Interview with Benjamin Von Wong

Wetpixel: Your images are incredibly creative and fantastical. How did you come up with the idea of putting models underwater on shipwrecks?

The idea doesn’t really come from anywhere in particular. For me it always seemed liked a cool thing to do. I’ve seen a lot of underwater photographs its always mesmerized and captivated me. And when I found out there were shipwrecks around, it just seemed like a really good idea to put the two together. My style of photography is generally surreal and fantastical so I like pushing things to the extreme, and it kind of falls into line with what I normally do.

Wetpixel: What compelled you to tackle such a Herculean task, we know underwater fashion photography is tricky in itself, but then adding the unpredictable ocean element?

There wasn’t really any choice, there weren’t any remaining days or weather days to be able to push the shoot off to. So it didn’t matter what was going to happen from a weather perspective, we were gonna have to try it out anyways. And we were lucky enough to get some pretty good visibility, I wouldn’t say it was the clearest days but we had some pretty decent visibility and pulled it off anyways.

We had current, it wasn’t the stillest waters and we didn’t have the sunniest days to get the best lighting, but at the end of the day if you take enough awesome elements and put them together, it’s really hard for them to screw up. We already had the white dresses, we had the freedivers, we had the crew and the team and the shipwreck itself. And everything else was just going to be a bonus that was going to make the photos even nicer.


Wetpixel: How long did it take to plan for the shoot?

We did four dives, two days in a row. So it was 8 dives total spread over two days. Each dive lasted approximately 45 minutes. Just enough time to reset. We would start as early as we could, taking into consideration hair and makeup, giving enough time for everyone to get there.

At the end we had to rush things a little bit because one of our models was going to get on the plane right away. Camilla was a model that flew in from Abu Dhabi just for the shoot, and you have that 12 hour time frame to decompress and let the nitrogen get out of the body. So we had to make sure we fit all that into the right time frame, so it would be safe for the models to fly out.

I would have kept shooting, if we could!

Wetpixel: What was the most enjoyable part of the project?

I guess the part right after we did the first series of images and taking them out and putting them into the computer and seeing that this series of images was going to be absolutely spectacular. It was that moment where you go, “OK, it’s all fine and this is coming together. Because at that point right before the shoot, you assemble all the elements together and there’s still no guarantee that you got the shot. And then it just felt like, “OK, I got this, let’s make these even better and so lets keep going.

Wetpixel: We heard you became a certified scuba diver the day before the photoshoot. Is it true this was your first experience scuba diving?

I’ve gone scuba diving in a Cuban resort once, the only time I was never not in a swimming pool. And then I did a photo shoot about two years ago in a swimming pool in London, where I was also in a scuba suit, but that was really controlled environment. So definitely not the same thing.


Wetpixel: Why did you choose Bali as the destination for these underwater photo shoots?

I was supposed to go there on vacation with my family. My mom had been trying forever to convince me to go on this family trip. I eventually caved in and said, “Why don’t we go to Bali and do a dive lesson at the same time.” Because I didn’t have any dive certification before the trip. So the idea was to go to Bali, get a dive certification, and then make something useful out of the trip. I’m not a really big vacation guy, I like to be effective, do something productive with the trip. When I agreed to it, it was supposed to be a family vacation and I just kind of took control of the family vacation.

I was there for one week. The first day I got there was preproduction, the second day was just getting things set up, then we did three days of open water dive lessons and then two days of shooting and that was it.

Wetpixel: How did you get the crew for the photo shoot?

I’m a social media content creator, if you will, which means I have a following on Facebook and Youtube. I leveraged that to start hunting for models or freedivers that I could eventually use and I put the word out there that I was looking for people in Bali to do a shoot in a shipwreck. Through that process I met a couple people that really helped make the shoot possible. One of the girls was a lady by the name of Cassandra, who is the organizer of the Asian Dive expo and she had seen my work in the past and she hooked me up with Chris who ended up being the guy who helped produce the entire photo shoot. He has a dive school and he had all the right contacts and he knew the waters very well, so he knew what we could do, what we couldn’t do, when we could it and I guess that was really the first key pivotal point and the rest was just filling in the gaps, finding hair, make-up, clothing, all that stuff. Similarly you put things out there on social media, both of us, and reaching out to people we knew in the industry, that’s how things happen.

Wetpixel: How far in advance did you reach out before Bali?

The only confirmed piece of the puzzle that I had when I landed in Bali was Chris. So at that point we had no hair, no make-up, no models.

Wetpixel: What is your most hair-raising (underwater or above water) event so far?

That’s a hard question. I’ve shot on the edge of rooftops, I’ve shot underwater, I’ve shot with fire. Everything I do revolves around the extreme, but at the same time it is always secure. It’s dangerous, but the risk is all calculated. Because at the end of day, especially in these shoots, safety is so important. It’s not something you toy around with. So I would almost say, the more dangerous the shoot, the safer you feel. Because the safer you have to be to ensure the success of the project.

As a photographer I am more of a gung ho a dude, I tend to think in really large dreams. I don’t like to limit myself to the mundane or the normal. I always seek to push the boundaries of what is possible and what is doable. And I think it’s important to note that at the end of the day I am the guy taking the picture and it is the crew that really make the whole thing work out.

I’m a great instigator, and I get people to rally together behind something they probably didn’t think was possible. I make sure that it happens.

Wetpixel: If you had to name someone that has inspired you photographically, who would that be?

I’ve learned a lot from people on the internet. I’m a self taught photographer. I quit my job 2.5 years ago to do photography from engineering and everything that I’ve learned has been through the internet.

I don’t think there’s any singular influence that has made me who I am in the sense that if you look at my work, I don’t think there are many people you can compare me to. I tend to forge my own path because it’s almost intimidatin to look at he internet too much because there are so many amazing people doing amazing things and if you spend too much time admiring what other people are doing that almost keeps you from getting out there and trying things out on your own because you’re scared to not be good enough.

In terms of underwater photographers, Zena Holloway and Elena Kalis have some amazing work. But what I did in the shipwreck, it’s not about emulating them, but I do look at what other people are doing to make sure I’m on the right path. But I don’t try to be anyone else

Wetpixel: Canon, Nikon, or both (or something else entirely)?

I’m a Nikon shooter. I love the D800E, which is my normal camera. For this shoot I actually wanted to use the AW-1, which is Nikon’s latest interchangeable camera. But, I flooded it the day before the shoot. I’m not too sure what happened.

The reason being I simply wanted to prove you didn’t need the best equipment to take some great pictures. And since I tanked it, I needed a replacement camera and I had a D90 available. I also had a Canon 5D Mark II available, that one of my friends had rented.

But I still wanted to keep things in the same vein of “You know what, you don’t need top of the line gear to make nice images. I just thought the D90 would be perfectly fine, I had used it in the past, I knew it was a nice camera, even though it was five years old.

Incidentally right now I’m regretting it right now that I didn’t just invest in an underwater housing to put my D800e in. Because I’ve had a lot of print requests and I think I could have blown these up extremely large had I used a better camera. So I’m kind of sad about that. But hey, it’s just an excuse to do it again. Or do even better.

Wetpixel: Media rich capture devices are blurring the creative process. How do you see the future with still cameras catching video, cell phones capturing hi res images and video, and people looking at them on tablet computers?

I think there will always be a place for large scale prints. I’m not much of a printer myself; I’m definitely more of a digital age character.

But, there’s just something very nice about flipping a page, about holding paper in your hand and being able to admire things in person, it’s just not the same experience.

As far as the evolution of technology, I don’t really look at it as something negative. Like technology just becomes more accessible. It’s also why I push so hard to do extreme photo shoots because though the devices might be able to capture it, not everybody will go through the trouble of putting something like this together.

So technology is really only one piece of the equation and if it gets easier to create amazing things, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fantastic.

The fact that cameras are able to do video now and that Adobe creative pallet allows you to edit anything from motion to stills, all it takes is the time to practice. It opens up even more creative possibilities. Worlds are colliding and I see opportunity.

Wetpixel: How did you manage to make photography your profession? What advice would you give to people wanting to emulate your career now?

In a sense I’m still figuring it out. It think that’s what all of us do as creatives. If you love what you do and you don’t give yourself the option to fail, then all you do is keep figuring things out one step at a time.

There is no right answer. The traditional model of photographer doesn’t exist anymore. It’s up to you to figure out how to leverage all these changes in the world to your own benefit. There are more opportunites than ever, but there are also more challenges than ever.

At the end of the day you have to realize there are an infinitely large amount of talented people out there that are also looking to live the dream, I suppose. And if you aren’t driven and passionate, or if you haven’t found it yet, then it doesn’t really matter how good you are because there are going to be people pushing hard to exceed you. So I think finding what you’re passionate and driven about and sticking with it and working at it and figuring it out and being critical and growing. That’s really what’s going to make the difference between success and failure.