Exploring the exponential impact of art through adventures in epic photography
Benjamin Von Wong
current location: San Francisco
personal mission: to be useful; to experiment and play with What if?
big question: How can you scale impact as an artist?
How did you start making art?
I was good at math and civics, and my dad was an engineer. So I studied as a hard rock mining engineer and went to the highest-paying job I could get.
I bought my first camera following a breakup. I was dating a girl while working at a mine in Winnemucca, Nevada. I needed to find something to keep myself busy. One night, the stars were pretty, and I thought, Why not take pictures of stars?
I did that on evenings and weekends. It slowly became a bigger hobby and took over bits of my life. One morning, after working as an engineer for 3.5 years, I realized I didn’t want to be doing the same job at a bigger desk, earning slightly more money, 10 years from now.
When I first quit my job, my main mission was to travel and go places and have new adventures. The traveling photography thing was working pretty well and I didn’t see a reason to stop.
I became an artist completely by default as opposed to a planned career path.
What led you to use your art for social impact?
I was doing fantastical, surreal, mildly elaborate photo shoots that involved models, hair, makeup and styling in a unique location.
I was doing projects that were crazy for the sake of being crazy.
I had a couple of viral hits that got picked up by the mainstream media.
Eventually, I got a large commercial project with Huawei. It was a dream job at the time. The money was great but it felt a little soulless. All I was really doing was moving product off a shelf.
There was one fundraising video I made of a little girl dying of a terminal degenerative brain disease. I helped make a video that helped raise a million dollars in a month.
I reached out to other nonprofits offering to collaborate. No one really wanted to work together. They’re pretty risk averse when it comes to trying new things.
My girlfriend was trying to convince me to go storm-chasing and I said that would be fun but there needs to be something to justify the time and efforts. She said, “What about using storms as a metaphor for climate change?” That was the first environmental project I did.
Climate change, sea levels rising, water usage, climate change, overconsumption—these are all things that you may know of, but for it to hit you in a way that feels understandable or impactful requires some degree of conceptualization.
What’s the unique power of your photography?
There is power in using fantasy because it has the ability not to preach to the choir.
With sad images of anything tragic like poverty or inequality, most people tend to turn off. Once you’ve seen it, you don’t want to see any more.
If you can trick people to use art as a Trojan Horse to captivate people through beauty or something curiosity-invoking, then you can educate through adventure.
In Fiji, I tied models underwater with sharks swimming around them to raise awareness of shark conservation. I put a mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles to raise awareness about ocean pollution.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you face?
I get permanently frustrated trying to measure impact. It’s so hard to do.
You can get immediate feedback by seeing the reaction to your art on someone’s face. But what about the secondary and tertiary feedback loops?
The interesting thing about art is that it does have this persistent power of exponential impact.
You never know when someone you’ve inspired goes on to create a new technology or program that influences thousands or millions. You never know when that one thing you do will completely change the narrative or inspire an entire generation.
That’s something that keeps me going: the desire to continue to experiment and play with What if? What if I get it right this time?
What advice do you have for other artists, storytellers and creatives who want to make a positive impact with their work?
It isn’t about doing one impact project here and there. It’s about the body of impactful work that you create. People get excited by one-offs, but that excitement becomes respect once you’ve dedicated a certain amount of time and energy into it.
That grit and commitment towards doing something and believing that it could be possible is what inspires people.
What do you need help with?
I’d like to find different ways to measure the impact of the works I create. It will help me feel better about what I do, quantify its utility, and also help sell the work, so I can create even more impact that focuses on the right things.
How can you scale impact as an artist?
What else would you like to tackle?
I like the idea of having artists-in-residence in large corporate entities to interface between different teams. How does a product or technology tie to a larger story or mission? How do you connect those bits and bobs together? An artist can help bridge those gaps.
Art doesn’t have a KPI; that’s the beauty of it.
What would be achieved if someone was just designed to help different groups synergize?
It’d be so interesting to join a hardware accelerator. I’d have the opportunity to interact with brilliant engineers and scientists who are building cool technologies but maybe are only using their skill set for this one specific thing they’re hired for. But maybe there are new applications and ways to use that technology, outside of the pure product cycle.
You could find unique storytelling opportunities that no one else has the time to talk about. An artist could unlock some new, orthogonal thinking.
You need to have people that are thinking outside the box.
Benjamin Von Wong is part of enso’s Shared Mission Network: a community of cross-disciplinary leaders, experts and makers who collaborate to generate impactful solutions for the world. See enso.co/network
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