There’s only word to describe Ben Von Wong’s work — jaw dropping. This conceptual photographer creates hyper-realistic, ‘epic’ images, that look almost Photoshopped. A mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles, Game of Thrones’ Arya and Sansa Stark All Grown Up, and a shepherdess surrounded by live sharks are just some of his eye-popping projects. It’s hard to believe the thirty-year-old former mining engineer took to his current profession only four years ago, in 2012. He quit his job to work on photography full-time. “I didn’t really like anything. I didn’t where I was going to be and what I was going to do,” says Wong. But he knew his passion and talents lay in photography.
A distinctive feature of Wong’s photography is that it is all meaningful and with a purpose. “Right now, my goal is bigger than my work. I want to make it meaningful. At the moment, I am doing everything to keep my work in that vein as much as possible,” says Wong.
Eighty-ninety percent of Wong’s work is personal. He does a few paid photoshoots each year that allow him to pursue personal projects.
“I create things for a cause, and if they don’t get people to reach out and say, ‘Hey, that looks really cool, please tell me how it was done or please tell me more about it,’ then it doesn’t matter how much effort I have put into something really complicated. I think the idea that art needs to be viewed and enjoyed is very important, especially in today’s media world where everybody is creating content,” says Wong.
Wong is currently focused on conservation-based projects. Some of his work includes the mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles (plastic pollution), surreal storm chasing portraits (climate change) and a shark shepherdess (extinction). Why conservation in particular? “My style is well-suited to the conservation of environment; since the environment doesn’t have a voice, it requires conceptualisation for it to have a conversation. No one is really doing that; the only environmental photographers are those NatGeo types,” explains Wong.
Most of Wong’s work is imaginative, surreal, and stems from his love of fantasy novels as a child. He says that he would love to explore subjects such as women’s rights and child trafficking, but those subjects are more difficult to explore, since his work is fantastical. It doesn’t seem right to fantasise a person’s problems, he says.
Another distinctive feature of his work is that it is volunteer-backed and collaborative. Those who share his passion for his projects come together and help bring his vision to reality. Make-up artists, costume artists, scuba divers, and people with various talents work together.
With so many people working together, does the final product deviate from his original concept? “The idea doesn’t really belong to one person; it is everyone coming together with different ideas. I had an idea to put a mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles. I didn’t how I was going to do it; it was through discussions with different people and collaborations that we were able to execute it,” explains Wong.
Wong’s art is not just a bunch of simple snapshots. There’s clearly a lot of work that’s gone into post-production. But doesn’t post-production take away from the authenticity of the photograph?
“The idea is to create a final digital result to tell a story. I guess this is why I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself just a photographer, because it doesn’t really matter how the end result is created. The most important thing is really just to create something that will get people to pay attention. If no one will look at your work, if no one will be touched by your work, if it doesn’t create an impact, then it doesn’t matter how beautiful or exquisitely-shot it was. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything,” says Wong. He adds, “I have a very utilitarian view of art; I don’t create for the sake of creation, I create for the sake of communication.”
Wong has directed music videos and was the Creative Director/ coordinator in a 450 person “Where is Waldo” project a few years ago. Can we see him shooting video in the near future? “I don’t think I am a bad director, but I think my greatest strength lies in photography. For the moment, I really want to nail creating beautiful, meaningful conceptual photography. I am sure slowly along the way the work will start moving into motion and virtual reality (VR). But for the moment, I’m quite happy with the balance between documentaries, epic behind-the-scene videos, combined with the more surreal fantasy of the final photograph.”
One thing I noticed when I was scrolling through Wong’s blog is that he explains almost everything he’s created — from the camera settings to the lighting. Doesn’t he want to keep an air of mystery around his work? Wong explains, “The reason I do photography isn’t to create beautiful work; the reason I do photography is to share and get the message out and to get people to believe in their power to make a difference in the world. The only way to do that is to show people how easy it is. Putting a mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles was complicated, but not impossible. You don’t need a Hollywood budget to do it; you don’t need to be a millionaire to do it. I think that’s what I am trying to showcase every time I share a project—that people can achieve anything they can set their minds too.”