Benjamin Von Wong doesn’t know how to relax. Ever since the former mining engineer quit his day job in January 2012, shifting into photography full-time, his life has been a whirlwind. The Montreal-based shooter now travels six months out of the year, flying at a moment’s notice to Israel or Indiana, Spain or Seattle, to shoot fantastical, imaginative work. It all started in a Nevada Walmart, where a recently dumped Wong picked up a point-and-shoot camera, looking for a distraction as he found himself stuck with his sorrows in the middle of the desert. Soon, he was shooting event photography on the weekends, seizing any opportunity to connect with people, see new places, and push the envelope when it comes to his work. Wong loves to experiment with elements as diverse as pyrotechnics, black lights, paraplegic athletes and Game of Thrones fan fiction, and he has gained a loyal fan base on the Internet through his blog and YouTube videos, giving viewers a Behind the Scenes look at his creative process and the technical aspects of his shoots. This week, Wong chats with Resource about how to make things epic, the wonders of Facebook, and finally finding his passion.
Not many photographers out there come from a background in mining engineering. How did you make the transition from doing mining as your day job and photography as a hobby to shooting full-time?
Well when I quit my job, I didn’t have any sort of long-term plan. It was more organic. It pretty much started with my waking up one morning and realizing I wasn’t going to be an engineer for the rest of my life, that I didn’t really know what that was going to be but I knew it wasn’t going to be engineering. I had put money aside, and photography-wise I had a pretty decent fan base, so it made sense to at least see where things would bring me. My parents were very supportive, and I gave in my letter of resignation and that was it. It was a very fast thing; there was no ‘leap of faith’ or intense consideration or calculations, it was just: “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
The mining job just wasn’t something I was passionate about. It wasn’t exciting; it wasn’t fun. It was base. I decided to go into engineering because I didn’t know what to do in life. I was good at math and physics, I was 16 years old, and my dad is an engineer so I said, “Ok, I guess I might as well go into engineering.” And at an open house at McGill University I got reeled in by this very convincing mining dude who told me about how you get the best job opportunities and money, and you get to travel. But what I hadn’t considered was, yes, I get to travel all over the world to do things, but every time I travel I’m not in the middle of a new city: I’m in the middle of nowhere, in the country, where the mines happen to be. So I don’t think it was the mining I disliked so much as the fact that I would have to be in a mine to progress with this career, and that just wasn’t interesting to me.
Is there anything from your days as an engineer that translates to your work as a photographer, either specific skills or ways of approaching a problem? Or do you think they’re completely separate?
Everything plays a role. I don’t think there’s any direct line necessarily, but just in general, being an engineer, approaching a problem, analyzing it, and enjoying technical challenges and figuring out to overcome them, all of those things translate into photography. At the end of the day, I love solving problems, and that’s how I tackle photography, as one challenge after the other. If something is already being done, I’m generally not interested in doing it. I like new challenges, and trying things I haven’t done before.
Your work is incredibly diverse and imaginative; you’ve experimented with everything from black lights to pyrotechnics to underwater photography. Where do you get your inspiration? How do you approach a shoot or a new idea for a photo?
A lot of my inspiration comes from meeting people, from visiting places, from just traveling and networking with people. My aesthetic is personal to me, in the sense that I always like things to be grandiose and epic, and I definitely do have a preference for things that are fantastical, futuristic, or that make a person dream, something that’s a little bit larger than life. But the inspiration actually comes from the people that I surround myself with, regardless of whether that’s a client or a talent or a location that I just happen upon. Because that’s what I do: I travel and I meet people, constantly. And then from there these shoots are born.
At the end of the day, it also gives me this really nice network of people who are interesting. It’s one of those things where it’s a niche; you only need to find one person in a specific domain, and then it opens the door to the rest. Now that I’ve opened that door to doing things that are crazy, it’s easier and easier to find the crazy people I need.
How do you find these wacky, crazy, creative people? Do they tend to contact you, or is it just through your travels and putting yourself in situations where you can meet diverse people?
I have to say that my entire career has been built on Facebook. That’s how everything started, just sharing things online and reaching out, and then connecting with real people. Then I started doing Behind the Scenes videos. The explosion of online blogs that would share techniques and teach became very prevalent at the same time that I was shooting and sharing, too, so I just kind of rode that wave. When Fstopppers first started up, I was there at the right place at the right time, and same with DIY Photography. These are blogs that do write-ups on shoots and how they’re done, and that was exactly what I was doing. I’m self-taught, from the Internet, and so for me to turn around and explain how I do things seemed like a very logical process. I started getting an online following through the blog and my YouTube videos, and that’s really where my career stems from. Every client that finds me, they find me through the Internet, and I think it’s because I’ve always made a point to connect with people through these images, and not just put it out there and cross my fingers.
Talking specifically about the Behind the Scenes videos, why is it so important to you to share that process with people? Do you think it stems from the fact that you yourself learned from the Internet? Are you “paying it forward” by sharing the knowledge and expertise you’ve gained with the next batch of up and coming photographers?
There are a lot of reasons I like to share. One is definitely the paying it forward side of things, returning back what I’ve taken. It’s really thanks to other photographers sharing that I’ve learned and grown. But at the same time, it’s also a great marketing tool. People get to meet you virtually through the Internet these days, and if they can see how you work and how you pull things together, they see that you’re actually doing this for real, when the world is getting more and more wrapped up in doing things with CGI. People appreciate that authenticity of actually challenging yourself to make things in reality and push the envelope. And on top of that, a client gets to see how you’re working, they get to know you a little bit, and really at the end of the day if somebody is hiring you for a big gig and they’re going to be spending a couple weeks with you, they want to know if you’re a cool person or if you’re going to be an annoying guy. So there are multiple benefits.
Photography traditionally is a very secretive thing where you come up with this one specific technique that is very, very “you.” But then you stop growing, because you get stuck in that niche. If I share exactly how to do something, like the fire photography for example, and then you see it popping up everywhere, you can’t just do the same thing next time. You have to challenge yourself to continually push the boundaries and do something different, something better, something more exciting. You have to reinvent yourself and continue to grow.
I’ve been recognized in a metro station in France and at a graduation ceremony in Seattle because of my videos. It’s really cool, and that opens up a whole series of opportunities, whether that’s a free place to crash or assistance on a shoot. There’s that whole sense of community that you can only get from sharing with people.
With these images that you create, many of which are fantasy-based or “epic,” as you put it, how much is done in camera and how much is done in post-production?
For me, a final image consists of three distinctive parts. One third is pre-production, getting everything in the right place at the right time. One third is the shoot, which is everything that actually happens the day of. And then the last third is the post-production. And whether that amounts to more or less hours is really irrelevant: the goal of each part is to arrive at a final image. For me, what I pride myself on doing is creating images where people look at it and don’t know what’s real and what’s fake. That for me is when I know I’ve done a successful job.
For some reason, people appreciate reality, or the illusion of reality. It’s not easy to be a really good Photoshop artist, but it doesn’t seem to get the same worth as other media. If you take a painting that’s done with paint and a painting that’s done with Photoshop, the first one has a lot more inherent value, and that just seems to be the reality of the world. For me, I like to play with both. There’s only so much I can do in reality, feasibly. At the end of the day I don’t like spending hours and hours alone in front of my computer, but I love seeing an image come to life, and that only comes through the processing and the refining of an image. That’s where Photoshop really stands out to me: making something ordinary into something magical.
What do you think makes for an interesting photograph?
I think a photo should make people feel something. That’s the most successful type of image, to me, something that can elicit an emotion or prompt a story. I don’t think my images always do that, but I think that’s what it should be like.
You’re primarily a self-taught photographer, and you’ve spoken about photography in the past as “a link to connect just about anybody with a creative bone in his or her body.” Do you think photograph is a universal art form? Can anybody who sets their mind to it create moving and beautiful photographs?
I’m a believer in hard work. I don’t believe so much in talent; I think that, at the end of the day, if you’re willing to put the work into whatever it is you want to do, then you can do it. If you just take photography as a strict example, there are really only three settings on a camera—ISO, shutter speed and aperture—and then you can take a picture. After that, it’s about understanding all the little details and figuring out how to apply them. The part that transforms a guy who can frame things well and see things properly into a guy who can actually produce something of value is years of experience and practice, making connections, finding your own style—and that’s all hard work.
The problem I think most people encounter is that you can’t choose what you’re passionate about. Before I did photography, I was a bartender; I did dance, from break-dancing to salsa; I did ten years of violin; I did oil painting, sketching, charcoal; I did three martial arts; I tried piano and guitar; at one point I was playing paintball; at one point I was doing snowboarding… I’ve tried everything. And there was not once that anything really stuck until I picked up photography. When I started getting into it, my parents were just waiting for me to get bored. But it never happened. It’s still a constant quest. It wasn’t: “I picked up a camera for the first time and my whole world lit up.” It was something I did, and kept doing, and I’m still doing. And taking the picture is just one small part of that. The photography is just a portal into what really turns me on: making connections, collaborating with people, traveling, trying something new. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what I’m doing, as long as I’m integrally me: a person who is out there, reaching for the impossible, going on an adventure, and creating something.