I want to leave the digital world

Benjamin Von Wong, a Canadian viral photographer, started out as a mining engineer. Something was missing, however, so he committed to taking one photo per day and posting it on social media. Soon, his photos had hundreds of thousands of likes and followers. But in 2016, at the top of his career after a successful campaign for Huawei, Benjamin decided to step away from commercial projects and focus purely on conservation and social impact. Since then, his campaigns on plastic, electronic and clothing waste, as well as climate change, have drawn the attention of millions of people worldwide.

How do you manage to make hundreds of thousands of people interested in environmental topics when major NGOs fail at it?

I think my work is 85% entertainment and 15% education. In some ways, I am tricking people to pay attention to my work by showing them something pretty and flashy up front. The hope is to educate by adventure. It starts with something crazy, so people pay attention to it and then hopefully they are interested to learn more. I try not to preach to the choir. Fantasy can do things that documentary cannot and vice versa! I try to do the best I can with my strengths.

What stories do your photos tell?

My photos evoke a sense of shock and awe in people that is followed by realization that they were done by a group of volunteers. I hope that when people see something incredible which was a result of a lot of hours of human effort and suffering they’ll feel empowered to make a difference. People like to see that it doesn’t take a lot of money to bring something together, but patience, time, energy, and effort – things everybody has access to.

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Do you know what impact your photos, videos and blogs have on people’s lives and the environment? 

That’s what I ask myself every day. It’s hard to measure how art affects people’s daily life. I would love to partner more with people that have the ability to take what I do and make something out of it. At the end of the day, I bring awareness and attention to a thing but if the thing isn’t doing anything, then the change isn’t very tangible. I’m actually hunting for people, companies and organizations that have the ability to affect change with awareness.

Are you successful in your search?

Finding the right organization is always difficult. Companies always have their corporate interests. Nonprofits are also kind of companies with different set of motivations. It’s rare to find the ones that are truly able to weaponize the work that I do for social change. Sometimes it’s impossible to see the repercussions of the work that you’re doing until years down the line. Honestly, it’s a little hard to say but I think it’s more about the journey of constantly striving do a better job.

In the past two years, you’ve worked on a multitude of environmental problems. Why do you change topics so quickly?

As a creative and a human being, I have a very short attention span. I always hunt for new stories. If every time you looked at my work, it was the same thing over and over again with slight variances, I think it would get quite boring. In some ways I’m trying to address a variety of different issues for my personal interest because I’m learning about these problems along the way. In other ways, it’s fun to think of myself as a creative storyteller who can work on any problem with a purpose. The way I try to break down a complex story into an image, a campaign or a video is something that can really be applied to anything.

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What role do you think art should play in conservation?

I think that art should have a clear motivation behind it. If you do art just to sell something, it feels like a cheaper more soulless  kind  of art. Through art I try to empower people with simple choices. Because after all people respond very easily to simple problems and solutions and I want them to feel that they can immediately change something in their behavior. My hope is that after seeing my photographs people will say, “I can start consuming less today” and next steps will happen down the line.

When did you realize that art for its own sake wasn’t good enough for you? 

Although 2016 was my most successful year as photographer, I realized I didn’t want to be a commercial photographer, shooting photographs to move product off the shelf for the rest of my life. I was looking at my most meaningful projects, the ones that I was most proud of and it was my social work – like this video I helped make in 2013 that allowed the Cure Sanfilippo foundation to raise 2 million dollars.

How did it go?

Honestly it took a long time to build momentum. It took almost one entire year before I found mainstream success with my Mermaids hate plastic project.  Since then I have never looked back.

Why has it been so popular?

There’s a few reasons to why this project was more popular than my other projects. First, plastic waste is a popular topic – everybody knows the problem and they can instantly understand it. Second is timing – when the campaign was released two years ago, Facebook algorithms were very different; they prioritized videos, the rate of decay was a lot more and it had a greater chance to spread. Last but not least I personally still feel that from a visual standpoint it was strong because it shows a perfect balance of tragedy and beauty and it doesn’t require any words. Other campaigns are bleaker, and you need to have explanation to understand what’s going on.

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As a viral photographer, you depend on social media. You once said that the minute you stop posting, the minute you stop sharing, then everything stops. Is it true?

When I did the interview in 2014, you could survive if you posted once a week. Fast forward to today, you’re basically expected to post constantly throughout the day! At some point, I decided it wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted to have. The work that you do takes a hit if you are always focused on creating something good enough all the time. But on social media what’s most important is producing volume over quality. My last post on Instagram was two months ago. I know it’s not a good thing for the channel, but I want my channel to be about quality over quantity.

How could it have changed so quickly?

People’s attention span are getting shorter and people are getting more demanding because they see more good stuff. The digital world is a pretty hard space to be in because it’s constantly changing… but there’s no point of complaining about it. You have to see it, understand it and keep up as best as you can. Nowadays, the videos that do best are one-minute long, have no talking and are written with English so simple that a five-year old could understand it. That’s how people are consuming news – there’s no analysis, no depth –  it’s the way it is and it’s only going to get worse over time.

Do you feel pressured by social media?

Yes, I do because my life depends on people sharing and discovering my content online. That being said, I don’t want social media to dictate the life that I should lead. I sort of gave up on being an influencer in a traditional sense. I want to get away from this digital world of always having to create something just so that people don’t forget about you. That’s why I’m starting to shift towards installation art and building pieces that will last the test of time. They’ll have a lot of more longevity than a single campaign. I think that it’s better if you anchor the online content in physical work as opposed to content being the sole product. I think this type of work also can be interesting for companies.

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In what sense?

The idea is if I create pieces and they get a lot of traction then companies will see that it’s trendy now and they should adapt their business practices. Within the scope of flashy and short-lived content, my projects have something that resonates with people and that has a lot of value to companies. I hope companies will see the work that I’m doing and sponsor my content. With the direction I am headed, installation, it would have a power of creating organic conversation.

Are companies currently supporting your projects?

Some of my projects are self-funded, other commissioned by companies and for some I get a little bit of money from organizations. We worked on a commercial campaign with Dell to promote the fact that they’re the largest global e-waste recycler in the world. I think it’s important to promote positive corporate behavior as opposed to trying to tear them down when they do something wrong. The hope is that socially responsible campaigns can start becoming the norm!

Do you see future potential in a cooperation with corporations?

I believe that we all have a part to play in making sure that our future ends up being that we want to live in. Corporations are an integral part of that and my hope is to work together with them to start marketing more than just their product, but the sustainable practices that they employ to create their products. I believe we’re entering a more conscious marketplace and that people are going to start caring more and more about where the things they buy comes from as transparency increases and purpose shifts.

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How can you effectively negotiate with corporations to use their budget on something that eventually limits their growth?

Why does social responsibility have to limit growth? I think that’s a short-term perspective on the problem – new growing markets in more efficient and sustainable ways have been proven time and time again to provide tremendous growth opportunity. Look at electric cars and solar panels, or innovations in recycled goods. I think that if I have to negotiate my worth with a company, they’re not the right client for me.

What’s your experience so far?

My current frustration is that I’m spending too much time writing emails to people and pitching ideas instead of getting my hands dirty. I think that I do much better, as a creative, when someone’s just willing to take a risk, give me the parameters and limitations and allowing me to go free and figure things out. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t exactly work that way, so for now, as it always is – it’s a little bit of a balancing act.

Where do you want to go with your projects? Do you want to stay an independent artist or found an NGO?

That’s a hard question. I am constantly pursuing scale and impact – so whatever path that brings me down is the one that I will pursue!

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In your videos and blogs, you seem like a positive person. How do you manage to keep good spirit while talking about environmental destruction?

I’ve always been a bit of a cynical person, I just don’t talk about it. If you look at the state of environment, we’re in a pretty shitty situation. But even if everything I did today was on the losing side of the battle, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right thing to fight for. You don’t always fight to win. It’s important to stand up for something and do the best you can with what you have. Sitting around and doing nothing is also a choice and it’s a pretty dangerous one. I’m pragmatic but I don’t let my cynicism stop me from anything.

When you feel low, who gives you the biggest support?

I think that I am my own biggest handicap and supporter. I sort of go through this really weird process of self-rationalizing my successes and failures. There’s a quote I really enjoy from Chuck Close that I always try to remind myself of when I don’t feel motivated to work:

Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you [did] today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.

So, where do you want to push it?

I’m currently pursuing creative residences – a place that provides me with materials and tools and I can create and experiment with impactful installations without having to go through the approval process of a proposal. I am also looking for ways to help smaller organizations by telling their story through my social media platforms in smaller 3-part stories.

Benjamin Von Wong‘s work lies on the intersection of fantasy and photography and combines everyday objects with shocking statistics. It has attracted the attention of corporations, like Dell and Nike and has generated over 100 million views for causes like ocean plastics, electronic waste, and fashion pollution. Most recently, he was named one of Adweek’s 11 content branded masterminds.

 

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