Listen to the Serendipity Stories Podcast on your mobile phone (Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, TuneIn) or on your browser (RSS Feed, Website, Soundcloud). Here’s the transcript for Episode 4 with our host YeSeul Kim and guest Tyler Grace, featuring Ben von Wong.
Tyler: And then I looked down and I see a box with a bit of hair sticking out, bit of wild, wacky, crazy hair. My mind sort of jumps a little, thinking “Wait, I know that hair.”
Welcome to the Serendipity Stories. I’m your host YeSeul Kim, here to share the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments.
In this episode, we meet Tyler Grace. Growing up, he spent most of his time bedridden in his countryside home in Albury, Australia. But his life changed forever when a box showed up on his front porch — and a man jumped out of it. It was just an ordinary day…
Tyler: Albury, it’s a fantastic place to live. It’s just relaxing and. With me, I can’t go too fast because of my health conditions. I can’t do too much. So just living in the countryside is just good for relaxation, yeah.
When Tyler was just 9 years old, he started feeling discomfort in his lower back. Over the next couple of years, the pain got much worse and it spread all over his body.
Tyler: And then I started developing other symptoms like migraines and fatigue and dizziness. There’s so many symptoms, it’s hard to sort of go through them all at the same time.
The doctors diagnosed Tyler had fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and neurally mediated hypotension — all chronic conditions with no clear cure. The symptoms were debilitating and kept him bed ridden for most of his childhood.
YeSeul: When you were a teenager, how did you view your illness?
Tyler: On one hand, I thought that it was just the most evil thing that anyone could endure because I didn’t grasp that there was worse out there. On the days that I didn’t end up in hospital, it would just be in excruciating pain. Just stuck in bed and not knowing whether this thing was gonna kill me or not. But at the same time, I always had this mentality of I’m glad it’s me and not someone else. Because I wouldn’t want anyone going through what I go through. I’m just glad that I have it. And it’s not someone else.
As if being sick wasn’t bad enough, Tyler was also the victim of bullying.
Tyler: People would tease me a lot. Put me down. And, you know, I was the sick kid. I was the weak and vulnerable one. And they would just do anything they could to make me feel even worse about myself than I already did. Multiple days a week, I’d be physically harassed. I’d be beaten by kids I didn’t know.
Doctors didn’t know if Tyler would live to see his 20s. Coupled with the bullying and social isolation, Tyler resigned himself to a life in his bedroom.
Tyler: I didn’t really have any goals or any aspirations. I just wanted to live. I just wanted to live the best life I could. And the fact that I wasn’t able to do that,For a long time there, I just gave up on everything.
Tyler’s mom brought him to a wedding she was officiating to get him out of the house. He sat in a corner, bored and looking apparently very useful.
Tyler: For some odd reason, I still don’t know why. About three people gave me their phones to take photos of the wedding with. I guess I was just the one random kid they could take advantage of then. They might have taken advantage of me, but they lit a spark, which was when I fell in love with photography and. I just fell in love with the whole process of taking a photo and capturing moments. And just capturing emotions as well.
By chance, at a random wedding, Tyler Grace found his passion for photography and for life.
Tyler: Before I found photography, of course, I was bedridden. I was barely ever out of the house. If I were to give you a rough estimate of how often I was out of the house. It was probably once a month at the maximum at that time. Then I was brought out into the world just for this one day, just for this wedding. it just brought me out into the world. It got me to see the world and actually just experience what life actually is.
After the break, we find out how Tyler got the most surprising delivery box ever, with a man who popped out and gave him the shock of his life.
Tyler Grace was a bedridden teenager who fell in love with photography when some strangers asked him to take a few photos at a wedding. After the wedding, he started fiddling around with his dad’s fancy cameras. He fantasized about going on photo shoots, but the reality was that he couldn’t leave the house on most days. So he surfed the internet for inspiration. That’s when he found Benjamin Von Wong.
Tyler: I ended up stumbling across a behind the scenes videos of Benjamin von Wong’s work. Each and every image of his was incredible to me. I just loved the wild and wacky concepts that he was had that he had at the time. And his work to this day is just my favorite work of anyone of any of any photographer.
Benjamin Von Wong is a famous Canadian Artist and Activist. He’s probably best known for his Mermaid Hates Plastic series. It had over 37 million views on Facebook. You know, the one with a mermaid drowning in a sea of 10,000 plastic bottles.
YeSeul: And who is like Benjamin Von Wong to you like? Is he like Beyonce to you? Is he like Jesus? That’s maybe a little too much….
Tyler: I was fangirling a lot. I was definitely one of those mega super ultra fans that at that time completely idolized him. Not not in a dangerous way. I just I just yeah, I was one of those super fans that just couldn’t get enough of him.
YeSeul: It wasn’t just Ben’s photography that Tyler idolized. He was also attracted to his personality and style.
YeSeul: How do you describe Ben physically and personality wise to our listeners? Because not everyone’s familiar with him.
Tyler: Ben is sort of Asian look. Plus, wild, wacky, crazy hair. Personality wise, he’s just fun, energetic. Seems like a joy to be around when you when you look at him on videos.
Tyler followed his idol’s work from afar, commenting on Ben’s posts and Facebook page. As the years went by, his health was getting a little better, but it was still fragile. He defied the odds though and was approaching his 21st birthday. While other 21 year olds might have been whooping it up with tequila shots, Tyler’s health kept him from partying. Instead, he was expecting a quiet birthday at home with his family.
YeSeul: So, Tyler, you had a very unusual 21st birthday wish.
Tyler: Well, back in early 2014, when I was just about to turn 21, I put up a status on Facebook saying if I could have anything on my 21st birthday, it would be to meet Ben von Wong.
YeSeul: Did you put it out there as a joke — half joking, but kind of serious?
Tyler: I put it out there as more of a mix of both. Because I did really want it, but I thought, nah, it’s never going to happen, but I’ll put it out there anyway.
Tyler’s sister took his birthday wish seriously. She found Ben on Facebook, and sent him a message.
Ben: His sister reached out to me just to say, like, hey, Tyler’s 21st birthday is coming up. Could you record a happy birthday message video and just send it to him?
Ben: And so I responded to her and I was like, oh. When’s his birthday? Maybe I can just pop over to Australia and visit instead. I was in Singapore at the time. I think I was teaching a workshop there. At the time, I was a little bit closer to an influencer. And so the idea of like documenting everything was just sort of a natural thing to do. And so we kind of just schemed of what would be a funny way to surprise Tyler and came up with this idea of just putting me inside of a box and then popping up and surprising him,
Ben flew for 16 hours from Singapore to Albury. Tyler’s sister came to pick him up from the airport.
Ben: Bianca was there standing. We hugged and then she took out this box to show me. And I was like “did you prepare the box” and she was like “yeah.” And I think in my head, when I imagine like me popping out of boxes, really imagining a jack in the box. And no, this was just like four sides of cardboard that I could barely like squeeze into with a little bow in the front. Tyler’s mom and dad all knew. And so her mom was apparently so excited. I think the most excited out of everyone else because she knew how much Tyler looked up to me. And so for her, apparently, it was like super hard not to let it slip for the last couple days.
Once they arrived in the countryside, Ben wiggled into the misshapen cardboard box and waddled his way to the front door. Always the master of visuals, he made sure to capture the moment by sticking a GoPro on his head. Here’s both Ben and Tyler recounting the surprise reveal.
Ben: Bianca’s escorting me and I’m just shuffling about and and and and that kind of walk towards the door is recorded by my friend who’s trying to stay out of sight. I’m kneeling on the floor and the doorbell rings. Tyler opens up the door. Bianca says hi.
Tyler: When I opened the door, the first thing I saw was my sister. And then I looked down and I see a box with a bit of hair sticking out, bit of wild, wacky, crazy hair. My mind sort of jumps a little, thinking, “Wait, I know that hair”. And then all of a sudden, Ben von Wong has jumped out of this box.
Ben: And I just yell surprise.
Tyler: And I just. Lose myself, I start swearing and saying, oh, my gosh, oh my gosh in not so PG words.
Ben: The first word out of Tyler’s mouth was like mouth was, oh, fuck. Oh, sorry. Can I hug you?
Tyler: And then I got the best hug ever.
YeSeul: What did you think the chances were that you would actually see Ben in person in front of your house in Australia on your 21st birthday?
Tyler: I thought there was absolutely no chance of me probably ever seeing him, let alone for my 21st birthday. And it was the biggest surprise of my life. It was just, it was just a dream.
The surprise didn’t end there. Ben stayed with Tyler and his family for a full week. They did photoshoots together, local press coverage, and travelled around the country. Ben even invited Tyler onstage at one of his photography workshops. It was the first time Tyler spoke in front of an audience. And he talked about his journey in finding photography.
YeSeul: So you just spent eight days gallivanting around Australia with your idol Ben. But you’re normally bedridden. Like you have this illness that has kept you at home for so long. Where did this energy come from?
Ben: I have no idea where it came from. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. And to be honest, it was more adrenalin than actual energy. And especially knowing that because of how low my health went down after we got back. But it was worth it. It was so worth it.
Yeseul: Here’s this photographer based in Canada that has flown all the way to Australia to wish you a happy birthday and spend eight days with you. So unexpected.
Tyler: It showed me that not only was he a great photographer, he was an absolutely beautiful person. He has one of the kindest and gentlest souls that I’ve ever met in my life. For many years, I was bullied and put down for things out of my control, which is my health. It was very much a life changing experience because he showed me that not only are there good people out there, but there are people that are willing to help you. There are people that are willing to be there for you.
YeSeul: How has Ben affected your photography, your philosophy on photography and the nuts and bolts?
Tyler: When I first saw Ben’s work, I really wanted to get into the same style of photography that he was doing, which was this small, slightly darker conceptual style. But I was way too afraid to get into that style because I didn’t think I was good enough. And during that trip, he gave me the confidence and courage to finally step into that style of photography.
With newfound courage, Tyler created his first major photographic series, the Chronic Diaries. The photos portray Tyler stripped down in a natural landscape and studio setting with dark lighting. They depict themes like new beginnings and loss of identity. The photos were a hit, even placing second in the portfolio category of the Tokyo International Photo Awards. Even though he still struggles with his illnesses, Tyler continues to create artwork that can be found in galleries all around the world.
Tyler: Photography is like a release for me. It’s a way to connect with other people and connect with the world. It’s not the easiest thing to do — it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But, it practically saved my life because if I didn’t find photography, I probably would have let my body deteriorate to nothingness and I probably wouldn’t be here.
YeSeul: What words of advice do you have for those who don’t have chronic illnesses? What are the things that they should know?
Tyler: Just treat those who do suffer from chronic illnesses with the respect they deserve. Give them hope. Don’t shun them away and make them feel bad about themselves because they already probably feel bad about themselves anyway. They don’t need more of that. They need love, support, respect and anything else positive that you can give them.
It was obvious that meeting Ben changed Tyler’s life forever. But why? Why did Ben hop across continents to crawl into a cardboard box to surprise Tyler, who was essentially a complete stranger?
Ben: I think we all want to matter in the world. we’re always hunting for moments of significance and the chance to make a difference in other people’s lives. And this is a moment in time where I did have the bandwidth and the time and the space and the means to do it. But I think ifI hadn’t had the time and I hadn’t had the resources, I wouldn’t have done it right. So it was a combination of right time, right place, right status of privilege in conjunction with this opportunity to give back to someone. You would assume that I am the giver of a gift and Tyler’s the recipient of a gift. But it’s rarely that binary. Right. When you go and you help someone, you’re also giving yourself joy. You’re giving yourself a sense of significance. You’re giving yourself, you know, the opportunity to learn and see what’s possible. And you know now…it’s something where the more you give, the more you receive. It’s it’s the same way that the teacher is also the student at the same time.
That was Benjamin von Wong from Vancouver, Canada and Tyler Grace from Albury, Australia. To learn more about Tyler’s photography, visit his website at www.tylergracephotography.com
YeSeul: Thanks for listening. I’m your host YeSeul Kim. This series is produced by Ben Severance and Nora Connidis Boydell. Editing also by Nora. Don’t forget to subscribe to Serendipity Stories and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @serendipitystories.podcast.
YeSeul: As much as Ben is great and you are on the receiving end of this, I actually feel like the real hero in this story is your sister.
Tyler: I still haven’t been able to repay my sister for what she did. And I am so much more grateful than she’ll ever know. She helped change my life for the better and. I just love her immensely.
YeSeul: And clearly, she loves you a lot, too. Where she really just kind of took your dream and made it a reality. So I think Bianca for president.
Tyler: I agree. I agree.
The Serendipity Stories shares the beauty of life’s most unexpected moments. We might call it luck, fate, a freak accident, or a coincidence. But over time and with a bit of reflection, when we find meaning in those special events, we call it serendipity. Expect stories that are full of irony and whimsy, love and tragedy, and despair and hope.