An Interview With Master Photographer Benjamin Von Wong

Benjamin Von Wong's work is a tour de force of creativity, technical skill, and the ingenuity and planning ability to pull it all off. Learn more about how he began shooting, the evolution of his methods, and his advice on the creative process and working with others. 

In this great interview with Adobe, Benjamin Von Wong shares a bit of his back story as well as some helpful advice on being an artist, the need to have your work validated, and how that translates to success, both in the creative and financial sense. Von Wong is especially admirable for his ability to create projects that go beyond photography and make strong statements, never compromising his artistic integrity while still maintaining popular success. He seems to have found the magic formula. 

If at the end of the day, you're doing something that you believe in, if it's something that's unique, if it's something that really appeals to people on an emotional level, then you can convince them of the possibility of collaboration. People like to be part of something greater. 

It's a great talk about translating creative impulses into successful projects, and it's well worth watching the full 15 minutes. 

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William Howell's picture

I wonder if having a fabulously wealthy benefactor would be great advice, visa-vis shooting at incredible locales and with considerable help from assistants and attendees? Just wondering.

If you follow Von Wong, you'll find much of his work is shoestring budgets and a callout to friends and followers to come and help. The difference between us and him is motivation, not money...

William Howell's picture

I’m not saying anything derogatory, but what I am saying is his shoot are quiet often very expensive endeavors, so where does the money come from? That is a legitimate question.
Van Wong is great, no doubt and he is passionate about photography, I just wonder how he makes money from it, don’t you?

Von Wong's picture

I earn money from consulting, education, speaking, occasional licensing and of course shooting. Currently, my goal is to create global campaigns for corporations interested in promoting conservation and social impact.

Commercial shoots pay extremely well - especially for someone like me who has no employees, no studio, no car, no kids and essentially no overhead.

It's actually quite surprising to see how much you can do by simply investing TIME into believing in others and empowering them to make a difference.

Hope that helps.

William Howell's picture

Thank you for taking the time to respond and I most certainly meant nothing untoward by my questioning the money aspect.

But it would seem that it takes more than time and friends to do the kind of work you do, for instance, some of your shoots seem to employ at least 6 lights and a make-up artist, hair stylists and a costumer.

I have followed your photography for a least 7 years and the shoot you did recently with the mom that was in a wheel chair was awesome, the budget for the rigging by qualified technicians and insurance must have been 5Gs or better alone, so I figured you had a benefactor.

Two of my favorite photographers, Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon came from wealthy families and that takes nothing away from their artistry, my apologies if I offended.

Edit: And thank you Von Wong for putting out the videos you do. I watch them to learn, you are a superior artist and photographer.

I’ve read your other comments and I would say don’t forget about the Image, in my view it’s critical, because if you want to do conscientious work you need people to look.

Von Wong's picture

Here's how it works Will, some projects have sponsors, others don't. If sponsors are involved, that comes with a lot of relationship building and collaboration in and of itself - because guess what: nothing is free.

SJ's shoot was sponsored largely by Adobe through a relationship that Karen (below) had curated over the course of years. The rigging crew came for free to volunteer for a good cause and so did every single person on that shoot, including the videographer. What we really got covered was flight and food.

A project like Second Harvest's (latest with child hunger) was funded by a donor, but this project still took us 4 months to conceptualize and another 4 to get out into the wild. And I put additional dollars of my own to bring to life. Once again, everyone put their time and talent for free.

Others, like the mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles cost only food, because each and every single component was supported by someone that believed in the cost - from rigging, to cleaning, to providing the space.

And so while I may have had received 20,000$ of broncolor gear for "free", in reality I paid for it with the hours and hours of blog posts, social posts, videos and shoots that once again, I was never paid for.

I've DEFINITELY been super lucky - I grew up never homeless, never starving with a first world education. But I also did come from a family of first generation immigrants from Canada, studied engineering and worked for 3.5 years in a mine and only moved out from home 18 months ago. For my first year out, I lived in a basement. Now I've upgraded to a bedroom and two housemates.

I was not "born into wealth" but I was born into a family who believed in giving me the opportunity to grow.

William Howell's picture

Dude I loved the Mermaid on the Bottles, frickin kick-ass.

Oh I can tell you are from a loving family, it shows in you work.
And thank you for giving me, an avid enthusiast, some fantastic info on how you do these shoots oh and I also think the photographs from the under water series are picture book worthy, in the vein of Helmut Newton's books.

Karen Alsop's picture

Having worked alongside Von Wong on SJ's project, I can personally attest that Benjamin is able to make a LOT happen with a TINY budget. He sacrificed much for our project. We worked extremely hard, with a dedicated team of volunteers.

As Benjamin has shared, it's amazing what you can do by empowering others and working as a team for a common goal.

He is one of the... No scratch that... THE MOST motivated, dedicated photographer I've met when it comes to throwing his all at a project and making BIG things happen.

Tell the truth Ben, you make money from being an international gigolo on the side. ;)

Ferdinand Agbotui's picture

Mr Wong is absolutely one of the coolest photographers in our generation. And when you are that awesome and humble you definitely get a lot of support. I've seen him call out for help/volunteers on most of his projects so I don't really see anything money-oriented about this. I would have signed up if he had been in my country (Ghana).

I worked on one of Von Wong's shoots last month. Long story short we created monsters out of clothing to tell the story how microplastic fibers from clothes are getting into the watersystems bye way of washing machines.

Anyways, everyone involved was a volunteer that found out about it from a Facebook post Ben made. We had an amazing professional costume designer develop a structure for the monster. There were at least 20 other amateur/professional photographers who came to help for free. All of the lighting on the shoot day was borrowed from the volunteer photographers. I'm a commercial videographer and I volunteered to film the entire shoot and edit the videos. GoodWill donated 100s of pieces of clothing, which we kept in perfect condition (which created many challenges) and redonated all of it back. A college professor at big university let us use a classroom the entire time for free to work on the project. The models in the shoot were volunteers. The list goes on and on.

I was pretty amazed because I personally had no idea how he did it until I volunteered to help. Everyone was there for free because they wanted to learn from Von Wong and they also wanted to help the environment. None of it is photoshop or big funding, I think that's part of what makes his shoots so amazing

William Howell's picture

Where can we view these, I hadn't heard about this particular shoot?

To me, Von Wong is in a league with the premier photographers.

I agree William all of those things help. But those tools wouldn't help very many photographers. It takes the ability to use those tools. Bigger does not = easier. Personally I think the man is amazing! I always look forward to seeing what he will do & show next.

Von Wong's picture

Thank you Carl!

Leigh Smith's picture

Wong is hit and miss with me, he does a great job marketing himself and putting out trendy stuff. But most of it is too over the top and campy for me. His latest work with the paralyzed lady with her kid on the rocks is absolutely atrocious. So much time and work into very subpar images. But over photoshopped composites has never been my thing so whatever.

*camp (not campy)

Benjamin Quarles's picture

Campy is a word and this is exactly how to use it.

Sorry but you're wrong. You need to spend some time in England.

Benjamin Quarles's picture

lol. So, a word, which is in American dictionaries, shouldn't be used on an American website because..... I need to spend some time in England. Bahahah.

Thank you for demonstrating another example where the English language has been butchered/Americanised. By the way your arrogance doesn't aide your argument.

Benjamin Quarles's picture

No one "butchered" the English language more than William Shakespeare, who is credited with creating over 1700 new words commonly used today. I don't mean to be less than civil but I do find it laughable that you play the arrogance card whilst telling me I'm not allowed to use a word, which is in the American dictionary, because the whole of my country is below the standard of your Queen's English. No need for ag.

p.s. I'm not from England.

Von Wong's picture

That's because at the end of the day, the final photograph is only half of the story. Sometimes, the photograph needs to be sacrificed in service of the story.

Hanging SJ off a cliff was not "to take a pretty photograph" it was about gifting SJ and her son a once in a lifetime experience and immortalizing it for them while inspiring others with her strength.

Usman Dawood's picture

One of the many reasons why I'm such a big fan. If you're ever around the north of England, coffees are on me :).

Karen Alsop's picture

The 'over photoshopped composites' were mine not Ben's. If you take the time to read in detail about SJ's project you will see that Ben's work was shot on location, mine were photoshopped composites (it's what I do).

And as Ben said - it's about the story, about the adventure, and about SJ's experience with her son. SJ is an inspiration to others and the project gave her a platform to share her story and in turn encourage thousands.

I do agree that the recent project you are referring to was a big miss.

I see that the response was that it was all about the experience for the woman and her son.

I have to wonder then, why it needed to be so overly photoshopped (and poorly at that).

If the experience was what it was all about, then they could have just taken some nice photos for them to remember the day.

Sometimes its seems that some photographers (not referring to Ben here, because I do not for a second thing he does things for his own ego ) do these projects for their own ego and notoriety rather than any real wish to help others.

Felix Wu's picture

On the contrary, the bird costume shoot (video) was Von Wong's one of the most inspirational shoots. The later works are great but it's lacking something - it's like he's been trying too hard to search for the next epic project to shoot - rather than focusing on creating genuinely amazing images. Wish Von Wong could shoot a bit more and post more videos that inspire photographers to push limits. Keep it up!

Von Wong's picture

Really? I would argue that my previous work was just about creating beautiful images while my current images are about creating meaningful work.

It's easy to shoot something epic. It's far harder for that to actually mean something.

Felix Wu's picture

I get that. There's nothing wrong with creating meaningful work. And nothing wrong with creating epic work either!

Von Wong's picture

It depends why you create.

Pretty for the sake of pretty has become meaningless to me.

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