The shots became an internet sensation (the behind-the-scenes video attracted more than one million views on YouTube) and set a new benchmark for the photographer, who has carved a niche dabbling in all things whimsical, fantastical and reality bending.
When he’s not chasing fish out of the frame 25 metres under the sea in Bali, or shooting zombies in a Game of Thrones fan-fiction in the snow in Quebec, Benjamin, 27, can be found leading photographic workshops around the world and teaming up with like-minded kooky creatives on mind-boggling projects.
The Montreal-based photographer, who prefers the title ‘visual engineer’, has shot extreme stunts on the walls of Jerusalem in Israel, captured capoeira martial artists fighting in the ruins of Villers-la-Ville abbey in Belgium and brought a city square to a standstill with a mammoth 450-person Where is Waldo (Wally) panoramic in Traunstein, Germany.
He’s also hijacked the world’s largest monastic library – the Admont Abbey in Austria – for a magical, Disney-inspired after-hours shoot.
There have been decapitated zombies, elaborate feathered costumes, mediaeval gowns, Slovakian ballerinas, armoured warriors, the odd stinky octopus and fire. Lots of fire. Pyrotechnics are a big part of the Chinese Canadian’s creative repertoire. In one shoot, at an English mansion in Manchester, UK, Benjamin had models posing with AU$5.8 million worth of sports cars while flames licked at their heels. The project is symbolic of his craft: bold, exciting and always pushing the boundaries.
Much of Benjamin’s work is for the love of his art and is more about feeding his creative thirst rather than making money. His is a career built on social media; the exposure brings in client commissions and speaking gigs to supplement his creative escapades.
“The idea behind these shoots is no one’s ever going to pay you to do it, so you may as well go ahead and do what you love and hopefully down the line people notice the shoot and hire you to do what you love,” Benjamin says.
“The purpose is to create amazing work. At the end of the day what I want to do is get paid to create more things. I don’t want to become a desk jockey and manage print sales and manage a storefront and all that bullshit – it’s not really exciting. I’d much rather be out there shooting and getting new challenges and new experiences.”
Behind-the-scenes videos are a signature of the Von Wong brand and a valuable social media tool. Without his online community of supporters (70,000 Facebook followers and counting), Benjamin says he wouldn’t be seeing the world behind the lens. It has enabled him to tap into sponsors and gear, build contacts and showcase his talent. A 2012 month-long photographic tour of Europe was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign, and every shoot relies on an army of ‘Vonwonglings’ rallied on Facebook – from models, hair and make-up artists and costume designers, to production crew and pyrotechnicians. In exchange, Benjamin shares his tricks of the trade with his followers, and some get the chance to work with the wizard himself.
When we speak, Benjamin is at home in Montreal (although he’s loath to call it home because he’s so infrequently there). In a few days he’ll jet off to Cambodia, followed by China and Brisbane. Life is frenetic. He never knows where the next inspiration will come from or who will hit him up with a proposal that is too awesome to refuse (an admirer once succeeded in getting him to Florida on a whim to collaborate on a fantastical fallen angel shoot).
Then there are the projects that touch the heart. Last year Benjamin produced a video that helped raise AU$2.8 million to save a four-year-old girl battling a degenerative brain disease. Earlier in the year, he paid a surprise visit to a young Australian fan in Albury, Victoria, wrapping himself in a box as a 21st birthday surprise for the emerging photographer, who suffers from a medley of chronic illnesses.
Benjamin seeks inspiration in the people he meets and the places he visits. His motto is you should wake up in the morning and “grasp life by the balls” because you never know where an opportunity might lead. And he walks the talk.
It’s a far cry from a few years ago when, as a qualified engineer, Benjamin was working in the goldmines in the Nevada Desert, USA. In the doldrums after a relationship bust-up, he picked up a cheap point-and-shoot camera at Walmart and started experimenting. A few years later he was shooting events, then something snapped… He quit his day job in January 2012 with no plan and no regrets, and has been travelling the world, inspiring followers with his unique brand of photography, ever since.
Benjamin puts his success down to hard work and dedication, not talent. Although his on-camera charisma and daredevil persona sure help.
“Being a photographer is easy, right? You just press a button,” he laughs.
“The camera is a tool, you understand the basic mechanics of it and you’re set to go. If you know what you want to achieve then you just need to figure out which of the buttons to push. It’s like driving a car.”
View more of Benjamin’s work at vonwong.com
Words Catherine Best
Photos Benjamin Von Wong