Self-portrait, Cuba | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Community in Motion: A Conversation with Daniel Hoffman by Daniel Makagon

Jun 06, 2024

Part of the Seeing the Scene Series

Most of this series has featured interviews with punk photographers who primarily photograph their local scenes. Punks photographing punks. I was introduced to Daniel Hoffman by Mark Murrmann, who was engaged by Daniel’s work and the perspective Daniel brings as someone who had been outside the scene. But I learned through our conversation that Daniel sees a broader link across his recent projects: a focus on underground cultural life. That larger interest meant he was energized by the opportunity to document DIY punk scenes in São Paulo, New York, and New Jersey. In general, I am interested in trying to understand what people are up to and what they think they’re up to, and Daniel’s photographic projects seem to be motivated by a similar sentiment. To that end, some documentarians talk about documentary projects in ways that mirror the anthropological sentiment that good work makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. Razorcake readers are certainly well-versed in the nuances of DIY punk shows. We see similar features when comparing photos and videos of different scenes, yet we also can identify some qualities in the visual imagery that help make each scene unique. Daniel’s photos can show us something about punk through the eyes (and lens) of someone who discovered DIY punk a few years back. And his ongoing commitments to photographing DIY punk shows document how people are currently doing DIY together.

Daniel Makagon: When Mark Murrmann introduced us, he noted that you were attracted to photographing punk shows, but came to those shows from outside the scene. Let’s start with your broader music interests when you were younger.

Daniel Hoffman: Growing up, I played the piano and the trumpet. I navigated towards Billy Joel and Chuck Mangione. [laughs] During college I got more into the alternative scene. I grew up in Minnesota, so we had the Minneapolis scene going, bands like The Replacements. And I was also into bands like R.E.M. and the Screaming Trees. I went to college at St. John’s University in central Minnesota. Bands came up there, and we’d also go down to Minneapolis.

Underground punk show during pandemic 2020, Brooklyn, NY | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: When did you get into photography?

Daniel Hoffman: That also started in college. I was a biology major, and I was thinking about medical school or graduate school. I moved to D.C. to get a master’s degree. Then I took some time off, and for some reason thought, “Okay, I’ll go travel and become a travel photographer.” I took off for a few months and was somewhat successful. I sold a few photos and started working with a stock agency. There wasn’t a lot of job security, and I was feeling the pressure from my parents: “Get a real job.” I continued with graduate school. I wouldn’t say I planned it this way, but it was probably in my subconscious that I got into international research. This career meant I was able to travel a lot. I figured out how to develop small photography projects I could do without sacrificing my academic work. Also, because I had to fit the photography projects within my work schedule, a lot of these projects happened at night.

Daniel Makagon: I want to return to the international research question in a moment, but to help me stay focused chronologically [laughs], did you take photography classes as electives when you were a student? And what influenced your travel photography style?

Daniel Hoffman: I’ve only taken two courses, so I mostly learned on my own. My major influences were a lot of the photographers from National Geographic. I was also really drawn to documentary photography—Walker Evans and Sebastião Salgado. Learning how people live was exciting. Early on, I tried to stay on the sidelines, using more of a telephoto lens. The more I got into it, I realized that doesn’t work. I moved to wider and wider angles. Now, I don’t go above 35mm normally.

Daniel Makagon: National Geographic’s photos include a mix of people and landscape. When you say that you try to look at how people live, your photography was and is documentary-focused?

Daniel Hoffman: Definitely. I was focusing on people and doing what I could to get into their lives. I took a course when I was living in New York about capturing other worlds. It was about how to be an outsider, how to get into something that’s not your space. That course led me to a six-year project about Times Square. And then from there I did a small project on the Romani in Rome and in Bulgaria: What is it like to live there? What kind of discrimination do they experience?

Minor argument between two teens in Roma camp, Rome, Italy | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: And in those instances, you met them somewhere and followed them around?

Daniel Hoffman: I learned a lot of this from doing scholarly field research. You always find one person who’s your contact. It’s really helpful and has got me out of trouble. [laughs] The one contact brings you in, so you already have that level of trust. But you also have the issue of time. For example, I only had five days when I was in Rome. The first day, my contact had me meet with what they call the head Roma. We basically sat and looked at maps of where people lived while we drank coffee. And I was like, “Okay, let’s go.” And he’s like, “No, we’ll go tomorrow.” [laughs] Shit. I just lost a day.

Daniel Makagon: Were you generally comfortable approaching strangers to photograph them or was that a struggle?

Daniel Hoffman: Photographing in Times Square was my first real project, and it was baptism by fire. I spent night after night approaching people and explaining what I was doing. You do that enough and it just becomes second nature. I know that you wrote about Times Square; it’s something we have in common. My project started after Giuliani took over. I was trying to show that the seediness did not really go away. If you stay long enough, you will see that.

Snowstorm in Times Square ahead of the Y2K scare in 1999, New York, NY | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: Yeah, absolutely. The Square was different at night and Eighth Avenue was different than the heart of Times Square during the day even after the area changed. Do you always shoot black and white, or do you also work with color photography?

Daniel Hoffman: I switched to black and white for these punk photos because the color inside, without a flash, was pretty bad. And I felt that the quality was more consistent; it doesn’t matter if you have a flash or not with a black and white. That’s a great thing about digital: you can do either one. But I think black and white comes out better.

Daniel Makagon: In general, are you project-focused with your photography? Or will you wander around and shoot to see if something comes to you?

Daniel Hoffman: I’ll have projects, but, at the same time, my mental health day is to go into New York with a camera and just hang out. See what happens.

Daniel Makagon:
How did this punk project come together?

Daniel Hoffman: I should back up for one second. I had done two other projects in São Paulo, Brazil before this one started there. I had a Fulbright fellowship, so I spent two months down there in 2015 and 2016. While I was there in 2015, I worked with a friend of mine who is kind of an abstract artist. He does stuff with sound and space. There’s an elevated highway that’s similar to the High Line in New York except it’s an actual highway. It’s about two miles long and goes right through the middle of the city. It’s called “the worm,” because of the way it moves—5,000 cars a day and right next to people’s apartment buildings. They close it on the weekend and the space transforms into something like a public park. I photographed life around that space, what it was like to live there. I got into apartments next door to this highway and could photograph during the weekday traffic and during the weekend transformation.

Then the next year I did a project about samba clubs. I would photograph the people dancing and their expressions. It was an introduction to certain types of movement that I later found in mosh pits, although I guess I didn’t even think about the connection until I started explaining this to you now.

Daniel Makagon: Yeah, bodies pressed together in tight spaces, moving both in unison and independently against the unified grain.

Underground punk show during pandemic 2020, Brooklyn, NY | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman: There was a gap where I couldn’t really figure out what to do. Once I got into this nighttime stuff more generally, I’d try to look for areas where people gather at night. We don’t know what happens with other people after we go to bed. There’s always a pocket of somebody doing something. That’s what I try to seek out: places where people go after the rest of us go to bed. I became interested in different underground scenes. I’d go someplace and try to find out what was happening at night that might not be noticed by most people. In Tokyo, I did a three-day project on small bars in one neighborhood. These bars only fit five or six people.

I lived in São Paulo, Brazil for two years from 1996 until 1998, and I’d often go back once or twice a year for work. Then the Fulbright happened, as I said. I was back there and found this space that was the entire floor of, I don’t want to say an abandoned… The historic center of São Paulo used to be the upper-class neighborhood. Then they moved out and left all these buildings. It’s dodgy during the day and it’s worse at night. Some guy was able to either rent or secure the entire fourth floor of this apartment building. The apartment is kind of shaped like a big circle, and it has a central space in the middle. Every room has a different theme. An architect friend of mine said, “If you’re looking for underground, go to Trackers. It’s only open Friday and Saturday nights and it’s not even an official place.”

And so that’s where I went. The taxi driver wouldn’t let me out. He said, “I don’t see anybody around.” And finally, a security guy showed up. He said, “Okay, now you can leave.” [laughs] I’m standing in line. Six hardcore punk guys stand next to me. I’m thinking, “Okay, when do I get robbed?” Then they asked me, “Are you a cop?” This is actually common. I get asked that a lot. [laughs] I thought as soon as they hear my accent something’s gonna happen. But I just replied, “No, are you?” And they thought that was the funniest thing. We go upstairs and I walk around a little bit. I always have my camera out, so people already see it. Then I don’t have to explain; they know what I’m gonna ask.

I bumped into those guys again on the balcony. We started talking, and then I asked if I could take some pictures. It was really dark. I didn’t have a flash because I don’t like to use flash. There was more light by the bar, so I took some portraits there. That starts the whole routine where I end up buying a lot of beer. [laughs] But I spent the night hanging out with them and got to know them. Every time I went back, I’d spend more time with them. That happened for about three years. I was more interested in the social side of the shows than the music itself.

Daniel Makagon: I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation earlier, but to pause for one second for readers to understand the context of your time in Brazil and for me to ask a follow-up question. You are a professor; that’s your full-time job. On the surface, there’s not an obvious connection between environmental and biological sciences and your interest, broadly speaking, in photographing underground or alternative cultures—especially at night. Are there connections between your academic work and your photography or do you treat photography as a break from your job?

Daniel Hoffman: Most of the research I do is in lower to middle income countries. I’ve been working since 1996 in marginal communities, especially in foreign countries. I think that work has allowed me to become comfortable with ambiguity. A lot of times I’m the only white guy in a room, or a city. Or I’m the only foreigner in a shanty town where there’s a lot of crime. I study the long-term effects of under nutrition, so focused on children. What’s happening in Gaza worries me because now we have thousands of children who are being under-nourished for significant periods of time. This can have long term metabolic effects. I study those things. This work is different than the photography but there is some overlap with my academic work and my photography both focusing on people who can be marginalized.

Daniel Makagon: That makes sense. And to pick up where you left off before I diverted us [laughs], did the U.S. DIY punk photos emerge because you learned about this form of punk in São Paulo?

Daniel Hoffman: The pandemic came, and one of the guys in Brazil sent me a text. This was August 2020. He said, “Our buddy in Brooklyn is doing an underground show and they need a photographer.” The guy who texted me from Brazil is an artist, and they were using some of his artwork at this underground show. He put me in touch with the guy he knew in Brooklyn and that guy sent me the address. They rented the back of a bar in Brooklyn, an outdoors backyard. You couldn’t tell from the front that anything was happening. I pulled up and it’s completely deserted. Again, I think, “Okay, I’m going to get robbed.” But I showed up even though I didn’t know any of these people. When they found out who I knew, my street credibility was so high. They just welcomed me in. [laughs]

That started this whole project, which at first was focused on the underground scene during the pandemic. The Latinx DIY stuff, I had no idea. I thought it was all white guys in the U.S. I would go to every illegal show. From there, I just really got interested in the imaging: the shapes and the emotions that come about inside the mosh pit. I like the abstractness, but I also like that you can kind of predict when something fun is gonna happen. I like the interactions with a band and how the punks interact with each other. So, I try to catch that moment of people reflecting this cross section of emotions when they collide with each other or when they jump.

Punk show at Oxacan restaurant, New Brunswick, NJ | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: Is this an ongoing project for you?

Daniel Hoffman: As I said, it started August 2020. There weren’t that many shows at that point. Some of the shows were in the street. We only got shut down once. I think they saw that nothing was really happening, so there wasn’t any reason to keep shutting them down. No addresses were ever given, and it was usually one show a month. Things opened up in May 2021. Then, in the summer 2021 it started opening up more and they started moving shows to venues. The underground feel had changed because they weren’t desperate for space. I kept trying to pursue more of the underground spaces. I think that’s more interesting than going to established venues.

Because of Instagram, I met more people and made more contacts. I work at Rutgers University, and I learned that there are some great basements right near me where people are doing shows. It’s really strong here.

Punk show at venue normally used for evangelical church services, Elizabeth, NJ | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: New Jersey’s historically had a range of cities that have been great for DIY punk. You said those shows in Brooklyn were on a consistent schedule. You went regularly after you photographed at that first show?

Daniel Hoffman: I tried to. I knew the pandemic was gonna end at some point and I was trying to focus on what I call “pandemic punks.” Most the bands were primarily made up of Latinx punks. These are the people who couldn’t take time off from work. They needed the release. Yoga was not gonna do it for them.

Daniel Makagon: Some photographers have told me that shows in their scenes attract a lot of photographers. Sometimes they feel like there are more people with cameras than just hanging out. How has it been in New York and New Jersey?

Daniel Hoffman: Because I mostly go to DIY shows, it seems like there are fewer photographers. That’s another reason why I don’t like the larger venues. I don’t want to argue with somebody because they’re standing where I stood during the last set. [laughs] There might be two or three of us at the DIY shows. Everyone is much more cooperative.

Daniel Makagon: Your photographs include a mix of portraits and candid documentary action shots. How do you approach these two different types of photographs?

Daniel Hoffman: I think one of the main things is breaking stereotypes. As I mentioned earlier, I think there’s an overriding sense that punk is white. Another thing that I don’t think people outside punk understand is the violence of the mosh pit, that it’s consensual. Dancing is an expression as much as people playing the music. Together these varied forms of expression make an experience. I focus on these moments of interaction: either through the expressions that people have in the pit or the interactions with a band. I also wanted to show the people who make the scene, so I always try to get one or two portraits at each show. The portraits also show the diversity of people: you have accountants who you would never guess are punks and you have people who had to work through the pandemic.

Underground punk show during pandemic 2020, Brooklyn, NY | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: What’s the process for the portraits you make?

Daniel Hoffman: Depends on how stoned they are. [laughs] I had one band—I could not get everybody to look at me at the same time. Somebody was always off. In general, it really depends on the context: the environment and how well I know the people. Somebody I don’t know that well, I’ll try to do it as quickly as possible because I don’t want to annoy them. Then there are bands I get to know well enough that we’ll have a two- or three-hour session where we’ll just walk around and try different things.

Some people, who are basically performance artists, really get into it. That can be fun because they’re very expressive. Those situations are planned a lot more; it’s not just a standard portrait. I’ll say to a lot of people, “Look, I’m just gonna start taking pictures and you move, change your expression, however you want. Whatever you want to do, I’ll just keep taking photos. We’ll see what we get.”

Daniel Makagon: We’ve talked about the fact that you came to punk from outside the scene, but you’ve shared this broader interest in learning about and documenting alternative cultures and things that people do that exist outside the mainstream. When you compare photographing DIY punk shows with some of your other projects, where do you see convergence and divergence? And from the standpoint of a photographer, what are the opportunities and challenges as you compare these projects?

People at bar in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku, central Tokyo, Japan | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman: Oh, boy. One thing that has made photographing punks easier than the other projects is that there’s a certain amount of exhibitionism. Some punks want to be seen. I’m really trying to find that moment where people who come to the show, what does the music do to them? I want my photos to show what they’re getting out of it versus focusing on the bands who are performing the music. I do try to get band pictures because without them you wouldn’t have a show. But I’m not portraying something that’s controversial, per se. They’re not really going to be judged for having fun or for performing music. Whereas other things I’ve done, there’s sometimes judgment that can be placed—to go back to my project about the Romani.

The convergence, or overlap, I think is documenting what brings people together. Why do people want to go to a small bar? Why do people want to go to an outdoor DIY street show? I’ve also photographed small church services in Kenya that are in really poor areas. That’s their day of expression, their day of relief. Nobody’s asking anything from them. I really see the mosh pit as an emotional release. It can be similar to the way that church can be an emotional release for some people. Because I’m not traveling much right now, I’m focusing mostly on the punk photos. But I also work on protests. Again, people coming together. I’ve been shooting a lot of the Palestinian protests around here. Those experiences are similar to photographing punk shows. You have to have a personality to engage with people, but you can also get some good pictures just by being there.

Church service in a school in the marginal community of Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya | photo by Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Makagon: What are your plans going forward with the punk photos?

Daniel Hoffman: When I sent the materials for a portfolio review, two editors told me I should go straight to a book. I’m thinking about it. But I think starting a blog and continuing to build it out is the way to go. I probably have 2,500 pictures I’ve selected from a pool of 35,000. The large number is because in the beginning I had no idea what I was doing. I was just blowing through 1,200 a day. Now I can go to show and take 300. I have plenty and I haven’t really had anybody say, “Try to go in this direction” to get something I don’t have. I think I have enough to choose, but I also have fun. They’re fun to do. I think I’ll never really end it. But it’s probably time to get started on making something a little bit more solid.

Daniel Makagon: Yeah, I guess the thing about a book is to consider the benefits of a single type of photography, such as DIY punk shows, or if you would put these different alternative cultural projects together. As you said before, you’re interested in what people are doing when most the mainstream population is asleep.

Daniel Hoffman: Yeah, I have two things in mind. One, I could focus strictly on the punk photos. The other could be an introduction to my life as a professor and photographer. That would then allow me to pull in these other projects that have a common thread. Some of the Romani work I’ve published. Times Square, I’ve published. And I had an exhibition for the worm photos. My colleague, who is an artist, as I mentioned earlier, he coordinated that. I had several of the punk photos published in ZEKE Magazine for their Robert Frank anniversary. I presented that work as an American mosaic. A timeline for sharing this work in the next form, I don’t know. I’m fifty-seven, so sooner rather than later. [laughs]

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