Cuban-American Photographer Hiram García: What It’s Like to Photograph Dwayne Johnson for 20 Years

An interview by Chris Gardner for The Hollywood Reporter.

A new book, ‘The Rock: Through the Lens: His Life, His Movies, His World,’ out Sept. 8, features images of the actor as shot by Hiram Garcia: “That kindness he’s so famous for inherently comes through in every image.”

Dwayne Johnson stars in a brand new project Sept. 8, a photography book from St. Martin’s Press titled The Rock: Through the Lens: His Life, His Movies, His World.

It’s all shot by Hiram Garcia — president of production at his sister Dany Garcia and Johnson’s Seven Bucks Prods. — who enjoyed unprecedented access for more than two decades to Johnson’s film sets, workouts, wrestling matches and 2019 wedding to Lauren Hashian.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Garcia to discuss the photo that proved to be a turning point in his photography career, how he navigated the intimate moments and what makes his boss, best friend and “brother” such a magnetic force in front of the lens. “Besides the obvious bonuses of shooting an individual who’s 275 pounds of pure muscle, the thing that really makes D.J. a great subject is what’s at his core,” says Garcia, “that kindness he’s so famous for inherently comes through in every image.”

Dwayne Johnson Book Cover

First of all, how are you amid the pandemic?

Thanks for asking, and wow has this year been challenging for our entire world. I’m hanging in there, though just like everyone else I imagine, doing my part to keep everyone safe, including myself, while continuing to develop and move forward with projects so that once we get the greenlight, we’ll be ready to go.

Congratulations on the book. You write that it was the reactions you received about the Fast 8 on-set photo that contributed to turning your hobby into something more. What is it about that image to you, personally, that proved to be a turning point? 

This image captured a moment on set that told a unique story, different from what audiences were able to see when watching the film.  As a producer, there’s a level of access I’m able to have that allows me to capture unique perspectives, intimate moments, or candid looks, whether it be a “behind-the-scenes” shot or a candid photo like this that lets you into the world of what is happening on set at that exact moment. Looking back, I knew from the responses I received that I had captured something more than just a candid/BTS shot and it reinforced to me that there was a real appetite for these images, not just from fans but from the studio and our creative partners as well.

Let’s back up a bit: When did photography turn into a hobby in the first place? Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera with intention? 

I’ve always wanted to pursue photography as a hobby, but a crazy work schedule and being unable to bring my cameras with me everywhere made that challenging in the past. Baywatch was the first project that I went in with the intent to really capture memories and the experience. I got a small camera with one prime lens and said this is all I will travel with but knew it would allow me to capture moments if they arose. Unexpectedly, we ended up using my photography for the digital campaign on Baywatch which not only was a lot of fun but also helped us control the social narrative we wanted to craft for the movie.

Are you self-taught? You credit Leica as a family that gave you the tools and support. How has that collaboration been for you? 

I do consider myself self-taught since I’ve never taken any classes despite wanting to!  I studied a lot of YouTube tutorials and always pick the brains of the many brilliant photographers I’ve had the honor of working with over the years.  As my love for photography grew and as I was posting more online, Leica and I found each other through social media.  I was a fan of the brand, their history and their fantastic glass, and the relationship budded from there.  They’ve been an amazing partner to me and supplied me with the tools to grow as a photographer. I’m very proud to be an ambassador for the company and to have served as the exclusive eye behind the launch of one of their most highly sought-after cameras the Leica q2.

DJ calls you a “true storyteller behind the lens.” What makes for a great photo?

There will always be different answers for ‘what makes for a great photo,’ but ultimately, to me, if a photo is able to transport a person to that exact moment when the photo was taken and create a feeling that was similar to what the photographer intended, then you’ve done a pretty good job of capturing a special image.

In return, you call DJ an amazing subject, which is really on display in the book. I know it might be hard to put into words, but what would you say makes him so charismatic and magnetic, particularly in these images? 

Well besides the obvious bonuses of shooting an individual who’s 275 lbs. of pure muscle and been awarded the “Sexiest Man Alive” moniker, the thing that really makes DJ a great subject is what’s at his core. DJ is a subject who’s welcoming, engaging and warm when it comes to a camera. That kindness he’s so famous for inherently comes through in every image. That natural, charismatic energy he so famously exudes makes you feel like you’re in the exact moment with him.

There’s really something for everyone in the book: family and fitness, filmmaking and promotion, wrestling. How many images got cut?

I believe the pool of images we chose from was about 400 photos. There’s definitely a few that didn’t make the cut so I have plenty of options for a sequel book if needed! Joking aside, I’m just so thrilled with the images I was able to place in the book and the fun I had telling the stories behind those moments.

There are also intimate moments, like when he’s writing his father’s eulogy or spending time at his grandmother’s grave. You two obviously have a partnership and a friendship that extends beyond work, so I imagine you can just shoot away but is anything off-limits? Or do you just capture the moments and discuss later?

One of the keys to a good friendship is the unspoken understanding between two friends who have experienced so much together. If there was ever a moment that was considered inappropriate, I would already know to not have my camera out anyway. But the truth is the intent behind many of these moments, especially the more intimate ones, was me simply wanting to frame moments in time we’ve experienced that I could gift to Dwayne. When DJ realized I wanted to create the book he was extremely generous in offering up some of these images and allowing fans to have a special peek into all facets of his incredible life including the ups and the downs.

THE ROCK

I heard you were doing a book and it was titled “The Rock,” so I was pleasantly surprised to see images of you included in the final version. What a journey those photographs are — seeing a photo of you at 15 when you first met. What would you say to your younger self?

What would I say to myself? “Good lord! Why haven’t you started working out yet?” When I first saw that image, I was like look at those two strings hanging from my shirt and then realized those were my arms! This is why photography is so much fun though. It’s a blast to look back and see how far we’ve come, how many stories we’ve been able to craft over the years, and you forget how early the brotherhood started.  As painful as the images may be, to be able to look back and relive these moments is truly a great thing.

Who are your favorite photographers? Do you have a favorite photography coffee table book?

My favorite photographers are Sebastião Salgado, Ansel Adams and Alan Schaller, to name a few. I don’t have a favorite book per se, but I have a few favorites series; from Jim Marshall, Ansel and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I flip through and see the stories they’ve told through their images, looking for inspiration to tell the stories I want to tell through my camera.

Lots of great images of Emily Blunt included and you said that their on-camera chemistry is “pure magic” after working together on Jungle Cruise. They’re reteaming again on Ball and Chain for Netflix. What is it about the two of them that is so special?

Like DJ, Emily is so unbelievably warm and photogenic, it was such an honor to work with her on Jungle Cruiseand even more so to photograph her as much as I did. Not only was she extremely kind but also so generous with me, playing to the camera, and trusting in how I would capture her. That entire experience was a true joy and through it we’ve become close friends. Which makes sense to me since I view Emily as twin to DJ if DJ was an incredibly brilliant and talented, tiny British actress! They’re both megastars at the top of their game who lead with kindness. The two of them together with their instant chemistry created a family environment, not just with the crew on set but with the entire film production. I look forward to everyone seeing them together when Jungle Cruise comes out next year.

One of my favorites is the on-location shot for Jumanji: Next Level in the sand with the camera and boom hovering above DJ. Wow. Is there a good story behind that shot?

That was shot in Glamis, California, at the end of the day when we were racing to get one more shot before the sun went down. It was one of these really special moments where the shot didn’t actually utilize the sunset but the BTS look of the image with the sun going down and the big techno set up over DJ felt very special. To me, it felt like a perfect BTS shot with the boom, techno and a gorgeous location. This is one of my favorite shots for sure.

THE ROCK

What’s up first production-wise for Seven Bucks?

We are about to resume production on Netflix’s Red Notice, which had temporarily shut down due to COVID. We’re so excited to resume shooting in September, and then we will also begin shooting our NBC series Young Rock based on DJ’s childhood years. Then first quarter of next year we’re planning to jump in to our DC superhero movie Black Adam.

You dedicate the book to your late grandparents John and Chela Quintana who, you write, always believed in you. What were they like? And what would they think about your career and this book?

They were the most wonderful, loving grandparents someone could hope for. They were always the hub of my family and truly radiated love all around. Growing up, they always believed in me and felt I was destined to make an impact in some big way. No one believed in me more and the testament to that is my grandfather always saying he thought I was destined to be a star in a boy band! Unfortunately, they passed before they could see me achieve some of my dreams but I always keep them in my thoughts and heart. Dedicating the book to them came to mind right away, and I like to think they would be proud of this book, and what I’ve been able to accomplish not just as a Cuban American but as someone who has big dreams and continues to chase them.

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