By Anita Malhotra
Toronto-born, 29-year-old photographer Benjamin Von Wong pushes the technical and artistic limits of photography like few other photographers do. His elaborately staged, fantastical photographs – often set in unconventional locations – look like they were created using photo editing software but are the result of painstakingly planned and executed real-life shoots.
His photo shoots have featured people dressed as superheroes posing precariously on the edge of a skyscraper’s roof, a model dressed as a shepherdess in an underwater cave with sharks swimming nearby, and fire used for dramatic effect in a variety of settings. All his shoots are documented with behind-the-scene videos that are as fascinating as the photographs themselves.
Von Wong (he added the “Von” when he discovered there was another photographer with his name) also has a strong interest in altruistic causes. In 2013, he produced a Go Fund Me video for a girl with a terminal genetic disease that brought in one million dollars in donations in a month, and he is currently using his unique style of photography to highlight environmental issues.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Benjamin Von Wong by Skype on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.
AM: Where are actually you Skyping from?
BVW: I’m currently in San Francisco. I recently decided that this was going to be my new home base. And I just got back from about six weeks of travel though Europe less than a week ago.
AM: Why did you move to San Francisco?
BVW: I wanted to be surrounded by dreamers and entrepreneurs who are trying to make the world a better place. I used to be in Montreal, and as much as I love the city, my feeling was that every time I came back home nothing changed. Whereas I can go away for two months and come back to San Francisco and it’s a whole new world every single time. It’s only been about nine months now, half of which I’ve spent travelling, but it’s been an amazing choice for me to move here and have the opportunity to interact with all these different companies and corporations and individuals.
AM: What were you doing in Europe?
BVW: I had two projects. The first one was to shoot in a strip-mining museum where they had a couple of different mining machines. We got post-apocalyptic characters and smoke grenades, and the idea was to create a piece against coal-mining. I’m going to create as engaging of a piece as is possible, to appeal to the younger video-game style generation.
And then the other shoot was in Poland. We found an underwater excavator in Poland and got a dive crew together, got a model, tied her underwater in 14 degree Celsius waters, and had a little piece of coral. The idea was to raise awareness for dredging, which is a fairly big issue, especially in the fishing industry.
AM: Where were you born and raised?
BVW: I’m Canadian. I was born in Toronto actually, and my parents are Chinese-Malaysian. I’ve been to 13 different schools in three different countries, so I travelled quite a little bit when I was young and I spent about half my life in Montreal.
AM: What were some of those countries that you lived in?
BVW: It was just Canada, U.S. and China. In China I lived in Beijing for four years from eight to 12 years old, and while in the U.S. I lived in Dallas, Texas for a year and a half. I also spent six months in California when I was a bit younger.
AM: Did you have any inclination towards visual images or photography when you were a kid?
BVW: I really liked comic books. I think that’s probably the closest to visual attraction that I had to anything. Photography was never something that I was particularly interested in. Even when I picked it up it was just a new hobby to take on with new technologies to try out, and it crept up on me throughout the years. When I quit my job in 2012, I didn’t necessarily want to become a photographer, I just didn’t want to be an engineer, and so I became a photographer by default.
AM: Was there any artistic influence from your family?
BVW: No, my family is not artsy at all. They did push us to try a lot of things out. I have a black belt in Taekwondo, I started playing violin when I was four, they put us through drawing lessons, painting lessons. We’ve tried everything from pottery to sculpting and just a little bit of everything.
AM: How did you get into photography?
BVW: I was studying mining engineering at the time, and my program involved a bunch of internships, and on one of these internships I ended up working in a mine in Winnemucca, Nevada. While I was there, a girl broke up with me and I needed to find something to keep myself busy.
I decided that taking pictures of the stars was an interesting thing to try out because the stars were really pretty there. I bought three cameras in the space of a week, and then I finally managed to take pictures of the stars. I remember sitting in Starbucks reading the manual, so I was really starting from nothing.
AM: How did you develop your photography technique and style?
BVW: In the beginning photography was kind of travel companion. It gave me an excuse to do stuff at events when I didn’t really know what to do, something to keep myself busy and entertained regardless of where I went. And then over time I joined some photographer clubs, I started getting better at the craft. Eventually one day I got offered the opportunity to shoot an event for $250 that that one of my friends couldn’t make it to. It was a big turn of events because it was the first time that I was getting paid to do something that I enjoyed doing.
I started buying a bunch of equipment, and then focusing on events – weddings, cocktail parties, anything along those lines. About a year into that I started getting a little bit bored. So I dropped event photography and started focusing on doing creative projects. And that’s the beginnings of my photography style as you see it today, purely focused on doing things that were exciting and fun and entertaining.
AM: At what point did you decide to quit your engineering job?
BVW: I woke up one morning and I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer for the rest of my life. I told my parents that I was going to do a GMAT to potentially get my MBA. But after passing my GMAT, I really wanted to travel, so I just started travelling and decided to try out what it would be like to be a photographer. I never really stopped since then.
AM: You’ve labeled your style as “epic.” Why do you use the word “epic” and how would you describe your style?
BVW: The word “epic” has got to be one of the most overused words on the Internet, but my stuff is, at least in the photography world, typically taken to the next level. It’s like “OK, we can shoot underwater, but we’re not just going to shoot underwater. We’re going to shoot 30 meters under water, in a shipwreck.” It’s always taking things one step further and telling not just a story in the photographs themselves but in the whole journey. That’s why I have these behind-the-scene videos that explain to them the adventure.
As far as describing my work, if it had to be summarized in a single sentence it would be that “I create photographs that look like they’re photoshopped.” And so, people’s first impression is typically a question on whether it’s an illustration or CGI. And it’s only when they take the time to experience it a little further that they realize that what they’re looking at is part of a real adventure.
AM: Was there one particular photo shoot that was more “epic” than any of the others?
BVW: They are all so different. Every shoot has their epic components to it, like the shipwreck photo shoot that came together in less than a week. I got my dive certification the day before the shoot. It was during a family vacation – I was kind of dragged into vacation because I don’t like taking vacation – where I discovered that there was a shipwreck. I decided if there was a shipwreck I had to do a shoot. And it just kind of scaled from there into this amazing series of images that I think are still my most viral images possible.
But then, the other shoots have been equally crazy, from dangling people on the edge of a building to chasing storms, and putting people in front of these storms with less than 10 minutes to set everything up and tear down before we had to bail. So each one of them have their own unique story to them that I don’t know if one really trumps the other.
AM: It must take a lot of courage to work in the challenging and dangerous conditions that you do. How do you keep positive and how do you deal with the problems you encounter?
BVW: I get really excited about anything that requires some form of adrenaline rush, I don’t think I’m particularly brave – I just may be just a little bit naïve and slightly crazy. As far as the problem-solving and staying positive, I think that the engineering background has helped. I always take a step-by-step approach in terms of breaking down a problem into smaller elements that are a lot easier to tackle than one big problem.
AM: I know that you’re focusing on the environment now, but in the past you’ve also done projects that were trying to help other people. Can you tell me about some of those?
BVW: Yeah, I’ve had a couple “humanitarian-ish” projects if you will. One was to take photos of a lady who had cancer. She was diagnosed as terminal and wanted to have a photo shoot where she would be able to create an image that was personalized for her funeral. Another one was surprising one of my fans for his twenty-first birthday. I wrapped myself in a box, showed up at his doorstep and took him on a one-week road trip, just because I happened to be in the area.
I also made a video for a little girl, Eliza, who was diagnosed with a terminal degenerative brain disease. I stumbled on the project through word of mouth that they were looking for a videographer that could help make a video to help them raise a million dollars in about two months. I don’t consider myself a videographer, but I said that I’d love to help out. And so I did. And we raised a million dollars in a month.
So I’ve done I guess a couple of things along these lines that have always been very fun. But the problem with them is that they don’t necessarily fit my style of photography. And so, recently the move towards environmental has been trying to consolidate the Von Wong brand and this unique style of imagery that I’m capable of creating and consolidating that with the real world and trying to make myself the most useful possible.
AM: How do you fund your projects?
BVW: Historically, my projects have been funded by simply teaching. I would give a conference – a talk – and I would fly to somewhere, get some money. I’d use that money to do a shoot, fly to the next place, give another conference, do another shoot, and so on and so forth. And then along the way I would get paid for a couple of shoots here and there, which helped bring in some inconsistent income. And then lately the commercial jobs that I’ve been getting have increased in scale, meaning they’ve increased in revenue, which means that I’ve cut down on the teaching because I don’t need to do it as much anymore. I got a large global campaign last year and that’s been helping to fund my crazy adventures this year.
I guess when people look at my work they automatically associate it with an extremely large price-tag. And while they do have an extremely large value from a production standpoint, the fact that these are generally non-profit projects means that I have a lot of people and talents and favors that I can pull in order to pull them together.
AM: In your lectures you’ve talked about the three phases of your work – the pre-production, production and the post-production. Can you explain that to me?
BWV: If I take the underwater excavator shoot, for example, the pre-production phase of things involved, I was chatting with a dive master in Australia about what the environment needed. He brought up the subject of dredging, which I wasn’t particularly familiar with. I started doing some research, and realized the chances of me getting access to an underwater dredge was probably zero if it was going to be an environmental project. And so I posted on Facebook that I was looking for an underwater excavator, and this group of divers reached out to me and said, “Oh hey, is this what you’re looking for? It’s in Poland. If you come here we’ll help you put it together.” And that’s when the discussion started to figure out logistically what we needed, finding the costumes, finding the model. I bought a little piece of coral and the props. And I bought a plane ticket.
And then, the actual shooting is just figuring out how the team works, meeting a whole bunch of new people on set, going scouting, setting up the lights, preparing schedule, troubleshooting, and doing the best job you can to take the best shots possible during those couple days.
And then it enters the post-production phase, which is just sitting down in front of a computer trying to figure out, “I have these images, they’re not perfect, how can I make them better?” I sent the photos to a couple of people, for example, and they’re like, “the excavator doesn’t look menacing,” so right now I’m trying to figure out how do I make it look like it’s less static. Maybe it’s a question of color, maybe it’s a question of composition, and then kind of play around with that.
In the post-production phase of things you also think about the marketing and the launch. How are the images going to tie into the behind-the-scene video, how are all these stories going to tie together to create the greatest impact? Just because you post a picture doesn’t mean that it’s going to resonate with people. You have to create a press kit around it so that it creates enough intrigue and interest. Because that’s what every website is designed around these days, views and clicks.
AM: How can people buy your photos or your prints?
BVW: My prints aren’t for sale. My work is non-profit based, which mean that the end goal of these photos isn’t to be sold. It doesn’t make sense to me that I would be the only person to profit off something that everybody else works for free for. The hope is to get commercial work out of these creative projects, but print sales traditionally don’t generate that much. And I think it would just kind of ruin the spirit of just creating beautiful, crazy things for the sake of creating beautiful, crazy things.
AM: Do you have any other projects planned?
BVW: In about three weeks I should be going to South Carolina to make a follow-up video of Eliza. She just got treated a month ago, which is really good, so I want to go and create a piece to encourage people, or just for the donors to get a proper update.
I’m hoping to do a project in Brazil, but the Zika virus is causing a little bit of problems in my plans. I wanted to a do a project on the cleanup of the Guanabara Bay. I’m hoping to work with a food bank here in San Francisco. We’re trying to do something that focuses on the issue of food rescue, and through that talk about the issue of overconsumption.
I just got an email from this guy who interacts with indigenous tribes in Indonesia who are trying to protect their own lands through a variety of different activities. One of the projects I think would be very suited to my style is empowering and celebrating indigenous communities who are protecting their own lands, because they are one of the greatest lines of defense against deforestation.
I’m hoping to do something about coral bleaching. I would love to do something that addresses the overfishing issues as well as plastic pollution in the seas. But all these things are quite tough to get access to. I’m really hunting for a variety of environmental projects at this stage. I’m open to anyone who wants to collaborate, thinks that they have a problem, or needs visibility on an issue that could benefit from fantastical, epic photos.
For more information about Benjamin Von Wong or to contact him, please visit vonwong.com.