Benjamin Von Wong is known the world over for his epic, hyper-realistic photography. A passionate collaborator, with a belief in sharing his work with others, he is as well known for his behind-the-scenes videos and blogs as for his uniquely brilliant photographs themselves. Notorious for his desire to overcome seeming impossibilities, Benjamin uses his engineering background to dissolve mountainous technical challenges, from pyrotechnical wizardry in his ‘Fire’ series, to shooting underwater, deep within a Bali shipwreck. In Part 1 of this interview, Benjamin tells us about his work’s inspiration and how it has evolved.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RECENT PROJECTS. HAVE THEY BEEN CLOSELY LINKED?
When you retrace your steps, you can very easily see how one project links up to the other – how you ultimately arrive at your current destination. But I think if you were to ask me where I’m going to be in 18 months, it’s impossible to project that because things happen so fast. Really you never know when the next thing is going to go viral; you never know when it’s going to land on the right person’s desk which would unlock some opportunities.
HOW HAS YOUR WORK CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
I think I managed up to now just being true to who I am and what I enjoy. There’s definitely a greater maturity in what I do now, because in a sense your work evolves. Your aspirations change and being able to reflect upon why you do things and what drives you is almost key to staying motivated. You almost need to know why you’re working so hard and what you’re hoping to achieve to keep that motivation going. The fact that I teach classes forces me to reflect on why I do what I do.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY THE MOST ABOUT YOUR WORK?
What I really like about photography is the actual act of shooting, but I like the adventures and travel too. Two years ago the idea to just pick up, travel, live my dreams, and try things, is very much the same as it is today. I have very much the same focus. I’m still out there doing crazy things, meeting crazy people and going around doing my crazy adventures.
YOU CREATE VIDEOS AND BLOG POSTS ALONGSIDE YOUR PHOTO SHOOTS. CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT THESE?
Back in 2011, I was really happy doing creative things that would further my technical abilities. Then the videos came along and then I really started making sure that each one of my photo shoots had videos and a blog post, and that sharing has almost exponentially increased.
In my case I think that the videos are almost what give the lead to the photos. Think about the underwater video for the Bali shoot – if it didn’t have a behind-the-scenes that showed a woman strapped down to the bottom of a shipwreck, those photos alone wouldn’t have got nearly as much attention. In a world where it is now so easy to produce good work, thanks to all these beautiful advances to technology, I think people have an appreciation for things that are really hard to do. Those videos bring my work into reality.
YOUR PROJECTS INVOLVE TREMENDOUS COLLABORATION. DO YOU FEEL A TRUE CONNECTION WITH THE PEOPLE YOU WORK WITH?
Really I’m a people person, so when I meet people and talk to them, we talk about things they do, places they’ve been or people they know, so that’s where I get my inspiration from. I love demystifying things. The purpose of the image is the story we’re trying to tell, and you try to put the different elements together like a big puzzle. So I guess having the ability to connect with others and reaching out and knowing how to engage them is really a huge part of the equation now. I use a lot of social media so I have the great advantage of having a really driven fan base, so I can really post anything on my Facebook and you never what you’re going to see. Just the other day for example, I was searching for Mongolian horse archers, and someone actually replied to say that they knew a photographer whose wife was in a Mongolian tribe. I was like, ‘wow’. You can really find all sorts of things by putting yourself out there.
YOU WORK A LOT WITH DANCERS. WHAT IS IT YOU FIND SO INSPIRING ABOUT THEM?
Oh dancers are amazing. They have just beautiful bodies, and minds that work really well in photos from a compositional perspective. They’re able to emote with their bodies in ways models can’t really. I just love working with dancers, they’re patient, really hard working, they’re beautiful to look at and they’re just a lot of fun.
DO YOU OFTEN GO BACK AND WORK WITH THE SAME PEOPLE?
It’s funny because as much as I would like to work with people again, I don’t always have that option. Everything that I do rests on being novel and exciting and new. In one way it’s extremely exhausting because creatively it definitely stretches you to capacity, but then it also forces you to stay innovative, relevant and new.
HOW DID YOU BUILD SUCH A LARGE FOLLOWING AND WHAT EFFECT HAS IT HAD ON YOUR WORK?
I first began with local communities; I tried to put together meet-ups, or I would join other people’s meet-ups where I would shoot friends. I’d always try to find my own style and vision of things. You create work that represents who you are, and if you create good work, then you can get better people to work with you. The better the people you work with, the better your work becomes.
Read more in Part 2: Money, the future and secrets to success (coming soon)