Spitting fire with henna created by artist Alliebee Henna.
While photographers come from vastly different backgrounds and follow their own serpentine paths to find success in the visual medium, San Francisco-based conceptual photographer Benjamin Von Wong has definitely ventured down a road less traveled.
The son of Malaysian Chinese immigrants to Canada, Von Wong graduated from McGill University in 2008 with a degree in mining engineering. In 2012, he left engineering to turn his passion for photography into a full-time career. This move not only channels his own creative energies—his conservation and social impact-focused projects also have the potential to help us all live on a healthier planet.
Digital Photo Pro: How did you end up as a photographer when you started out on a path to becoming a mining engineer?
Benjamin Von Wong: There’s obviously no direct correlation, and anything else is the difference between correlation and causation. I could guess that my background in mining engineering helps me in approaching different topics from a more analytical, problem-solving perspective. I’m pretty good at breaking down problems and then reverse engineering them in order to come up with practical solutions in very diverse situations. Whether or not that’s a direct result of my education or simply a skill that I’ve always had is up to debate. If there’s one thing that you could directly correlate to hard rock mining engineering, it’s the fact that it gave me the financial freedom to experiment and develop myself without being forced to prioritize finances first. I worked for three and a half years as a mining engineer before making the pivot to full-time photography. I never planned to be a photographer.
DPP: What was your first job in photography?
BVW: I had just graduated from McGill University in Montreal and got a job to shoot an event. It was the first time I had been paid to have fun. “Hey, this is great!” I started doing event photography; it was kind of an excuse to buy a ton of new equipment. “Oh, if I get better equipment, then I charge more for the jobs that I do.” I was shooting three or four times a week—bands, politics, cocktail parties, weddings. It was this virtuous cycle. After every job, I would put the money straight back into photography. I could grow quickly because my living expenses were covered by my engineering job. Within a year, I had the Nikon trinity of lenses, the 14-24mm, the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm.
Every single project I’ve photographed since 2007 is on Flickr. My career didn’t evolve in a linear fashion. I was bumming around and doing weird stuff, and then at some point the weird stuff got more common and more weird, and the productions got larger and more complex. Then somewhere in there over the course of two or three years emerged this style that people relate to me. Depending on in which phase you discovered my work, you’ll have this impression of who I am, and those might be radically different. There was a time when I was really well-known for doing fire photography. Similarly, some people discovered me through my underwater work. Now, I’m more social impact-oriented and perhaps headed toward set design. It’s all interlaced; it’s not “chapterized.”
I realized at one point that I had two jobs, engineering and photography, and I didn’t want to have two jobs, so I quit the event business and started to concentrate a lot more on my creative work. On Flickr, I did a project where I did one picture a day for about 100 days. That’s where I started focusing a lot more on creative work. Following that project, I realized that to do the things I wanted to do, I needed more time. My projects started getting more complex from there.
DPP: As you mentioned, during one of your phases, you were doing a lot of pyrotechnic work. Any advice for shooters working with fire?
BVW: Work with a professional. Someone who understands fire. It’s dangerous. That’s number one.
I think people look at fire and get all excited, but the same rules of exposure apply. If your fire looks too overexposed and overblown, it’s because you’re overexposing your shot. You need to dial it down. You have to take into consideration that shadow recovery is far better than highlight recovery. If you want the fire to look crisp and punchy, then you need to have a higher shutter speed because you need to freeze the action. Just keep the basic principles of photography in mind.
DPP: What equipment are you working with these days?
BVW: I’ve switched over to Sony. I opted for a lighter, more portable system since most of my life is spent traveling. It makes a huge difference. I’m currently using a Sony a7R II and a Broncolor Move kit for lighting. I use a MindShift Logistics Manager to carry around my lights, a MindShift UltraLight 36L for my cameras and the Retrospective bag for my laptop. They’re super well-built and all under the Think Tank label now. When I travel, it’s just me. I travel with what I can carry. I don’t travel with 40 Pelican cases of gear. Whatever I need that’s outside of my standard kit, I usually rent locally. I’ll try and bring specialty stuff. For the underwater shoot with the shark shepherd in Fiji, I used local diving gear. Nauticam sponsored me and shipped the housing directly there for my Sony.
DPP: What was the goal of that project?
BVW: It was to promote shark conservation. Eighty percent of my work is self-funded and has a strong social impact component. The model was tied down with divers just out of frame, giving her air. She is supposed to be a shark shepherd with her flock of sharks swimming around her. We got 88,000 petition signatures to support the creation of a shark sanctuary in Malaysia. That was the call to action.
DPP: While your plastic bottle project was shot on terra firma, it’s very much related to the devastating impact plastics have on the marine environment.
BVW: The mermaid that I put on 10,000 plastic bottles was also a crowd-funded, volunteer project. These aren’t just photo shoots; they’re full-press campaigns. The video component got over 35 million views on Facebook. I believe that the world doesn’t need more photos; it needs more photos that resonate, photos that matter, that can bring about positive change. The plastic bottle shoot was my first major social impact success.
DPP: On occasion, you literally put yourself over the ledge to get a dramatic shot. One series has a very Inception kind feel.
BVW: That was for Nike. They wanted to promote their shoes. I told them I wanted to find a social impact angle for it, so we photographed social entrepreneurs. These are very big productions. I take six projects a year if I’m lucky. People often think that a lot of this is done in post, but almost all of it’s done in-camera.
DPP: What’s your workflow?
BVW: I use Capture One because it provides the best tethering experience. Usually, if I start in Capture One, I’ll then go to Photoshop and then to Lightroom for catalog management. There’s no point going directly from Capture One to Lightroom because, in terms of processing, they basically perform the same function, and Capture One has some pretty nice color tools.
DPP: If you had to categorize your recent work, how would you describe it?
BVW: I do work which is at the intersection of photography and fantasy. Currently, it’s focused a little more on installation art pieces. Photography is starting to fuse with set design more and more—my recent work with computers, for example. The sets were all temporary. They were sets designed for the photograph that we built and tore down after the shoot.
What I’m working on now is going to have experiential components. I’ve come to the realization, conclusion that regardless of how big I print my photos, it will never be the same as being there and staring at the volume and scale of these things. It’s so impactful in many ways because they’re all recognizable pieces. These are things that surround us in our everyday lives, but we don’t realize the overwhelming amount that’s out there because we don’t get the chance to see them in such concentrations.
For instance, we go through a ton of computers over our lifetimes. We just discard them as we go. It’s the same with everything. Laptops and keyboards and all the rest. Around 4,100 pounds is the average weight of electronic waste a person will generate over the course of a lifetime.
As I said, I just don’t make these photos, I make a video and build an entire social impact campaign around the whole thing, oftentimes with petitions and activations and calls to action where people are invited to be a part of the entire movement.
DPP: Who was the computer project done for?
BVW: The computer project was with Dell. We did it in their waste recycling facility. They have the largest e-waste recycling project in the world. This is all e-waste that they retrieved. It’s not just Dell, it’s all brands—they’ll recycle any brand, make or model. In the United States, they have a partnership with Goodwill.
This is the kind of commercial work I’m doing these days. I’m trying to support corporations that are trying to do the right thing and support them by validating the good work that they’re doing. Most companies aren’t perfect. They can’t all be like Patagonia, but ultimately I think the best way to encourage good behavior—just like in a child—is to celebrate when they do something right instead of just telling them what they’re doing wrong all the time.
See more of Benjamin Von Wong’s work at vonwong.com.