For his first gig as photographer in Hollywood in 1990, Robert Zuckerman took pictures on the set of “Sunset Beat,” the pilot of a short-lived TV-series. It featured policemen who went undercover as bikers and Zuckerman still remembers one of the long-haired, leather-clad actors, who was barely known at that time: His name was George Clooney.
Since then Zuckerman, who produced commercials before becoming an independent photographer, has taken pictures at countless movie sets — from “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “The Blair Witch Project” to the “Transformers” movies and “Terminator 3.” He has also made portraits of numerous celebrities, including Leonard Cohen, Goldie Hawn and Will Smith.
In 2002, Zuckerman discovered another passion: Documenting small encounters in everyday life. He started the Kindsight Foundation, and posted photos and stories on his blog, which is also featured on The Huffington Post. In 2005, a photo book titled “Kindsight” was published. Zuckerman, who now lives in Miami, gives speeches about his project and holds workshops for students, in which he challenges them to come up with their own Kindsight pieces and question the violent content of Hollywood movies.
He spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about his work with Holocaust survivors, his favorite Jewish celebrity and why he occasionally puts on tefillin.
Anna Goldenberg: You shoot both celebrities and normal people in your “Kindsight” photo series. How do you approach the projects differently?
Robert Zuckerman: Each one is different. The movie sets have been the way to make money and support my family. And I really like that… After 9/11, everything was very much about terror, darkness and negativity. I wanted to show that life is very rich… So I started telling stories about small encounters, and I would turn them into a photograph with a story. I began emailing stories to all my contacts, and people really liked them. Sometimes I’d email some big movie poster I did, and the response would be: “I like the poster, but the stories are much better.”
In workshops you challenge students to come up with movie storylines that don’t use violence for conflict solution. Why?
When I was younger I fell in love with movies, because I felt they had so much potential to uplift us. When I came into the business, I felt it had too much violence. It was a choice of people. It makes the unthinkable to be more thinkable. I know many people are not influenced by it, but nevertheless it puts that imagery in our culture.
You are currently also taking pictures and collecting stories of Holocaust survivors for the “Kindsight” project. How do you approach them?
I make a visit to their home, and we spend a couple of hours together, maybe having a meal and talking. I make very candid portraits when they are sitting, and then I make more formal portraits. My landlords for 25 years in Los Angeles were Holocaust survivors. When I first moved there, they were reluctant to speak about their experience. Now, I find more openness to speak about what happened. The last person I visited, he’s 93 and he was in Auschwitz and Dachau. Just in the very end, when we said goodbye, he started talking about his experience, when he was separated from his parents. His job in one of the camps was maintaining the ovens of the gas chambers. He began opening up in a very profound way. I just put my iPhone on the video setting and recorded. Twenty-five years ago I didn’t find that much willingness to speak.
Does your Jewish identity influence you?
I definitely feel a connection to it. My parents divorced when I was 1 year old. I spent my early years with my mother. She was ultra-Reform and I didn’t have any religion until the age of 16, when I met my birth father, who was Orthodox. That was probably why my parents weren’t together. I [then] went to an Orthodox all-boys high school for a year, and I decided it wasn’t my particular lifestyle even though I was always connected to it. That was the beginning of my relationship with my father. He accepted me for who I was, and I accepted him for who he was.
How would you describe your religion today?
It’s more spiritual than by the book or rules. I believe in mitzvot, in being a good person, and helping people out. I don’t do the day-to-day things. Every one or two months, I go to Chabad, put on tefillin and say brokhes to honor my father.
Which Jewish celebrity was the most memorable?
I’ve become very good friends with Jeff Goldblum. I met him 20 years ago for the first time, and we became good friends in 2002. One time we were working on a film about the Holocaust, and I introduced him to my landlords, who were survivors from Bergen-Belsen. And he spent the day speaking with them.
Your blog on Huffington Post is personal, featuring your family. Why did you decide to do that?
I’ve always been attracted to the personal element in photography. Back in 1993, I met a painter who was HIV-positive. She said: “The more personal my expression, the more universal its meaning. If it comes from the heart, people will connect to it.” I find that to be true. That way it touches many people.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
Anna Goldenberg was the Forward’s culture fellow.