Justin Hofman is an inveterate adventurer. Armed with a marine biology degree and a camera, he traverses the planet sharing his love of the natural world – from the serene beauty of the Great White shark, to the deep sadness conveyed by a seahorse. We caught up with Justin to see how he came upon such a unique way of living – and learn how it's not without its heartache…
In 2016, a seahorse changed Justin Hofman’s life. The Californian was on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia. The rest of his party had gone off to watch locals race buffalo; he stuck around with a few others to go snorkelling when a friend in the water spotted a seahorse drifting in the changing currents. Justin jumped in with his camera and began shooting as the tiny creature rode the tides; wrapping its tail around parts of passing plant life to improve the ride until the heartbreaking moment when the seahorse latched onto a cotton bud.
What began as a nature shot suddenly became shorthand for something far larger.
“It was intense,” says Justin. “It was a difficult shooting situation, bobbing around in the wind. And it was physically difficult to keep the thing in the frame. I was very focused on capturing the scene, because I knew it was going to be an important photo. But I didn't know it was going to have the impact that it did. It was crazy.”
Back on the boat, Justin looked at his shots and joked how he’d win the Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize. He said his friend could join him on the red carpet as his date; his reward for spotting the seahorse. Justin kept the image close to his chest, entered the contest and his image made the final. That’s when things went crazy: as the picture spread around the globe, he was thrust into the limelight of anti-plastic campaigns. He has, for example, just returned from a voyage with Greenpeace to document the Great Pacific garbage patch.
So thanks to that little seahorse and its choice of ride, Justin could now combine his love of travel and photography, with his dedication to nature, and his drive to inspire people to act to save it.
Life-changing moments like these tend to land suddenly, without warning. But when they do, you often realise you’ve been working to ready yourself for years. A marine biologist by training, Justin has spent at least half of every year for the past decade travelling the world on expeditions – from the deserts of the Sierra Nevada to the Arctic tundra and Antarctica – educating heads of industry, political leaders and celebrities on climate change and conservation.
“I get to influence people who have great influence,” he says. “I get to talk with them about climate change as we’re standing on sea ice in the Arctic, looking at polar bears. Having access to these locations and being able to change people's minds in the moment is important to me. I wouldn't be able to justify being out there just for my own selfish pleasures.”
For Justin, photography was always something he dipped into quickly, snatched in moments of downtime between fielding questions from his guests. But that doesn’t make his work any less impressive. In one of his most prized pieces, the surface of the sea splits the frame horizontally. Above the line, a man stands on board a whale-watching boat, looking inadvertently like he owns the sea – one foot up on the side, hand on hip, his eyes scanning the horizon. Beneath the boat, caught in the rays of sunlight battling the depths, a whale looms up like a giant and otherworldly Moby Dick, dwarfing the boat, the real power unseen.
Sharks in the desert
Justin wasn't always living the life aquatic. Back in the 1980s he was a kid growing up deep in the suburbs of Southern California, an area he describes as a “ride your bikes around underneath the streetlights type of place”. He likens his desert town to the setting of Breaking Bad, and points out that it was once the meth capital of the US. “Not a very pleasant place,” he says.
But it was there that he devoured National Geographic, and the works of David Attenborough and Australian shark hunter Valerie Taylor, which fed his lifelong obsession.
“I fell in love with sharks as kid,” he says. “And the Great White made me fall in love with the ocean. There was nothing crazier or scarier. My favourite movie is still Jaws. I still love that movie. It was a movie that captivated me and changed me. I was never not going to be a marine biologist.”
He carried that drive from childhood through to college – studying marine biology at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and becoming certified as a diver.
“The very first time I was able to breathe under water, in the ocean, I just immediately knew that this was where I was supposed to be,” he says. “I was down there, doing what I saw Jaques Cousteau doing in all those videos I'd watched as a kid, and communing with this place I'd been in love with since. I was finally realising this dream of getting under water and being with the fish.”
Melting your heart
Dreams can, of course, take a turn. An idyllic scene can become suddenly or subtly dark. A career in conservation is no exception – especially these days, when it your ship simply can’t sail for long without straying into the stormy waters of climate change. You may have seen the disturbing footage of a starving polar bear that circulated online last year. Hungry and emaciated, the bear stumbles around lost, desperate for nourishment, another unwitting symbol of the forces currently transforming our planet. Justin led the expedition that found that bear.
But it wasn't just the sight of the depleted animal that shocked him; it was the ease of sailing 83 degrees North, to within 400 miles of the North Pole, without needing an icebreaking yacht.
“To be able to get that far north is freaking unheard of,” he says. “I’ve been going up there for a good handful of years now, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find sea ice. We couldn't say for sure that this bear was dying because of anthropogenic [man-made] climate change – no way at all – but as I stood there and watched it in real time, it was like my emotions were embodied in that bear.”
Justin’s team had discovered the bear on an expedition a few weeks prior. With no time to document it, they decided to return. He recalls how the trip to shore that second time, in a Zodiac rib, felt eerily like heading off to war. “There were five or six of us, and everybody's hunkered down with their gear, everybody's super intense, just looking down and thinking about what's going to be coming next,” he says. “Seeing this really depressing scene of this crippled dying bear walking around eating trash – we all had a good cry as soon as we were done.”
Whether it's explaining our changing environment in expeditions, or capturing it through the camera lens, it’s this emotional connection that drives Justin’s work. Yes he sees intense and terrible things, and isn't exactly brimming with confidence that humanity will be able to solve the problem, but he simply has to try to not dwell on it. Nor, he says, can he ignore it. “I guess it's part of the fuel and the passion that keeps me going,” he says.
Indeed, while the Jacques Cousteau life of global adventure may be the stuff of childhood dreams, it comes with its sacrifices: the constant travel means he can’t have a dog, for example. He reckons he can barely keep a girlfriend.
Yet between trips there is always California. Home. Above Justin’s mantlepiece hangs another of his favourite shots: of a Great White shark swimming serenely above the ocean floor, surrounded by fish.
Justin loves this image, which he shot in 2015. Its subject is the creature that sparked his whole journey, and he still remembers the feeling of joy as he climbed into the cage, the sound of the boat’s winch as it lowered him to the sea bed, the feeling of leaning out of the cage to get the shot. He says he owes it to these predators to show their beauty and grace, not just play upon our instinctual fear of the unknown. And he will find himself looking at the photo several times a day – even though that act only prompts further trouble.
“I see all the ways it could have been better, and how I would work hard to perfect the shot next time,” he says.
In photography, at least, you get another chance.
Justin Hofman will be speaking at the Finisterre flagship store in London on Saturday November 10th, showing photographs, sharing stories, and “getting people stoked about the world”.
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