Offset photographer Brian Hodges is known for striking portraiture and landscape images from his travels to more than 50 countries, from Mongolia and Papua New Guinea to Timbuktu. Aside from being trilingual (he’s fluent in English, Spanish, and French), the Los Angeles-born, Santa Barbara-based photographer was a software engineer before he found his passion for photography. Since then, his vivid images offering a fresh look at global cultures have been featured in publications ranging from GEO to Condé Nast Traveler. We caught up with Hodges to learn how he transforms his interactions with local subjects and landscapes into intimate and striking photographs.
What was the impetus for your striking “White Paper Portraits” series?
I was traveling through Rajasthan — at the time, I was more of an amateur photographer. I’ve always held Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” close to my heart. Walking up to total strangers and asking to take their picture has always been a little scary — even scarier if they didn’t speak my language. So I challenged myself to start interacting with the locals. And I ended up with pictures that looked like everyone else’s pictures: scared subjects standing in front of the camera with a bunch of distracting clutter in the background. Surrounded with such immense beauty, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get the pictures I wanted.
And then something clicked when I decided to think of myself as a “professional.” I realized I needed to isolate my subjects; I needed to control the light. I found a street vendor selling string and fabric and penciled out what I wanted. He ended up sewing some pieces of tarp together to make my background. With some bamboo poles and hemp cord, I managed to piece together a semi-portable outdoor photo studio.
How do you approach strangers to take their portraits?
Rather than merely taking pictures of people, I like to feel like I’m actually collaborating with my subjects. I try to engage them in the creative process if possible. Often, crowds of people form around my field studio and subjects line up to be photographed. I usually end up hiring a local or two to help out. I typically set up my studio right beside public events or ceremonial gatherings and, in the process of attracting so many people, become a sort of mini-event myself. People are often as fascinated by me as I am with them. That’s when the real magic happens.
What’s your process for collaborating with your subjects?
My subjects are not models, and consequently don’t have a vast repertoire of “looks.” Often, the “scared and intimidated” look is what they start with. Sometimes I’ll try to break the ice by having them jump in the air. I try my best at finding humor in the situation and (sometimes) manage to get them to laugh. The whole photo “session” usually lasts less than one minute, so I try to keep them moving. My subjects often carry such visual weight that I’m perfectly happy having them stand dead center facing the camera — no posing needed.
Given the cultural and language barriers, how do you connect with your subjects?
More often than not, there is a language barrier. Sometimes I’ll find an eager local with whom I can communicate and hire him/her to be my assistant. This always opens many doors. Most importantly, I approach my subjects with an open heart and express my compassion and love by looking them straight in the eyes. I’m trilingual, but find this simple form of nonverbal expression to be the most direct form of communication that crosses all cultures.
Do your subjects see the images after the shoot?
I usually share the pictures on the back of my camera. Large crowds sometimes push in around me trying to get a look at the tiny screen. I’m humbled to observe how much joy people derive from seeing their picture on the small screen. I wish I could share prints, but given the logistics of where I usually shoot, this is typically very difficult.
What are your favorite conditions for photographing?
I seem to respond well when confronted by challenges: bad weather, linguistic barriers, interminable jeep rides over dirt roads — strangely, these are all things I like.
What was your inspiration for taking the incredible photos in Mongolia (above)?
These photos are from a book project for which I spent two weeks exploring Mongolia with the book’s author. When taking pictures, I have a simple litmus test to determine whether or not it’s worth stopping to make a photograph. Basically, if I’m confronted with something I don’t see every day, I force myself to stop and reflect. More often than not, these are the moments that yield the most interesting photos. Needless to say, in Mongolia, there was no shortage of fresh scenery for my eyes.
What role does weather play in your photography?
I love clouds. Not only do they produce a beautifully diffused light, but they also add interest and drama to a photo. With the drought in California, I haven’t seen interesting clouds here in years! It’s hard for many to imagine, but relentless blue sky and sunshine can get old.
Your images are so vivid — what equipment do you work with?
Coming from a technical background, I tend to spend a lot of time researching my equipment. I usually shoot with a Canon 5d Mark III. I’ve also been experimenting with a Leica S2 medium-format camera. I recently took this camera to Iceland and am delighted with the results. The larger camera forces me to slow down and reflect more before pressing the shutter button.
How would you describe your process in a nutshell?
My process is simple: find beauty in everyday life. I think my passion for what I do is palpable and my subjects respond accordingly.
Offset artists are visual storytellers with a deep passion for their craft. Images in the Offset collection are gathered from world-class and award-winning assignment photographers, illustrators, and agencies, with a focus on unique content with narrative, authentic, and sophisticated qualities
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