Benjamin Von Wong describes himself as a combination photographer, producer, artist, visual engineer and, perhaps more than anything, a storyteller. Few of the stories the Montreal-based shooter has to tell are quite as fantastic as the one that describes his own ascent to fame in the photo world. Having left his day job as a mining engineer in a Nevada gold mine scarcely two years ago to pursue his alternate career, Von Wong has gained a level of notoriety that has to leave a lot of veteran shooters scratching their heads.
Indeed, with more than 33,000 likes on his Facebook page, nearly 10,000 Twitter followers and more than a million-and-a-half views of his behind-the-scenes YouTube videos, Von Wong has demonstrated the power of social media in growing a photo career.
His shoots often bear more resemblance to a Hollywood production than a typical photo shoot, and Von Wong loves to tap into the ideas, inspiration and logistical assistance of his global followers. Virtually all of his sessions appear to be collaborative, almost communal adventures that often go on for days. And Von Wong seems fine with traveling halfway around the world to seek out partners, mentors and fellow conspirators that are willing to help turn his fantasies into reality.
In part 1 of our talk I asked Ben about his rapid rise to fame and how he transitioned from his day job to a full-time photography career. In part 2 of this interview (which will be posted next week), Ben talks about how some of his more well-known photos were created.
|Disintegration, April 3, 2013 Rennes, France in collaboration with Place Cliché|
Prior to leaving your day job was photography just your hobby or were you shooting professionally?
I was doing it on the evenings and weekends like every other aspiring photographer. By the time that I quit my job I had about 6,500 fans on Facebook, so I wasn't starting from nothing. It had been something I'd been playing with and planning for a year or two.
How did you get such a big following on Facebook?
The same way that you come up with fans on any network, you just stay very active. I was shooting a lot. I was putting up almost a photograph a day.
Most photographers spend many years trying to build a reputation and get recognized, but in just two years you're flying all over the world shooting and doing workshops. How did that happen so quickly?
I feel like the progress is actually slow. I started traveling in year one. The year I quit my job I didn't know what I wanted to do so I just decided that I wanted to travel. The project that really jump-started the traveling was a crowd-funded project that I did. I crowd-funded $12,500 on Kickstarter to travel through Europe and that really brought my status from Montreal-based photographer to international photographer, not because I had paid clients across the world but because I had done shoots across the world. That was a very interesting move and progression.
Strangers had enough confidence in your work to fund you to travel around Europe?
It's not quite that simple. In my case I had produced behind the scenes videos, I had been published on a variety of different blogs, I had my fan base, I had already been sharing what I was doing. And I had never asked for anything in return. This was the first time I had asked people to support me in return. Out of about 6,500 fans I got about 100 people that gave me money. You don't need that many people to believe in you, you just need a few that really believe that you're doing great work and that want to support you.
Once that project was over I wanted to keep traveling and I didn't know how I was going to do it, so I started to give workshops. And the workshops went well which then attracted conferences. I don't actively seek out workshops anymore, people just write or call me and offer to organize something for me. It's one of those things that, if you build it, they will come.
|Project Universo, January 27, 2013|
Do you enjoy speaking and doing workshops?
It's kind of cool being able to be me and doing what I do because every one of my pictures has a story to tell. I can literally make a conversation out of a slideshow. Everything is an adventure. Every single thing happens in a certain place with certain people. Everything has a front-story and everything has a back-story. It has a technical component to it. It also has the pre-production, the post-production and the actual shoot. There is always something to tell.
How many people typically take part in your workshops?
I prefer to have small workshops. I enjoy having around 10 people for a weekend and you get a very cool experience. I'm realizing that my workshops are also unsustainable despite the fact that they are super fun. I always go for these crazy abandoned locations and crazy stylists and models. Because when I first started doing workshops, I was doing them just like everybody else in the studio and then I realized that I don't think that people come to my workshops to learn lighting. They come to my workshops because they want to see how magic happens and so that's what I try to do.
When I was in Vancouver we found an abandoned ship graveyard and we did a workshop there with some steam punk post-apocalyptic people. When I was in London we found a 600 year old tavern, three designers, three hair stylists, three make-up artists and nine models and we did a workshop there for the weekend. So those are the kinds of workshops that I've been doing and they're exhausting and really complicated to put together.
But at the end of the day you offer people this crazy experience and it becomes not so much about what they learn technically, but how to get inspired to see that things are possible and these things do exist and you can make the happen. And that is so much more exciting.