Whether he was on a Hollywood movie set, riding in a taxi or on a subway train, visiting a nearby convenience store or simply walking down the street, Robert Zuckerman always kept his camera ready to shoot.
That was vital during his nearly 25-year career in Hollywood, when Zuckerman worked with stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman and Al Pacino, and directors including Oliver Stone, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, just to name a few.
Today, after a rare genetic disease took away his ability to walk, Zuckerman’s knack for recognizing and capturing fleeting moments in people’s lives has helped him continue to put together some of the most meaningful work of his career.
Some of the best examples of Zuckerman’s work can be found in his Kindsight exhibition, which will be on display through Aug. 10 at Florida International University’s Miami Beach Urban Studios on Lincoln Road.
Zuckerman, 60, began putting together the series of portraits in 2002 in the wake of 9/11. It was then he began documenting random encounters with people from all walks of life, as well as personal moments with celebrities, using a combination of photography and writing.
Zuckerman felt motivated to create something to counter the feeling of fear that had gripped the world at the time.
“I came to the realization that the antidote to and antithesis of terror lay in the richness of everyday life,” Zuckerman said. “It’s ever-present and within arm’s, heart’s and mind’s reach."
Zuckerman published Kindsight as a photography book in 2005 and plans to publish two more volumes, combining them as a three-book set in the near future.
The collection received great acclaim and stellar reviews as readers were moved by his visual portraits. When it was published, it was on the “best book read this year” list of the venerable PEN American Center website.
Samples of his work are on display permanently at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, as well as Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. Zuckerman said there are two copies of the book in Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy in South Africa, and his work has been exhibited in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
Readers in places as far away as Manila wrote to Zuckerman telling him how moved they were by his work. He was subsequently invited to speak at the KidsRisk Symposium at Harvard University Medical School in 2008.
“From the beginning, I received positive responses to pieces [from Kindsight] that I emailed to friends and colleagues,” Zuckerman said. “When I emailed some big movie poster I’d photographed, I’d often get answers from people that they enjoyed the stories.”
Born in Tampa, Zuckerman got his big break in Hollywood in his early 30s, mainly working as a set photographer on blockbuster movies including Training Day, Any Given Sunday, Transformers and The Pursuit of Happyness.
Famed director Oliver Stone gave him his big break on the movie The Doors, hiring him simply on the merits of his photography, despite the fact that Zuckerman was then a virtual unknown in the industry.
Famous actors such as Schwarzenegger, who once introduced him to former President Bill Clinton as “the best photographer I have ever worked with,” raved about his ability go beyond just taking snapshots to observe life around him.
The pieces in his exhibition bring to life personal stories and interactions with everyone from convenience store clerks he was meeting for the first time to experiences with the famous, such as author Maya Angelou.
While working on the movie Training Day in 2001, Zuckerman said, he most enjoyed venturing into rough neighborhoods in Los Angeles where he documented his experiences talking to some of the youth in the area.
Zuckerman noticed his diminishing mobility around the same time he began working on Kindsight. He was diagnosed with Adult Polyglucosan Body Disease, and it rendered him paraplegic in 2012.
That’s when, he said, “Hollywood stopped calling.”
That hasn’t slowed Zuckerman down, though.
In addition to staying active in photography, he is on the board of directors for a foundation researching a cure for his condition. FIU made him a Dean's Distinguished Fellow at its College of Architecture and The Arts a year ago and has invited him back for the upcoming school year.
Zuckerman is also an official community partner of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, helping kids with several projects involving photography. He’s on the family advisory council at the Holtz Children's Hospital, running a regular photography workshop for pediatric cancer and transplant patients and their families.
And he has co-founded, along with New York-based filmmaker Jono Oliver, a venture called Hope & Carry. The name references the legislation in many states regarding Open Carry, where firearms can legally be carried in public places.
“This ‘Hope & Carry’ encourages the open carrying of cameras to access and connect with life's richness and wonder, and to honor people who provide at-risk youth and other populations [with] an alternative life pathway to guns and violence,” Zuckerman said.
In addition to dealing with his own condition, Zuckerman, who lives in Sunny Isles, cares for his sisters Patti and Leslie and his mother Margot Aronsohn.
Patti suffers from Spinocerebellar Degeneration and is a quadriplegic. In her honor, Zuckerman wrote a piece titled Heroes, documenting his sister’s meeting with TV talk show host Montel Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Zuckerman also has a piece dedicated to his father, Matthew Zuckerman, who served in the Air Force and passed away in 2007.
“Through teaching and working for world betterment, I feel like this is my higher calling in life,” Zuckerman said. “I always try to tell people I talk to remember [that] even when something bad happens, it could be a veil for something better that’s about to happen.”
If you go
What: Photographer Robert Zuckerman’s post-9/11 series, ‘Kindsight,’ which documents encounters with people from all walks of life using a combination of photography and writing.
Where: FIU’s Miami Beach Urban Studios, 420 Lincoln Rd. (fourth floor), Miami Beach.
When: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays or by appointment, through Aug. 10.
Information: 305-535-1463 or firstname.lastname@example.org or mbus.fiu.edu.