The local photographer hunts stunning images from Botswana to the Monterey Bay
By Aric Sleeper
On the vast plains within Botswana’s many national parks, predators like lions and leopards abound, lounging, lapping from watering holes, and stalking their next meal. Just far enough away—close but not too close—slouched in an all-terrain vehicle, camera in hand, is Santa Cruz native, Mat Hofman. After a decade of capturing stunning landscapes and exotic wildlife, he has become a hunter in his own right.
“I’m always waiting for just the right moment,” says Hofman. “Most of the time, the animals are either sleeping or eating and there’s nothing really interesting going on, so getting some type of other interaction takes a lot of patience. I wait for those moments when they’re showing their personality or doing something different or unexpected.”
When Hofman isn’t prowling for images of dangerous beasts in their element, he’s pursuing his main vocation: video production. Working with organizations like CrossFit and ESPN, Hofman has traveled all around the world. It’s only in his downtime that he goes out into the wild world to unwind after a long day’s work.
What first inspired you to start shooting landscapes and wildlife?
I got into photography almost as an escape from the busy, hectic scene of video shoots. I still use my camera, but I get to go out into nature, where it’s a little more quiet and mellow. Photography is also a great excuse to go and explore amazing and beautiful places. We are lucky to live in Santa Cruz where you can drive an hour away and find some place you’ve never been before. I like to travel, and my photography has taken me to many different places around the world, like Africa, Indonesia, and New Zealand.
What drew you to southern Africa?
My first trip to Africa was in 2006 and it was a family trip. My brother and his wife were there for 10 weeks, so we went out to visit them. I fell in love immediately. It’s hard to describe to someone who has never been in the wilds of Africa. It’s as real as it gets. When you go out on a safari and see the animals the way they were meant to live, it’s so incredible. I recently returned from a month-long trip to Namibia and Botswana. This was my third trip together with my girlfriend Kathy to southern Africa and we can’t get enough of it over there.
Have you ever found yourselves in any hairy situations?
Most of these animals don’t react to vehicles. They grow up with these vehicles, and even though they are obnoxious and loud, the animals don’t see them as any kind of threat, so you can pull up on a pride of lions that’s sitting only 15 feet away. But if you break the shape of the vehicle and move, they’ll see you. I captured one close-up of a female lion with these intense eyes. I got the shot right after someone in our car stood up to adjust their seat. As soon as they broke the shape of the vehicle, the lion went from sleeping to alert to staring right at us. We had to move on at that point.
Are there other threats out there in the wild aside from the big cats?
There’s not really much of an issue with the big cats. They look right through you for the most part. It’s more the elephants you have to worry about. Elephants are highly intelligent, and when they look in your eyes, you know they’re looking at you. They are really the only animals that react to the vehicles. And if you come across a big grumpy male, they’ll shake their heads and trumpet and charge at you. I’ve had to reverse on a road for half a mile with an elephant chasing me. They flip cars and do all kinds of crazy stuff, which is why they’re also the most fun to watch.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
Through my images, I hope that people will gain a sense of appreciation for these places and for wildlife. You hear about what happened when the government shut down and people trashed the national parks. Why does that happen? Where’s the love for these places? Hopefully through others’ and my photography, people will see how amazing these places are, and it will inspire them to preserve and protect them.
What are your hopes for your work moving forward?
The great thing about photography is that you are constantly learning and improving, and the way technology is these days, there is always something to new to catch up on. I love working in TV and video, but if I could shoot landscape and wildlife photos full-time, I’d do it in a second.