The Visual Engineering of Benjamin Von Wong

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Montreal-based artist Benjamin Von Wong is known for creating evocative, otherworldly images, and last month he gained notoriety as one of the creators behind the viral hit Nikon Symphony—which made music with the electronic sounds of 14 different DSLR bodies. Ben inhabits an uncanny ability to inspire others through his work. We caught up with him in Vancouver, Canada, to find out how he feels about collaboration, limitation, and the tricky balance of being a technician and an artist. Read on to get a taste of his infectious enthusiasm for life and creativity.

In your YouTube video entitled “Why create images that aren’t even for sale?” you point out that no one ever asks you why you create photographs, they only ask how you create photographs. You explain that your main motivation is to inspire people. What other aspects motivate you to create still images?

I enjoy the act of creating and sharing a vision. I think that it’s amazing to be able to bring to life something which only exists in your mind. The production, the problem solving, and the act of capturing and creating something unique are all aspects that motivate me!

In your recent photograph entitled "Redemption", you are the subject, and you’re exhaling a giant ball of fire. Which came first, your ability to breathe fire, or your interest in photographing it?

I actually learned how to spit fire after meeting a couple of fire performers. I’d say that my skill in breathing fire grew in parallel to my skill in capturing it!

You offer a lot of useful information on your blog about photographing fire, and you always emphasize safety and the importance of having the assistance of experienced pyrotechnicians on hand. Having trained pyro-professionals on set obviously helps to protect your team from injury, but do they ever contribute anything to the creative process?

Definitely. DAS, my partner in crime on many of my fire shoots, brings his creative vision to play in many of my photo shoots. What separates him from many other pyros I’ve worked with is that he understands my job as a photographer, and contributes to the story that I’m trying to tell by bringing up effects that could add to the shots themselves.

A lot of your work has a cinematic and otherworldly quality to it, and often requires a crew of people to execute the production. At what point in your career did you begin enlisting the help of others for your photo shoots, and how did it influence your work?

I think that whenever photography involves a subject, it becomes a collaborative project. That means that from the start, you’re already enlisting someone to create something. As I started to accumulate more gear, the need for assistants arose, making the team grow. As the experience grew, so did the complex visions, so it was just about finding the right people to do the job.

The only reason my photography looks the way it does is thanks to the amazing people I have the chance to work with. Without them, I have no shot!

I found it interesting that you were shooting “tethered” when you captured your photograph of Chester Van Bommel—which required you to covertly sneak equipment through a hidden shaft in a sidewalk, while on less guerrilla-style projects, you shoot without a computer. Do you always like to have the option to shoot tethered, no matter where you are?  

It’s always nice to be able to see your images larger, to check not only composition, but also focus. Lately, I’ve been experimenting a lot with the CamRanger and Tether Tool’s iPad Sling, which provide me with a lightweight, portable, wireless tethering solution.

Of course, it’s a case by case situation!

[Editor's Note: if you want to learn more about the practice of tethered shooting, check out this B&H InDepth article.]

You’ve conducted multiple projects that combine photo and video shoots (The Red Mistress and the Curiosity music video). Is this something that you do to maximize your time, or do you find that there is a creative benefit?

I think that it’s a little bit of both—I think that in general, budgets sometimes get quite tight when it comes to working with artists, so making the most out of a single production set is an important skill.

When faced with the choice, though, I would definitely recommend splitting the two into two separate days, to get the best results.

You published a blog post back in May 2013, which detailed all of the equipment that you travel with when you’re working overseas. That was two-and-a-half months ago. Have you added or removed any gear from your travel kit since then?

Yes, I have! I’ve changed my tripod from the Sirui to the Brian from 3 Legged Thing. It’s a fantastic tripod that can go two inches off the ground, up to two meters into the air—and weighs less than my Sirui.

I’ve also added a second Ranger Quadra Pack, and switched out my A heads for S heads, which work better with the Pocketwizard TT5's to achieve better results.

I’ve also added the CamRanger into the mix for wireless tethering. That’s it!

A lot of advice is given online about how to approach camera settings. Some people suggest shooting in Manual, while others suggest using Aperture Priority primarily. What advice do you have in this regard?

Use the right setting for the job and/or personal preference, really! Anytime I shoot with strobes I shoot Manual. The rest, mostly Aperture Priority.

At what point does the post-production process begin for you? Do you always think about it before you shoot, as you shoot, or only after you shoot?

I think photography is actually a lengthy process—there’s planning, preproduction, production, shooting and post production—all of which I’m highly involved in. That means that throughout the entire planning phases, I’m conscious of what I can and cannot do in-camera and on computer. I definitely strive to get as much right in-camera as possible, but sometimes budgets, time, or location don’t allow for it. At the end of the day, though, the most important to me is to end up with a good shot, regardless if it’s done in camera or in computer.

You've said that you need to be careful about pushing too many buttons, because you don’t want to be hired as a skilled technician, you want to be hired because you’re a skilled artist. Do you have a strategy for navigating this technical/artistic balance, and does it influence the projects that you take on?

One very simple strategy that I’ve employed to great success is not to post anything that I don’t want to be hired to do. This means that the only things you ever see online that I share are the things that I enjoyed doing, that I’m proud of sharing and that I would love to do again.

Do you ever encounter technical limitations with present-day photography equipment, and do you look forward to any future innovations that will aid your creativity?

I would LOVE to see the day that mirrorless systems take over the DSLR market, to achieve higher sync speeds. I would also love to see Medium Format hit the mainstream market. Tethering solutions are getting better and better, so I’m also excited to see where those go in the near future.

Beyond classic “still photography”, I’m curious to see the day that 3-dimensional or multi-spectral photography becomes a reality :)

You left a career as a mining engineer in early 2012, to pursue being a photographer. You’re now twenty months into your journey. Are you starting to see a clearer path forward as a photographer, or are there potentially other opportunities that interest you more? 

I think that the word “Photographer” is more limiting than anything, as I do much more than use a camera. I actively participate in conceptualizing, creating, directing and more… My agent calls me a Visual Engineer. I just want to keep doing what I love, and that’s exactly what I’m doing :)

Learn how the image of Chester Von Bommel at the top of this article was made by checking out this post on Benjamin's website. Go behind the scenes of Benjamin's fire-breathing self-portrait in this post, and join the crew on the oldest bridge in Paris for the portrait of L’ordre des Pyromanciers Excentriques in this post.