An exclusive time with Von Wong – Yes, you heard it right. It was Benjamin Von Wong himself who took some time out and offered a big dose of awesomeness as we interviewed him at Cambyte.
Photo by Nick Fisher
Violin, taekwondo, parkour, bartending, painting, paintball… and of course photography. Does the list end there or is there more to multi-dimensional Von Wong that we have not heard about?
Before getting into photography, I used to do all those things in my free time. Photography was the hobby that went on to become my profession. I have always wanted to do more but because I am constantly travelling and am at home only 5 weeks in a year, it’s really hard to devote time to anything else other than what I am doing now. The most recent thing I started doing was stunts.
You are one of the best conceptual photographers in the world. Do you actually do any regular shoots at all?
I used to do a lot of weddings and family portraits, but after I started doing the epic shoots I slowly reduced the number of other shoots. One fine day I said to myself that I would only do epic shoots thereby cutting off my safety net of steady work of weddings and other smaller assignments. It helped to focus more on making my shoots more and more epic. The fear actually inspired me to do grander shoots.
Because you’re a conceptual photographer and not a mainstream commercial photographer, we’re curious to know what’s the percentage of clients approaching you for a shoot vs. you writing to brands to create kick-ass images for them?
When I started out, I actually went door to door speaking with clients showing them my work and trying to talk them into hiring me but I found out that this was ineffective. So I went out and started making amazing work. Seeing this all my clients started coming to me rather than me approaching them. My social network presence helped me in getting my work to reach more people and hence get more projects.
Every shoot of yours is different, and in that sense, it’s experimental. Which means a risky proposition for clients. How do you manage to sell concepts and get them on the same page?
Before the actual shoot, the idea has to go through many levels of people, process, and planning, and I try to make sure that there is absolutely no chance of screwing up. On instances when I try to create something surreal that involves people and technology, I make sure I have the things like location, shoot concept, duration, spare days for reshoot if needed, etc. ready in the list to be ticked. And if something does go wrong, then there is always a way that we can turn around and make it work. Such is the level of preparation we go into.
Although you have BTS videos of almost all of your shoots, we want to learn more about how you work on concepts. What’s the creative process like? Starting from tying an idea to a product to the drawing board to the execution. Or in other words, how do you approach an idea?
It’s better if I explain this with an example. I was thinking of doing a shoot in Fiji, so I took to Facebook and put a post requesting more details about the country. As luck would have it, one of my fans, who was a wedding photographer in Fiji, responded. I had a detailed discussion with him inquiring about Fiji and its culture. He sent me a couple of photos of the landscape, the people and the indigenous clothing and culture. I wasn’t much impressed by anything until he told me about a indigenous “War Canoe”, which got me excited. I did not want to do the same pretty model in a pretty dress in an exotic location as you can do that only many times. So I decided to do a model in traditional Fiji attire going out to Sea in a war canoe. The idea is still in the works and I don’t know whether I will get to do this, but this is basically the process.
Usually, how long does a single shoot take — from concept to delivery?
Some ideas like the Rooftop Superheroes shoot can be done in days while others like the ultraviolet tattoo shoot take years. It mostly depends on how fast I can get hold of the resources, permits and the right people to execute the shoot. For example for the Rooftop Superheroes shoot, a fan of mine was able to get me access to the top of a skyscraper and the other things like models, makeup, etc. got sorted out easily. So I was able to do the shot within a few days of thinking of the concept. For the Ultraviolet tattoo shoot, the tattoo artist was really hard to get hold of and only after a year of pestering him through emails and messages I was able to get a phone call with him.
All your shoots are big. You’d obviously need a team. How big is your team? What’s the composition like — you know, makeup artists, lighting specialists, and so on?
Well, as of I know it’s just a team of two, my agent and myself. And my agent does not find me work but deals with the incoming requests. As far as my team on the location is concerned, I invite my fans to help out with the shoot. It doesn’t take much to be a photographer’s assistant, all you need to do is to carry and move stuff around. I’m probably one of the only photographers who allow fans to be a part of the shoot. I only hire people only if it’s a role that requires a high level of specialization like underwater scouts, etc.
Being a conceptual photographer, failure is something you have to deal with and be able to pick up the pieces and stay motivated. How do you do that? What’s your suggestion for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Well, it happens once in a while, but since I do a lot of shoots it does not affect me. But the important thing is that you have to learn from your shortcomings and try to get it right next time, especially while doing a lot of conceptual stuff because it involves a lot of variables. Remember failure is not limited to the photography and lighting but also includes resource and man management.
For example once I was working with a high-end make-up artist who agreed to work for free but eventually got angry and took off due to the lack of convenient food on the set. I went home to land to a long e-mail telling that I cannot use any of the images from the shoot unless I pay him his day-charge of 2000 USD which I couldn’t afford at the time. I could not use any of the images from that shoot ultimately.
Since that incident, I make sure to bring food like coffee and donuts to the set and found out it helps with keeping the morale of the team high. So the important thing is to learn from your mistakes, how small or big they may be.
In your blog, you have said that you started experimenting with videography. How important is videography to the modern photographer?
Well it is very important, as the gap between still camera and video cameras is very little, so it is always a good thing to know about videography as your camera can shoot pretty good and if the need arises you have to be ready. An important thing to consider is to keep in mind the time to gain ratio, as making a epic video takes considerably more time to do when compared to photography. Especially when trying to replicate my epic photos as videos we have to edit it frame-by-frame which is not realistic as of now for me.
Finally, we’d like some words of wisdom from Von Wong to the millions of photographers out there looking to stay unique and successful at the same time.
If you ask me so, I’d always say one must follow your heart with passion. I understand it might sound like a boring answer. What I really mean is to stay unique in one’s own way. In my case, I had met Chase Jarvis and showed him my works. He took a look and told me that my profile was cool and interesting. What he also said was that it wasn’t enough to have that portfolio but to burn the safety net and look beyond doing interesting stuff and arrive at a position where I should be doing things that I love to do. Finance indeed is a major crisis when we do things we love, for not everything we are in love with would yield bucks. But eventually, with passion and perseverance, it does pay well on the long run.
Another important thing to consider is the personal attributes of a person. I believe they play a huge role in making one unique on the professional front too. For instance, I come from a cultural background of 3 different countries, which naturally makes me get along well with people around the world. My experience as an Engineer allows me to construct and de-construct the shoots I orchestrate, technically. It is important that you pay attention to all these personal attributes of yourself and collectively use it to build the unique YOU both personally and professionally. That’s the key.
You can check out Benjamin’s work on
All photographs used in this article are a copyright of Benjamin Von Wong.