was that the awards don’t matter. All that matters is the music. This is the same conclusion I came to a number of years ago and was a turning point in my career. The worst thing you can do (as a photographer) is to make images for other people. And I’m not talking about the commercial work done for clients. Whatever you’re shooting needs to come from yourself. You can’t be worried about what you think people will like. If you do, then it’s just going to look like all the other boring generic images that clog up the internet. Instead, create images that are personal to you, and in turn, the right people will start responding to them. Fuck the awards.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Probably most known for photographing professional athletes like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, but that’s not so much of my focus anymore. Most of my time and effort goes into personal projects that turn into “commercial” work later on. For the past 9 years I’ve been working on two projects that have taken me all over the USA and resulted in published books. The first is “American Backcourts” – inspired by a photograph I saw (as a kid) of Larry Bird’s childhood basketball hoop, I traveled all over the country in search of old hoops (like Bird’s) with a story left to tell. The second is “Barbershops of America” – a documentation of traditional barbershops in all 50 states. If anyone tells you their photography career is easy, they are lying. There is nothing easy about it. That’s what makes it fun though. And that’s how you learn. At least for me. The only reason I’ve gotten anywhere is because I’m not afraid to fail or hear “no”. It’s all part of the game, and in my opinion, the most important part to learn. Everybody is so focused on painting a perfect image of their life on Instagram, but it’s all fake. Nobody wants to show or talk about the failures. So lame. Failing is such an integral part of life. I started to make a lot of money as a commercial photographer, but so many of the assignments made me miserable. So I stopped doing most of it. That made a lot of the money go away, but allowed me to be a lot happier and gave me the time to focus on my own projects, which are now starting to make me money. It’s definitely the harder path, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If there’s one thing I’d like people to know, it’s that you don’t have to wait for permission. Photographers, creatives, and people in general are all waiting for their dream client to hire them to create their dream idea. Not realistic, but that doesn’t mean you should just sit around and wait or spend all your time begging that client to hire you. Just do it yourself. Find a way. Stop asking for permission. In the end, that idea will turn out a lot better because you don’t have to deal with all the politics and egos that come along with the partnering/backing of a big money company. It’s your idea, create it how you want to.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Every time I go to Europe it blows my mind how much more advanced they are in so many categories. Especially eating and drinking. COVID has been the best/worst thing to happen to restaurants/bars in the US. I feel for all the owners. However, walking around all the neighborhoods in San Diego, it now feels like Europe. Eating and drinking is done in the street and in the sun like it’s supposed to be. Why did it take a pandemic for this to happen? Hopefully when this is all over, the outdoor dining stays. Anyway, I’d probably start down in Little Italy and demand a “no car” rule. The weather is far too good here to spend days sitting in a car. So all travel would be done either by scooter, foot or by train. It would be fun to work out way around Little Italy by foot, then start heading north, stopping in Lajolla, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff, Encinitas, Leucadia, and ending in Carlsbad. If you can’t have fun in all those towns, then I don’t want to know you. That’s an easy list to rattle off, but these are places that people visit from all over the world. I’m grateful to live here. Beer would have to be a big part of the trip. There are far too many top notch breweries in San Diego to not sample if you’re in town. Modern Times is a must. In my opinion they can compete with the best beer in the country.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There is nothing I’d rather do in life than be a photographer. Still though, I have plenty of beefs with the industry. It’s very much a “take take take” culture. People and clients, for the most part, want to get as much out of you while giving as little as possible. As time goes on, the patterns make them selves obvious and you see who those people are. More importantly, you see who the good people are. The ones who support you no matter what. Even if you’re and asshole from time to time. I’ve always been incredibly lucky to have an amazing group of friends and family that believe in me and know I won’t quit until I get where I’m going. The highs are easy, but I’m probably not that much fun during the slow times. They don’t care. I don’t need to name names. They know.