In Focus: Igniting Conversations with Ben Von Wong
Hey everyone, how's it going? Welcome to Photo Week 2017! Can I get a shout out? (cheering) Awesome, I love the energy here in Seattle. For those of you who are tuning in from all over the world, I wish you could be here with us, but we're doing everything we can to make your experiences as awesome as the folks who are actually here in the crowd. Insane lineup all week long. And tonight, I get the great honor of introducing someone that I met a handful of years ago, and I love circle. Who doesn't love circle, right? It's the shape of our lenses, it's the way we think. And in 2012 I was at my photo studio and a young man, as a lot of folks have on occasion, just drop in and say I was hoping to sit down and connect with another fellow photographer. And in walks Ben Von Wong. And he and I had a conversation, this was again 2012, and we've talked about this just a little bit before I came on stage here, and what I remember from that moment was the vision, the passion, and the ...
understanding of what it took to follow one's dreams to become the thing that he wanted to become. He embodied, you know, I get to have the good fortune of talking to so many people who are excited about photography, and every once in a while you come across someone who's got it, who has the skills, but also the desire. And it's those two things together that have made his career since we, like, it feels like yesterday, but he came on my radar at that point, and then I feel like I turned around and then he's everywhere. He has videos that have been seen 30 million times. His most recent campaign for Nike, have you guys seen that, where there are people hanging out of skyscrapers? It's an incredible video, or it's an incredible campaign. And one of the things that I love about Ben is not only does he take pictures, but he makes pictures. And he thinks of the entire campaign and that's why he is so sought after in the commercial world these days. So, I think, I actually I know that you're eager to see him so I'll get my booty off stage. But it would be amazing if you gave this man a huge, warm, CreativeLive welcome. Mr. Ben Von Wong, come out here, bud. (cheering) Take it away, bud! It's all you, thanks.
Awesome. Nice to be back in Seattle. Last time I've been in CreativeLive, I think, was 2013? Right after I'd crashed Chase's studios, so it's always great to be back. Thank you guys all for coming. And hello to the internet audience, great to see you guys too. Von Wong, the name I had to invent because in 2009 or something, when I wanted to buy my first website there was another photographer called Benjamin Wong only six hours away, and I was like no, I just, I can't. BenjaminWong.ca was some other photographer shooting weddings, and I said I need to be different, and Von Wong was born from that. The topic of my speech today is about igniting conversations and I think this is something that is really important. It's not something I hear talked a lot about. But on the side, it's something that everyone seems to be struggling with. Everyone wants more views, they want more likes, they want more comments, they wanna figure out how to get the word out there, they wanna figure out how people can stumble across what they do. And for me, what that's translated to is conversations, and it's something I've been working towards quite a long time. It's taken a little bit of time to get to the stage where I'm at, so I wanted to sort of rewind, start a little bit in the beginning and then move all the way forward to my latest projects and to then kind of slingshot back and forth a little bit, so if you guys have questions along the way, think about them and then we'll get to them at the end. There's like 20-plus minutes for questions. That applies to the online audience too. So, when I was first growing up as a kid, I think I struggled with this idea that I really wanted to stand out. I think something along the lines of being a stereotypical Asian kid. Being good at math and physics, I did martial arts, I played the violin just like every good Asian kid. (laughter) It just really stuck with me, and this idea of just always trying to stand out was something that was really important to me. So when I first started photography, it was only about trying to create work that was different. And as we all start out, you don't have access to very much, so you try to do the best with what you have available, and for me the cheapest way when I first began photography was using Photoshop to create work that would be a little bit different. And so I'd use myself as a model, I'd shoot in my bedroom, Photoshopping a head coming out of my own body, multiplying myself a view times with some dry ice hanging off a bookshelf, or just going out and faking the Milky Way. And so really trying to find ways to communicate that I could be a little bit different using myself. Over time, what I started to realize was that people were finally interested a little bit more, I was able to convince friends and family to model for me. And at that stage, it became about trying to change ordinary places to look a little bit more extraordinary. Everything from taking an excavator lying on the roadside, this was my girlfriend at the time, or going around finding a graffiti outside, tearing up pieces of paper, throwing that out to create this little rain effect, or even my tool shed with some hair, makeup, and gels, all trying to find ways to communicate the idea that the world that we see can be interesting if we take the effort to make it so. And as I got better and better, I was able to slowly increase the type of work that I was doing. I was trying to create special effects, was something that I was really drawn to, because I started realizing that people were really interested in the process. If I did something that had a really interesting story component to it, they would tune in, and want to know how it was done. And so that created different conversations that got me a little bit more visibility, and I was having a blast doing it. I learned all sorts of interesting things along the way, like how if you put liquid latex on someone's face and you don't put Vaseline before, it's really hard to take off. (laughter) If you throw flour in a studio, it just stays there for years, so don't do it in your own studio, do it in someone else's. (laughter) And how, simple tricks, like this was putting dry ice inside of a lake and just flipping things upside down were great ways to create really unique projects, and you didn't need access to anything too complicated in order to do it. And so, somewhere around 2012, I decided to quit my day job. I was a mining engineer at the time, and my work was getting a little bit interesting, and I was like, you know what, I think I can take the next step, travel, do photography, and see where that leads. So I was creating work that was pretty interesting, work that was like this, where we took a piece of Kevlar rope, lit it on fire, and dragged it across the ground. So things that looked really impressive, but were actually just a technical combination of all the different things that I was doing at the time. And once again, it was really about sharing that process, so how I managed to develop the audience that I currently have was through education. Was really through sharing this process of how do you do these types of products? How do you create something like that? And so the photos became the portal to saying like hey, this is a statement, look at it, pay attention to me, I'm very different. And then hopefully from there people would want to know how it was done, and that would create the momentum that I needed. But along the way, what I started noticing, because it's great having followers, they don't really hire you to do much, right? So I started realizing that I was not able, it doesn't matter how creative my work was, nobody was really hiring me, and I think it was just never able to quite grow from the photo niche that I was starting to become very visible in. And so I was creating work like this where from a story perspective, it was really interesting. I mean, we had a full process. I flew in to work with a bunch of film students in Florida, we created these costumes, we went into the woods with a machete, took some bark off and created these costumes by meticulously hot gluing pieces of wood onto muslin cloth and paper mache-ing some horns together. And, put them in a tree, it looks amazing, almost like out of Lord of the Rings, and then we had these, the light was balanced, we got the sun in the back, we got the beauty dish in the front, like, the same type of thing that you would normally think about as you're trying to create a really great image. But it just wasn't really spreading. And I think it really came down to the simple problem that even though the work was really interesting, there was no good way for people to talk about it. So if I tried to describe this image, I can't say three people in a tree. It's just not that compelling. Or three tree people in a tree, or people that look like Lord of the Rings in a tree. It just doesn't quite stick. And that was something that was very problematic. Similar to other projects I'd done, like this was another favorite, my favorite photos I have ever created. It's a lady in a huge bird costume on a rock, right? I have the same problem. I can't convey the beauty of it in words, and so incidentally it doesn't create that conversation. There's no way for people to actually talk about it beyond the photography audience that would kind of like and stop there. So, yeah, so pretty good work was just not quite cutting it. And I kind of went around for the longest time just trying to figure out how I could improve my game. That's what we do as photographers, we're really focused on the technical. We're like, if I only had more gear, I could do X. If only I had better people to work with, I could do Y. If only could travel to a certain place, I could do Zed. But along the way, it wasn't really the quality of the work that really got me anywhere, it was stumbling on the ability to create work that was shareable, naturally happened. And that happened the first time I tied a model underwater to a shipwreck in Bali. And so that was this photo over here. And so I heard some chuckles in the audience, and that's exactly what the magic of that photo is, is it doesn't really matter what the photo looked like. The fact that the photo turned out to be pretty, it follows compositional rule of thirds, we have a nice wedding dress, it's underwater. But the fact that I could explain it in a single sentence is what really made it stand out. And then from there, once people were clicking on the link, they found out that I had tied a model underwater shipwreck, and then I told them that actually I just got my dive certification the day before, I had worked with a bunch of people that had flown themselves in from all over the place, like she flew in from Dubai. I was working with a dive crew that was just referred to me by someone on Facebook who took the chance, he was like, you don't have a dive license and you wanna do this? He was like, okay, well let's give it a shot anyways. And this whole story is what really accentuated it, but first it started with that title. And so I started to design my projects around titles, because I was like, if I just have a cool title behind every product that I do, then maybe from there we can actually get something really interesting going. So I tried again. This time we put super heroes on the edge of a 40-story skyscraper. First skyscraper. And it was kind of the same idea, right? It doesn't really matter whether or not you like the photograph, it doesn't matter how good the photo is, if I tell you I dressed people up as super heroes and put them on the edge of a 40-story skyscraper, it creates enough of that intrigue so that you want to learn more. And if I wanna learn more, other people are hopefully gonna talk about it too. And they can talk about it to their friends, did you see the photo that this guy did on the edge of a 40-story skyscraper? It creates that conversation. And so conversation is extremely important. It starts with the headline. So if there's one thing I really want you guys to take away is that virality is really in the headline. And something that you should always think about, you should always internalize. Think about how people can talk about what you do. Because if you can't even explain what you do, nobody else is gonna be able to do that. And the great thing is, you don't need to know what the title is right away. You can take a project that has already been launched, and redesign your title to make it more shareable. So an example of that is this campaign that I did for a company called SmugMug. Some of you may know them. They do photo-hosting websites. And I was in town, and they were like, hey, we need some black and white portraits of our employees and we know you don't really do that type of thing, but if you had some extra time, we'd love to have these portraits done. And I was like, well, I think rain can make anything look epic, so we built out a rain machine with $20 of PVC pipe and garden sprinklers, and came up with these portraits that like, that's the CEO, that's his wife, that on the edge is a guy in marketing. (laughter) So it was a really interesting series, right? And I was like wow, these photos are great, hopefully they'll do good, so when I launched it it was like a $50 trick to epic black and white portraits, or something like that. And so it did okay in the photography circles, right, because photographers are interested in knowing what the $50 trick to epic portraiture is. But the rest of the world doesn't really care what the $50 trick to epic portraiture is, right? And so what we did was try to relaunch it a second time. We waited about I think six months, six months later, realized that it hadn't hit the mainstream, so there was an opportunity to rebrand the campaign and launch a second time. And so this time what we did was we focused really on what other people could relate to. And what can people relate to? People can relate to the transformation of going from ordinary to extraordinary, right? So we launched it on January 1st, which is when everyone makes their New Year's resolutions to go to the gym, and then we focused not on the final results, but rather on that change that people went through, and we called it Ordinary People, Hollywood Budgets. And that created the connection, and it created the conversation around hey, should we go to the gym, or should we just hire a photographer? (laughter) Or, you know. Conversations like that that were just really interesting and suddenly became like a common conversation that anybody could have, right? That oh, hey, you should do this, you should take this photo, and people who were in fitness wanting photos like that of themselves, et cetera, et cetera, and so it kind of snowballed from there, and it just created a very cool conversation. And so over time my ability to create these viral campaigns slowly started to pay dividends until I got the largest campaign, my largest campaign to date, which was to shoot a global campaign for a cell phone company called Huawei. They made this really cool camera in their cellphone called the Huawei P8, and they wanted to take the most epic photo possible using their cell phone. So this was taken with a cell phone. They had a brand new light-painting feature, and so we created these wings of fire for the beautiful lady coming down the stairs. And that landed me kind of, like my face was on the side, this was like a mall in London. I was in a ton of airports and everything, and I even got credited for it, which was pretty amazing. And so I think while that was certainly the biggest highlight of my professional career, it led me to a number of interesting realizations. First being that, this was a cool campaign, but ultimately, what was it doing? It was just moving product off a shelf. And a few months later it would be completely forgotten. There was no sense of tangible accomplishment to it, it was something that really came in, paid the bills, and didn't really take me further than that. And that was something that really bothered me in the back of my mind. Because when I thought back to the projects that I really cared about the most, products that really impacted me, the ones that fed my soul, there were projects like this one that I had done for a family. And so this isn't even a photo shoot. This was a video that I had made for a family whose daughter was dying of a terminal degenerative brain disease, and the disease is pretty horrible. By the age of three or four, they slowly start losing the ability to walk, talk, speak, until they eventually die in their teenage years, and the family had no idea that this was gonna happen. It's called Sanfilippo Syndrome. And so the father was looking to raise funds so that his daughter could be eligible for a clinical trial. And he had done like all the different fundraisers from trying to, I don't know, do golf tournaments, to selling cookies on the side of the road and doing car washes and all the traditional stuff, and he just couldn't raise enough money in time. They just thought if only he could have a viral video, maybe he could do something. And so he reaches out to this girl, who reaches out to PetaPixel, who sends a mass email to a bunch of videographers, and I'm like, I'm not a videographer, but if no one better comes along, I'd love to give it a shot. And ended up making a video that raised a million dollars in a month, and raised over two million dollars at the end of the year, and even to date, and so she got treated about a year ago. And even to date this is the one piece of content that they have that still explains the problem the best. And so a project like this truly had a lot more legacy, it had a lot more weight, it had, it was something that was actually valuable that would stand the test of time, and that was something that I truly started to want to have more of in my photography work. Except, there's a little bit of a struggle, right, because creating work that is beautiful and fantastical and surreal, and real-life human problems are two things that are a little bit far apart. And so it was a pretty big struggle, but about I think almost 18 months ago, maybe closer to 20, 20 by now, I took a commitment to say I want all the products that I participate on to have a social impact component to that. And it was an extremely frustrating experience, I got turned down a lot by all sorts of people, from non-profits to individuals who just didn't realize how much work it took to do a photo shoot. But after a while of just trying and trying, I started finding these different really unique ways to express other problems, and so I tackled a variety of different problems from first world child hunger, this was a campaign that was kind of interesting. I partnered up with the Second Harvest Food Bank. We thought there had to be a way to create a conversation in a different way by creating work that was really different. And so we decided that it would be really interesting to create kids crawling, going through extreme efforts to get access to food as kind of a fun, tangible thing. And so, they already had their campaigns. They are very successful at raising money, but these guys are always looking for new, interesting ways to talk about the same problem. Because it gets boring after a while to see those documentaries, the sad faces, or the happy faces over and over again. And so being able to create new conversations around the topic got Second Harvest in front, got other people like Cheryl Sandberg and George Takei to actually share the campaign, bringing it to a new audience. And so being able to use photography as a tool to raise awareness was something that I thought was really, really good. I did other random projects like trying to raise awareness for shark conservation. I figured that if you could tie a model underwater, why not tie a model underwater with sharks swimming around? And once again, this created that style of conversation that was so interesting because now the headline of I tied a model underwater while sharks swam around creates a lot of questions. It's like, is that even safe? Is this something that we can do? And it gives you the opportunity to talk to people and say, yes, there are over 400 species of sharks, and with only a few ever attack people in a world. We kill 100 million sharks every single year. But it allows you to have this conversation because you're kind of hiding the statistics in adventure, you're educating through adventure. And as a result, this image got 2 million views in 24 hours on Imgur, it hit the front page of Reddit three times, we got over 80,000 petition signatures to support the creation of shark sanctuaries in Malaysia. So, it's something that's just so much more sticky and so much better than just having a bunch of likes and a bunch of comments and a bunch of shares, because now these all actually meant something. These were all actually going somewhere. And the last project in this vein I wanted to talk about was one that I think currently sits at my favorite project so far, where we put a mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles to raise awareness for plastic pollution. And before I talk about that more, I just wanted to show you the quick video for those of you who haven't seen it on what that actually looks like in terms of billing production. How do you get people to talk about something that is ordinary, ugly, and boring? I wasn't too sure, but from experience I know that the internet loves to see things that are extravagant, unique, and different. So applying that same concept to plastic bottles, having 10,000 of them seemed like a great start at making something ordinary into something extravagant. With more plastic than fish in the sea scheduled for 2050, it made sense to add an ocean component to the project. A sea of plastic was interesting and sad, but it needed something unique and beautiful to truly stand out. What more unique and beautiful to represent an ocean than a mermaid? And so with the help of a waste management center called Tamara, and a local artist called Cynthia, we ended up with 10,000 plastic bottles that came in a 50-foot truck, along with a beautifully designed handmade mermaid tale. This unexpected combination, I felt, had the potential to be something truly different. So with all three components to make things shareable, the extravagant, the unique, and the different, I felt like we had all of the ingredients necessary to create something that could potentially make the boring topic of plastic pollution more shareable. As the shoot deadline creeped forward, dozens of volunteers joined us in our quest, contributing whatever they could, from helping us clean and de-label thousands of bottles to rigging up my camera to the ceiling with plywood and pulleys, to borrowing a 52-inch TV from Costco. For the mermaid, talented artists came together to transform our beautiful model into a believable mermaid, and before I knew it, all the pressure was on me waiting to see if the concept would work, or just be flushed down the drain. As the day flew by, volunteers worked tirelessly pushing bottles around, collecting them, organizing them by color before tossing them right back out onto the floor to create a new set of patterns that some crazy photographer had told them to do. Slowly but surely, an extravagant and unique different series appeared, just like I had hoped. But deep in the back of my mind, one nagging thought remained. How much difference could a series like this possibly make in encouraging people to stop using plastic bottles? Honestly, I'm not sure but I guess I'm about to find out. So that's sort of what the photo shoots look like. So you look at these projects, and sometimes you think to yourself, man, I wish I had access to a huge production crew or an unlimited budget in order to produce these things, but in reality what it really just takes is the energy and the intention to create something, and people can rally to that. And so that was really what the mermaid project was about. My mom had discovered a dress designer while hunting for someone to tweak my sister's wedding dress for her wedding and realized that she made mermaid tails, so she sent me that mermaid tail and I was like, oh, there's a mermaid, I wanna do something with this mermaid. Except, I want it to have a social impact angle, and so that's where we started hunting, like where can we find plastic bottles? Reaching out to different waste management centers, one finally replied and said yeah, sure, we can lend you plastic bottles, how many do you want? Like, I don't know, 10,000 sounded like a reasonable number. Seemed like pretty achievable, and then they said, okay, well, 10,000 plastic bottles is, you do realize that's a lot of bottles? It's gonna come in in like an 18-foot truck. and I was like, oh, where am I gonna put these bottles? And then I started reaching out, trying to find somewhere I could store them, and then found a warehouse. And I went to receive them, and it's just like one thing that lead to another that eventually led to the final project. It wasn't a question of resources, it was just a question of time and energy and hard work. And so what I do what to break down in the video, though, is that hidden within the video is the opportunity to start many conversations. Because at the end of the day, what I really wanted with the series wasn't just to do a pretty campaign. I wanted people to talk about it. I wanted them to have different things to talk about, and so within that campaign it's all about trying to create messages for people to quote, for them to have different angles that they might find interesting, things that would start new conversations, because that's really what the work was about. And so, they had a ton of different things to talk about from what does 10,000 plastic bottles look like? Did you know that 10,000 plastic bottles is the amount of plastic bottles that a single person will use over the course of their lifetime? And that's a number that we can change, right? How did we get through these bottles? We had to clean and de-label them one at a time, and then we had to bring a group of volunteers in order to make that happen. How do you design the patterns? Well, the patterns had to be designed ahead of time. We had to come, I reached out to a friend, she's a henna artist, and she came over to help experiment with different patterns a day ahead of time. We had never done this before. And how did we even get the camera up there anyways? Oh, we used plywood and pulleys and ropes. And why did I use plywood and pulleys and ropes? It would have been so much easier to use a C-Stand, but I thought that this was just so much funnier. I mean, this is like archaic technology that we're creating with screws, and I had a friend who was just really great at building things who offered to pass us some wood and rope to do that. And it's like the most ghetto thing ever. Like, this camera is just bolted into these pieces of plywood. Anyways, we created a great conversation. Even down to the television on how we streamed the whole thing, so this maybe would only pertain to photographers, but it would still be interesting. The camera was on wifi mode, it was a Sony A7Rii, and it was streaming down to an iPad that we then connected to a TV that we borrowed from Costco. Right, like that's just something that people find really funny, and so these are all conversation points that you build into the story. And then the cherry on top is that you know what, these were all volunteers. These were all ordinary people coming together to make a difference, and that made it relatable, that made it very solid. And so this is the type of engagement that I think about. It isn't just where am I gonna place my lights so I can take a pretty photo? It's how can we have a conversation around something? And so, at this point, I'd like to kind of take a step back into a little bit more of the mechanics of how these come through, because we're all at different stages on our careers, some of us are more advanced, some of us are just getting started. And so what I want you guys to think about within your own workflow are a couple different things. First is that every single time you you create an image, you have two opportunities to tell a story. You have the image itself that creates conversation, like oh, look at this cool image. It's really pretty, how was the body paint done? Or what story does that tell? In this case, I reached out to an artist called Michael Rosner, I never met him before, I saw his work online and I thought it was amazing, and I said we should collaborate. And two years after I reached out to him initially, I finally ended up at the right place at the right time, got a costume together, sprayed it in UV lights and created it, but then this is the photograph. But then there's the process which is just, I think so much funnier on how we got kicked out of a studio because we took so long to do the hair and the makeup and we ended up on the parking lot because I was like, well, we can't just leave this photo shoot with one photograph. I need more photos. So we just kept shooting on the outside on the parking lot, you know, we stole the chair, borrowed a chair, and you know, standing on top of it, and you know, all our light stands were held by humans. And I just think that part of it is so interesting, right? So there's two stories, always two stories. There are stories in not just the actual process of the photographs. So this is me running around trying to take photos of this dude who's spinning around on a motorcycle, and I almost got whacked by the motorcycle as he was spinning around 'cause I'm shooting with a super wide. And the original intent was to light this guy on fire, except that for some reason, we didn't have the right fuel to light him on fire, so he didn't burn, so this ended up being like the best photograph. And so it's a cool photo and it's dynamic, but then that story on how we modified that photo to make it more epic by adding the fire back in is a story in and of itself. So the process, the post-processing is a story that some people can focus on. It's not just the photo, there's also the process of how you created it. And then there are photos like these that I created where we hung this mom off a cliff. She used to be abseiling instructor and after a routine surgery one day, doctor screwed something up and she woke up quadriplegic. And this was how she spent time with her son. They would go out, they would bond over outdoor adventures, and she lost that ability, and we wanted to give her that chance back again. And so the photograph, whether you like it or hate it, is just one aspect of the images. What was truly important was this story behind, this story, the human story of the connection that we're trying to do. And so it didn't really matter if anyone liked the photo or not, it mattered if she liked the photo. And so those are the different types of conversations that you can have within the same images. So there's lots of opportunity there. I personally think that creating images that have a purpose is extremely important. So my purpose right now has been larger scale social impact, I'm very into environment. But purpose can extend beyond that. When I first started out, I think what really helped was that I was really interested in just giving back. I was looking at people like Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally at the time, and David Hobby, all these guys were teaching photography for free online, and that's how I learned. I never went to school for it. I was going online and I was learning from people, and I was like this is so great, I wanna give back. And so my purpose at the time would just be these two different things. It was sometimes about sharing the process, so this was um, I was breaking into a warehouse one day. There was actually a dude working on top, he was driving a bulldozer on the roof, and he was pushing things down holes, and he never saw us there, which is great. But we were trying to create some light painting work, and so I started creating these videos on teaching people how do you create interesting light painting images? And this is just birthday sparklers, the guy jumping, freezing with the flash. So focusing on making it useful for photographers. When it wasn't about technique, because that got a little bit boring for me, it became about process. It became about how do you gather people together, how do you build a shot, how do you improvise on set and that was something I would like to share with people. This was shot in 24 hours. I basically gave a workshop and some people were like hey, we'd love to see you shoot, and I'm like let's shoot tomorrow. And in 24 hours, we built a set together, came up with a model, came up with a costume, came up with an outfit, came up with this thing, and I would share that adventure with people because I would try to inspire them on that process. Photography also became about, like, meeting inspirational people and inspiring others in return. So I would discover people like this guy, his name's David Reynolds, he's sitting there on the director's chair with his megaphone, and he had raised over 100,000 dollars to create a series of underwater films, and he was like 25 years old at the time, and I was just like, this guy is amazing! I'd just quit my job and I really wanted to work with him, and he said sure, come by. And I came by and I shared their story, I shared their adventure because I thought that if they inspired me, I wanted to inspire others. And so these videos and these photos always came with a purpose, even beyond the actual image themselves, they came with a purpose. Because when something has a purpose, when something has a utility, that gets people to talk about it, right? Hey, did you see how this was done? I think it would be right for you. Hey, this is something that cheers you up, this made me laugh, I think you would enjoy it. This is how you create conversations. It isn't just like oh look, a pretty photo. Double-tap like, scroll on, right? It has to be a little bit more than that. The other thing that I think is very important is this acronym, is about making things MAYA. And so MAYA stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. It's actually a marketing term, I don't remember who coined it, but you guys can google it. It's super interesting. It talks about how the things that people gravitate towards the most are things that are advanced, just a little bit beyond what they would normally expect, but acceptable because it fits within their normal cultural references. So a good example of that is in my fanny pack, is a unicorn. Because unicorns are like horses, but they're magical, right, because they have a horn, and they poop rainbows. But so it's like it's something that's so familiar, yet has a magical element to it. And so that's something that I always try to put in my work. I try to take a familiar element, and I try to do a little bit of spin on it. And that becomes something that you can be like oh, that strikes like a reference in my mind, it seems like something that could be familiar, but I've never actually quite seen it like that before, so it's really cool, right, it's something that's a little bit unique. And that creates a sense of comfort that people will want to share and want to push out there. So, examples of that that I had done, and I'll always steal references from other places, like I have a martial arts background, and so this is capoeira. And so you mix this in, and you know Street Fighter? Anyone, does this look a little bit like Street Fighter? Yeah! Like, you know, with these flaming kicks or anything like that. These are the references that I draw upon, these familiar elements of things I have seen, I just mash up in my brain. I try to take something that we see in our everyday life, and make it just a little bit different. And then I add the sugarcoating on top because I document it and I say, oh, let me show you how it was done, it's all real. I have projects like these where we went to the oldest monastic library in the world. Where else do you see a library like this? The image in my mind was Beauty and the Beast, right? I'm like oh, this is like a princess in Beauty and the Beast, but it looks so stunning I don't know if it's real or it's fake. I wanna know more. And so it has that visual compelling closeness to your heart and maybe this is different for people who didn't grow up in North America or in Europe, who had a parallel culture. Maybe it's not that ubiquitous, but this is the type of stuff that I try to think about. And when I try to create my environmental campaigns, it's the same. So here I wanna talk about air pollution, which is boring, no one cares about air pollution. But I try to do it in a cool way. I get people from, like, Mad Max characters, post apocalyptic dudes, this is a real mining machine, and we created this like air filtration device out of a fish bowl, pot, in the bottom, we poked a bunch of holes in it and came up with like wires, and these are actually bottle caps, all these little studs. So, it's like trying to take these visual references that are very familiar, but then just putting an awkward spin on it to whatever it is that make you unique, makes you who you are. And examples of the, you know, MAYA's really important because it's Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, but if you push it too far, if it's a little too extreme, it doesn't work. It has the opposite effect. People disconnect from it 'cause they're like that. That just didn't quite feel right, like it's really cool, but I'm not so sure about it, I'm not feeling it. And so in those same photo shoots, I have a few failures in there that just didn't really perform well, like this one. I mean, it was maybe, I think, too stunning. The sparkles were everywhere, they didn't really tell a story, they didn't inspire movement or anything like that, so it didn't really work. I have this shot, shot in the same library, this time with a different dress, but I've never seen a librarian like this, right? Or, I'm not, like, don't really have enough visual references in pop culture to draw a correlation between the two, and so even though you do find it beautiful, it just doesn't have that same closeness-to-heart. It doesn't feel like I'm innately attracted to this. And last but not least, on my post-apocalyptic photo shoot I tried to create oxygen refugees running away with like all the characters that I could put in there, with this huge mining machine, and it turns out most people don't know what a coal mining machine looks like. So that reference didn't work out, it was a little too dark. And so it just didn't quite have the same sticky effect as the other one, even though I think technically this shot was a lot more impressive. And so, making sure that you can try to find the perfect magical point between advanced and acceptable I think is something that's very interesting to experiment with. And the last thing that I think is really important is to make things different. And everyone always says be yourself, be different, everything. But I truly mean like you have to make something different. Don't even think about, you don't even need to make it good. You just need to make it different. Because that's what works really well on social media today. We look at things and what truly stands out on our social feeds are the stuff that we just never have seen before. If you create work that is really good, you fall in the center. Because it's expected. Everyone should do good work. If you're calling yourself a photographer, you're probably doing good work. And that means everyone's doing good work; boring. But if you do work that is really crappy but really innovative, and I like to think of those as like the guys who are really, really active on Snapchat or Instagram Stories. They're always posting low-quality things all the time 10 times a day and they're always having something to say. I don't know what they talk about. And it hits all levels. I mean, you have people like Gary V., who talks about the same thing every day about entrepreneurship, and great, it works for him. But that's not me. I don't feel like I fall in that category, but it's possible. You can create low-fi work that is really compelling that appeals to a wide demographic, sure. For me what I found was really interesting was trying to create the high-fi work, so I'm on the complete opposite end of the spectrum where I create very little work, but I try to make it very unique, very different, and very powerful every single time I do it. And so I sort of ignore a little bit of this social media game, because I'm like I wanna have a life. Like I wanna have days where I don't put on my pants, and just sit and home and be left alone. It could be like three days, I just don't need social media in my life all the time. But when I do something, I want people to take notice of it. And so I spend a lot more time trying to plan how can I make this concept good? Like how can I make this something that no one's seen before? How can I just be different than everyone else out there? And that means saying no to a ton of content. That means just failing a ton of things along the way. And so examples of that is like this project that I did in Hawaii. I wanted to create a campaign around climate change, and in my mind, I was like, the people who've been campaigning for climate change for the longest have been the indigenous people, and I want a post apocalyptic-looking scene, the end of the world. And so we went out looking for lava. indigenous out it's really hard to find lava. It involves, 'cause it moves all the time. So you just walk out in the middle, it's like midnight, it's pitch black, you're walking on this deadly lava rock that is just crackling under your feet, and you're looking at the clouds and you're like oh, there's this red glow that way. And you just walk that way hoping that you're gonna find something. And so anyways, we found this, which turned out to be an interesting image. We took a, we bought on Amazon this pump, water pump, to create this mist. And it also served as safety to keep the model wet so he could get close to the lava. And then backlit the whole thing with the light, so someone had to walk around the lava and point the strobe at him. So it was a crazy adventure. But what ended up happening was well, the concept wasn't very clear. People didn't really understand what the message was. I didn't even understand what the message was. I think I was presenting a year ago, and I was like I can't even remember what the concept was. And at the end of the day, I wanted to raise funds for one of the hurricanes that had come through, and so we were selling these prints off for free. And ultimately, it ended up costing me more to create the series than the amount raised. So I think on many counts it was a huge failure. And that just seems to be part of the journey. You create things, and when you banked on the other side, you'll put all your eggs in one basket and just go for it to the nines, and sometimes it just screws up. But no one remembers these photos when they think of me. So failure is interesting. It really hurts personally, but it's something to learn from and grow with. But on the flip side, what's been really cool as I've really stuck to this idea of creating super high-fi work that is unique and no one else can do that has social impact, when the people that like what you do get what you do, you end up with the coolest contracts ever. So this is the last project I just released, I just launched it last week, I'm super happy the timing all lined up so I could put it in my presentation. Nike challenged me to create a series for their new shoes, they're called the Nike VaporMax and they've got these really cool air bubbles on the bottom of the shoes, and they wanted to show people walking on air. And I'm like, oh, walking on air. It's super easy, just have people walk on the side of buildings, it looks super cool. And they're like okay, let's do it! So, tada, we put people on the edge of a building and had them running and it's like the coolest concept ever where I had creative freedom to do something and I was even able to say hey look, I'm only doing things for social impact, so we got social entrepreneurs, people who were doing great in their communities and celebrated what they were doing. I was able to dictate the terms of what I wanted because I had spent all that time trying to cement this idea of doing something that nobody else could do. And so, I think the one statement that I wanna end on, and since this whole thing was about creating virality and all that, is that ultimately if you chase virality, if that becomes what you wanna do, you wanna become popular, you wanna become famous, all you end up becoming is just a blip on the radar. You create something that is easily forgotten. Because that's sort of what virality is. You hit a peak and then you fade off. So, for three days you're a rock star and then no one remembers you. But if you're able to create, if you're able to pursue legacy, if you wanna pursue meaning, you wanna pursue purpose, you wanna actually do a tangible difference in the world, then you sort of need virality in order to gain that legacy. And so pursuing legacy, I think, is something that is a lot more meaningful and something that's a lot closer to my heart, so I really wanted to give this broad-spectrum of different ways to create conversations but ultimately my hope, very selfishly, is that everyone tries to use their talents and their skills to try to make the world a better place. And so, there you go, that's my talk! (applause) I think now is the fun part for questions, so if anyone in the audience isn't terrified of me, intimidated, I don't bite, you can hold the unicorn while you ask the question.
We've got a mic back there, we're running? Alright, we got one! Mr. Ben Hartley.
Yeah, yeah, dude that was cool as--
You don't want the unicorn?
Ah, I don't think so.
Yeah I think I'm good. (laughter)
Bring me that unicorn, I wanna hold the unicorn!
I just wanna hold it, oh my goodness, it is so cute. This is just a logistics question 'cause I was so impressed with that last image of the runner and here I'm trying to figure out the cables and how on earth, like did they, how? How?
Oh. Well, you just put them in a harness, put you in a harness, everyone's hanging, and try a lot of times to make it look good. (laughter) So you're shooting vertically down and so the perspective is very different. And so the body angle of the model is actually the hardest thing to get straight, because you need the legs to look in a specific way. And so that process of just going over and over, I think, was really what it was about. We found a rigging crew who had done some of the stunt movies in the past. We put them in stunt harnesses. Which, by the way, aren't comfortable. They just, they're safe, but they aren't comfortable. So this was an extremely photo shoot. You can watch the video! We break down how we built the whole thing, there's like scaffolding hanging off the edge of this skyscraper and these ropes everywhere, and just straining people, and we had a car winch to pull people up and down so they wouldn't have to pull themselves up and down. Yeah.
Awesome, thank you.
Question that came in from Kelly, who said, "How do you choose your causes or who to partner with?"
Yeah, so causes to me are really interesting. They, you know, I get a lot of inbounds here and there every time I launch a project, there's a little spike in emails. And people are like oh, you should come do this X or Y or Z. In order to create the projects that I do, it requires a certain number of ingredients, right? There's that extraordinary element that I really try to highlight. And so I'm not always the right person for the job. It's as simple as that. And so what I try to do is extrapolate what the story is and how I can represent that photographically. Sometimes there are things that are impossible to represent so it just doesn't work, and so I spend a lot of time just trying to have conversations with people and trying to understand their problem. And then through that, try to find an artistic way to represent that same problem in a unique way. So it isn't so much about which causes do I choose, because I just wanna make a positive impact, and I'm not particularly married to any one thing. But I do need a certain number of elements in order to create these type of images, and so I spend a lot more time just reaching out and trying to find the right people, and that can take six months. It can take years, sometimes, for things to come through, but I just like to reach out and put out my tendrils. So if anyone knows, I'm looking for an organic turkey farm. I wanna create some kind of an angel costume but I don't want, I want the farm, I want the feathers to come from somewhere that was hopefully ethically raised. So I was trying to find ethical butcher shops. Couldn't find one yet. That's one. What else have I been looking for? I recently posted online I was looking for a field of tree stumps with no slash and burn. I think I might have found that close to Seattle, I just need to drive out an hour somewhere for it. All the locals are like yeah, I got you, I got you! (laughter) But yeah, so that's sort of how it is. I just kind of put things out there, and then sometimes someone, like everyone knows someone that knows something that somehow comes together.
Hey, so, I'm just like blown away by the imagination behind your images. And so I guess I'm curious about your process with that. Do you just have like this journal, that's just like (mic cuts out) idea! You know, like what is the process behind that? Or, are you inspired by this is the cause that I wanna highlight, and do you let that inspire you? Like, what comes first?
So I don't actually consider myself necessarily creative. Because it's not, I don't take a shower and come up with a brilliant idea. I actually am more of a problem solver. And so if someone comes up to me, so if we take like the, if we take the Second Harvest project with the food bank, they're like we have access to this warehouse, and our problem is food insecurity, and we need to highlight in a positive way. That's when I'm like okay, how can I take positive references that imply effort and put it all together? And so I'm more of a puzzle piece kind of a person, and I try to always construct these stories based on the needs of a person. And I think most photographers are actually problem solvers. I mean, in order to get the right shot, that's what you're doing all the time. You're trying to find the right angle, the right person, the right lighting. This is just adding one level onto it. It's like saying, okay I need it to have a purpose, but that purpose is an abstract one, and it needs to be represented in an interesting way that will actually make it visible, because otherwise why bother creating something if no one's gonna look at it? And so these just become additional constraints onto the creative process. And I would actually just say that my creative process is a really frustrating one. It's talking myself out of all my ideas one at a time, and then sometimes they go through, sometimes they don't go through. Like sometimes they go through and they turn out to be horrible ideas, like the lava one. But when I think I'm onto something and I have a piece of the puzzle, in order to execute it then I try to just dive in and give it a shot anyways. Because some of my best, I mean there's no reason why my photo shoot underwater at 30 meters in Bali ever should have worked. I'm a first-time diver tying a model underwater, never done it before. Our dress came in because the diver's wife was an underwater model who knew an underwater dress designer who had some overstock who was willing to let us trash it, 'cause they're just ruined after you go into seawater. You know, how is that even something? We were planning for failure. We had asked the hotel we were staying in for extra bed sheets and were cutting them out into like these dresses that people could wear. That was Plan A. (laughter) So, like so many of my projects just never seem to happen, it just doesn't really make any sense how they happen, but when you're on the ground and you have no choice but to figure out a way because everyone's watching you, everyone's there, and you have three more days left, two more days left, you know, things just sort of happen a little bit better then, for me, personally. Yeah?
All right, thank you Ben. I absolutely believe that problem solving is creativity, so there you go. So can you just give us some final thoughts on, for photographers who are wanting to jump into humanitarian work? What are some things that they can start with?
Yeah, I think humanitarian work, or any kind of a cause is no different than any other commitment. It's just saying this is what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna commit to doing one project in the next six months. Because that's the only way you start finding solutions for the problems, so you have to define the problem that you wanna solve and just leap into it, and give it a shot and see what is actually going to work or not. And if, you know, I think I'm pretty lucky in that I've managed to get over that hump of being able to get secure in my gear and my ability to tell a story and a following that can help me create the things that I already have. But that's, there are a whole number of other challenges that come into play. The fact of how restrictive my brand is. You know, I can't do anything that's not epic because any time I put out a photo that is less than crazy, people are just bored. My brand of not creating things in Photoshop really restricts the number of things I can do. And so these are like other challenges and other hurdles that happen as you gain access to more things. And so it never really gets easier to do something that you've never done before, but it just takes that first step and commitment to say like, this is what I'm gonna do and whatever challenges come my way I'm gonna figure it out. So, yeah.
Well, thank you so much! Please help me give it up for Ben Von Wong, everyone! (applause) Thank you for making your way here and for bringing your magical unicorn as well.
All about the unicorn.
Let's make sure everybody's following you online watching all your behind-the-scenes videos, that is what we do here at CreativeLive and that is what you do. So where can everyone follow you?
Website, VonWong.com, blog, Blog.VonWong.com, Instagram, @VonWong, I'm very creative.
It's all there.
I'm basically Von Wong in whatever social media you wanna use.