Epic Positivity with Ben Von Wong
Episode 96: Ben Von Wong
In Episode 96 of the Portrait System Podcast, Nikki Closser chats with Ben Von Wong. Ben is an activist artist based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, who has created massive campaigns for causes like the ocean, plastics, and electronic waste. His projects combine photography, videography, and interactive art installations both in the real and virtual worlds. He holds a Guinness World Record for creating an installation with 168,000 plastic straws, and he is a really down to earth and kind guy, who cares deeply about people and the environment.
Be sure to listen to the whole podcast to hear how strategies portrait photographers employ mirror the strategies Ben has employed while working on a larger scale. You might also be interested to hear Ben’s take on how creating a great impact with art depends on closing the gap between raising awareness and action by connecting with communities, policy makers, NGOs, and grassroots organizations. And you won’t want to miss hearing about the various ways Ben makes a living, including the pitch he uses to hook clients for consultations.
In this blog, you’ll find some of Ben’s epic portraits, links to his websites, and answers to some bonus questions.
You might also like to check out Ben’s current campaign Turn Off the Plastic Tap, where there are 1,000s of dollars in prize money to be won every day!
Get to Know Ben Von Wong
Q: Making a connection with your subject is one of the most important parts of a great portrait. How do you make lasting connections with your clients?
A: I try to keep things fun and conversational! I think once you master the camera, you can hold a conversation as you shoot, and that allows you to build their confidence and to ensure a great experience.
Q: Most artists have a point in their life when they knew this was meant for them. Do you have that moment?
A: Honestly, still waiting for that moment! But it’s reached the point where I don’t know what else I would do. Does that count?
Q: How did you push past fear when building your business?
A: I think the key is understanding why you’re doing what you do. Once you understand the value you’re trying to bring into the world, you create for more than yourself — and then you realize you’re never alone.
Q: Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?
A: I want to start a creative laboratory, where we can experiment and come up with big ideas 24/7 without needing to wait for clients to validate an idea!
Subscribe to The Podcast
Ben Von Wong
Benjamin Von Wong’s work lies at the intersection of fantasy and photography and combines everyday objects with shocking statistics. It has attracted the attention of corporations, like Starbucks, Dell, and Nike, and has generated over 100 million views for causes like ocean plastics, electronic waste, and fashion pollution. Most recently, he was named one of Adweek’s 11 content branded masterminds.
FULL TRANSCRIPT: Please note this transcript was generated by AI and may contain errors.
00:00:00:02 – 00:00:02:07
You’re listening to the Portrait System podcast.
00:00:02:21 – 00:00:14:20
I woke up one day and I was like in 10 years, I don’t want to be sitting at a bigger desk, earning more money, doing the same job, right? And I was like, Well, I don’t know what I want to do, but if I don’t start looking, I’m never going to find it. So that was really the catalyst for moving on.
00:00:17:20 – 00:00:50:18
This is the Portrait System Podcast, a show that helps portrait photographers and people hoping to become one. Navigate the world of photography, business, money and so much more. We totally keep it real. We share stories about the incredible ups and the very difficult downs when running a photography business. I’m your host, Nikki Closser, and the point of this podcast is for you to learn actionable steps that you can take to grow your own business and also to feel inspired and empowered by the stories you hear. Today’s guest is Ben Von Wong, and he is a photographer who uses his art to focus on amplifying positive impact.
00:00:50:29 – 00:01:20:29
Ben has gone viral with his work many, many times and has made a name for himself with his really powerful campaigns. Ben chooses causes that he’s passionate about and that affect the world around us, and he creates unforgettable and thoughtful photos that make his message impossible to ignore. While he doesn’t necessarily do traditional portrait work, we talk a lot about how you can apply the basics of what he does to any portrait business. OK, let’s get started with Ben Von Wong. Hey, Ben, welcome to the portrait system. How are you?
00:01:21:12 – 00:01:22:16
I’m doing great yourself.
00:01:23:06 – 00:01:53:14
I’m good. I’m great. Yeah, hanging in there. OK, so we have so much to talk about, and I just wanted to let people know that you have a very unique story. And while on the surface, it might not seem like the typical photography story. When our producer Aaron reached out, he was like, Hey, I really would love for you to interview this guy named Ben Von Wong and your artist named Von Wong, correct? So like on Instagram and everything, you’re OK. So.
00:01:54:24 – 00:02:22:14
He asked me about interviewing you, and when I looked you up, I was like, This is really, really cool because a lot of the education that Sue teachers and that we talk about here on this platform is to find something you’re super passionate about. Create a campaign around it. Make sure it’s authentic because it’s such a great way to not only feel good about what you do, but to drive business to yourself and the book more clients. And it seems like that is what you have done. But like on such a huge, massive scale?
00:02:23:02 – 00:02:48:22
Yeah, I mean, I think the work has gotten bigger over time. I’ve always had this penchant for doing things that nobody else has done before, and I think you go down this rabbit hole of like bigger every single time and every time you want to do bigger, you want to do better than the last one. It just gets increasingly unwieldy. So I’m at the point where I’m doing maybe one or two projects a year. Of course, in the past, I was doing them almost weekly. So I yeah.
00:02:49:15 – 00:03:05:19
So you seem like a total creator like I know obviously you’re an artist and everything, but I think there are a lot of photographer business owners who aren’t. Like creative to the level of where they need to be creating. Like you said, bigger and better all the time, you seem like such a creator.
00:03:06:12 – 00:03:38:08
Yeah, I think my work looks a lot more creative than it actually is. So maybe to give some people context, me, I’ve placed a mermaid on 10000 plastic bottles, or I’ve converted an art installation out of one hundred sixty eight thousand plastic straws to create a Guinness World Record. But like, these pieces are really just logistically intensive more than anything else. The photography and the artists, the artistry of it is actually just coming up with the idea and finding a great way to capture it just like every other photographer does.
00:03:38:23 – 00:03:55:24
Where the work lies is in actually production, marketing, like emailing. I spent so much time on emails. I’m probably a professional email there, more than I am a professional photographer. And so I think there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that really is just a bunch of bigger problems broken down into smaller problems.
00:03:56:10 – 00:04:20:24
OK, yeah, that makes total sense because I was going to ask you, like, does that get in the way of like because it seems like a lot of creators have a hard time with the business aspect of it when when your mind is just, you know, your your profile is creator, but then you also have to run a business and that’s something we’re always trying to talk about and make sure you know we’re meshing the two together so that you can actually, like, have a successful business around it.
00:04:21:15 – 00:04:54:12
Yeah. So I think I’m a little bit of a 50 50 split. I have a background as a Hardrock mining engineer, so that’s what I studied in school and work for three and a half years as an engineer before transitioning to photography. And that wasn’t even like an intentional transition. It was just, I want to travel the world and do fun things. And what’s the best way to travel the world for free photography? Oh, look, I’m a photographer now, basically how it happened. And so I think somewhere in the middle of my career, I realized that you could either work really hard to do lots of small projects.
00:04:54:14 – 00:05:24:14
So let’s say the thousand dollar gigs. And then how about if you want to make fifty thousand dollars there, you need to book two of these a week. Factor in your expenses. Or you can like figure out how you can do like the projects that will bring in thirty or forty thousand dollars each. And in that case, maybe you only need one or two or three of them. And so I realized kind of early on that what got me excited was doing the big, complicated things and I guess playing the lottery game because there are a lot harder to find.
00:05:24:19 – 00:05:27:03
But then when you find them, you have a lot more creative freedom.
00:05:27:16 – 00:05:34:00
Yeah. Oh yeah, I love that. I love that. I want to go back a little bit because you said you were an engineer at rock mining, right?
00:05:34:08 – 00:05:35:21
Yeah, hard rock mining engineer.
00:05:35:27 – 00:05:56:07
So cool. So but then you decided obviously you wanted to travel as I was very similar. That’s kind of how I picked up a camera to begin with was traveling. There are a lot of listeners who are in the position where they kind of want to quit their job, whether they’re teacher or engineer, you know, whatever. So how did you just like, quit and just pick up and start doing that?
00:05:57:21 – 00:06:22:03
I mean, I guess privilege is one like I had. I had an education. I had savings. I felt very confident that a worst case, I just go back to school, you know, or worst case, I just get a job again. Like, it was not really a big leap for me. I was a twenty five year old, no kids. So I really had that freedom of saying like, well, worst case, I just kind of lose my savings and I’m back at zero.
00:06:22:08 – 00:06:23:22
OK, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
00:06:23:27 – 00:06:54:07
But for me, I think quitting my day job was more about running away from something I didn’t want to do as opposed to running towards something I really wanted to do. I woke up one day and I was like in 10 years. I don’t want to be sitting at a bigger desk, earning more money, doing the same job, right? And I was like, Well, I don’t know what I want to do, but if I don’t start looking, I’m never going to find it. So that was really the catalyst for moving on. I have to say, though, that there was this expectation in my mind that if I quit my day job, I would gain like 40 hours a week to do something that I enjoy doing.
00:06:54:13 – 00:07:32:24
But the truth is, you don’t gain that much because I don’t know when I had a day job. I don’t know about the other folks that are thinking of that, but I spent a lot of my day job time thinking about the creative stuff that I wanted to do. You know, doing a little bit of admin stuff here and there. And so you’re like effective time gain is actually not that much. And what you do gain is that freedom to like, build your own schedule, freedom to travel, freedom to to sculpt the life that you want without having anyone telling you what to do. But that also comes with a lot of like, Are you going in the right direction? Like what? How are you measuring your success? Like, is it? Is it going fast enough? Are you stable enough? And you have all these questions, and there’s no one that’s giving you a support structure.
00:07:32:29 – 00:07:38:02
There’s no quarterly reviews. There’s no boss telling you what to do. You’re just like completely up to your own devices.
00:07:38:23 – 00:08:00:03
That’s so true. You just like completely summed up being an entrepreneur business owner to a tee. So perfectly, OK, so you decided you’re going to travel. You were going to be a photographer. And then, you know, at what point because you said that early on you said you were doing weekly projects and now you’re doing. Can you kind of take us through how all of that evolved?
00:08:00:22 – 00:08:33:19
Yeah, for sure. So I think time scale matters because the world 10 years ago and the world today is very different, right? So I just want to caveat my strategies with the fact that the world has changed since then. So I bought my first camera in November 2007. I started my day job in 2008, and I quit my day job four years or three and a half years after that. And so I was doing photography. On evenings and weekends. I’d managed to negotiate a four day workweek, 10 hours a day, so I had three day weekends to do my creative projects night.
00:08:33:21 – 00:09:06:10
And by the time I quit my job, I already had 7000 followers on Facebook. And this is two thousand twelve, right? So seven thousand followers on Facebook had more reach. I had more reach then than I do now with three hundred thousand followers. And so by that point, I was able to put up a status on Facebook and say, Hey, I want it to go to France. Is there a photo club in France that wants to host me and I was able to like, do a workshop there and teach and and that’s how I would travel from place to place. OK, cool. So between teaching and different photography communities and every time you do a workshop now you’ve made, I don’t know.
00:09:06:12 – 00:09:37:20
Let’s say there’s 30 people there. Now you have 30 friends, you have 30 potential sofas to sleep on. You can now collaborate with their friends. And and there’s this thing that happens when you’re in a place for a short amount of time. Everyone makes time for you, whereas when you’re locally available, it’s like planning these shoots seem to take forever because everyone’s like, yeah, maybe in like two months, I’ll do this thing. It’s like, Yeah, it takes forever, but wear it when you’re traveling, you just got to supercharge everything. And I learned a little bit early on, and so I started doing behind the scenes video content right around the time F
00:09:37:22 – 00:10:15:27
Stopper’s was just getting launched. And so when F Stoppers was launching, they were featuring one project a day. And so to get featured on F Stopper’s meant quite a little bit. And I started to notice that if I created behind the scenes content showing people something they didn’t know, like doing something in a really interesting way, the same photoshoot that I did would get more traction. And so, oh, documenting my work became a core part of the business strategy, and I think we see this a lot today with creators on TikTok, right? They’ll share these sort of catchy fifteen second behind the scenes videos that then suddenly get way more traction than the photo alone ever could.
00:10:16:09 – 00:10:47:27
And so that’s that’s become an integral part of my strategy. And then over time, I started to realize that just getting views didn’t necessarily matter, because unless you want to be a full time educator, having a lot of photography followers is not actually that useful. Because photographers don’t hire other photographers unless it’s for teaching. And so I started to think about, well, I need to figure out how to break out beyond my industry into other industries. And the best way to do that is to get press coverage.
00:10:48:04 – 00:10:55:15
So how can I craft projects that mainstream media will want to cover? And so there is then an entire press strategy started layering on of that.
00:10:55:22 – 00:11:15:07
Now, before we get into press strategy because I think that’s super important, I want to go back to something that you’d said about pausing behind the scenes. And I know at that time it sounds like you were appealing more to photographers, just like was it based on like a how to type behind the scenes, how you were creating what you were doing and how you’re getting the photo, that sort of thing.
00:11:15:12 – 00:11:46:27
Yeah. And I think that the important caveat there is is that it’s not behind the scenes for the sake of behind the scenes, it’s behind the scenes to show people something they didn’t already know. Right. So in my case, I was doing I was using flour as a replacement for smoke and I’d make a tutorial on that or I was shooting with ultraviolet lights in the water and showing how I was doing that, or I was tying people under water and making a video and showing how I was doing that or lighting people on fire and showing how I was doing that. And so along the way, you kind of share your like your experiments, your failures, your successes.
00:11:47:06 – 00:12:20:03
And what this does is it gives people the chance to be the hero in their own journey. You’re merely the guide you’re providing them with the framework so that they too can create things that they want to do. And I think that’s really important is the difference between a good behind the scene video and a bad behind the scene. VIDEO It’s like a bad behind the scene. VIDEO is basically saying, Look at me, look how awesome I am. Look what I did. Isn’t it beautiful? Or It’s a good behind the scenes video is kind of showing and inspiring people so that they too can feel empowered and enabled to do whatever it is that they hope to do.
00:12:20:14 – 00:12:51:23
Oh, I love that. I love that. And I think this is so important. We talk a lot about using behind the scenes in the marketing, but appealing to the client. So like showing them This is what I can do for you. How can I serve you the service I’m going to provide, whether it is showing you giving direction to the person or showing that you provide hair and makeup in your studio, or that you help them select their clothes or whatever it is, but showing them the behind the scenes of what you are going to provide for that for your potential clients, I think is so, so, so important. And again, it’s not all about you.
00:12:51:25 – 00:13:08:27
Look at me, it’s about what can I do for you and how can I inspire you to? Want to book a photo shoot or whatever, so just to relate it to, you know, doing client behind the scenes because obviously there’s a difference between appealing, you know, for photography education versus appealing to potential clients.
00:13:09:10 – 00:13:27:29
Right? So I would say if it was a portrait studio, then you want to really focus on how you’re making the people feel right? You want to you want to show people enjoying themselves, getting comfortable, laughing, feeling comfortable and then maybe like breaking down barriers. And so they they can they can see themselves in those shoes, too. So absolutely, totally agree with you.
00:13:28:01 – 00:13:44:00
Yes, absolutely. Totally. OK, so let’s then talk about. Yes, absolutely. People include behind the scenes with whatever they are trying to attract to them is what they need to be showing. So what about press coverage? That’s something we haven’t really talked a lot about on this podcast.
00:13:44:12 – 00:14:23:29
Yeah, I mean, I think press is one of those things. It used to be a lot more powerful than it is today. Back in 2014, 2015, when I was employing this strategy, it’s just sort of the time frame where I think Huffington Post and these guys were just getting on the internet. So there are a lot of like BuzzFeed News kind of upstarts that were trying to upend mainstream media. And the way it worked is that if a big news outlet covered you all the smaller news outlets would copy the coverage. And then suddenly this and people love popular things. So if you say this thing is going viral and it becomes, then it suddenly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because other people start picking it up these days that the networks are a lot more diluted, so it is a little bit harder.
00:14:24:01 – 00:14:54:15
So my my strategies have evolved, but I think the general principle stays the same. And that is how are you summarizing what you’re doing in one sentence if you write an email to a journalist? Are they going to open the email? Because is is that headline interesting if you’re going to post a link on Facebook? Is the headline so interesting that people want to share it before they even click on it? Right? That’s how fake news really spreads. And so this is the importance of a headline I think is so it’s so basic, but it’s so important.
00:14:54:17 – 00:15:20:11
It’s sort of like if you were sitting at the bar and you turn to the person next to you and you say, Hey, I just did x this weekend, do you want to hear more? And if you’re not able to condense whatever it is that you did in this, like one single curiosity evoking sentence, then chances are the guy’s going to say no. And that’s what most of the internet does. They don’t have time to, like, sit around and waffle about to test to see whether or not they want to click on something. They’re just this is not how people are.
00:15:20:22 – 00:15:51:23
Oh, I love that. I love that. And I think it’s so important to like when you’re showing your work. Even even everything that you said, I think can be translated to like website, social media or whatever. If I have to search and search and search to find out how what services you’re going to provide to me as a potential client, I’m going to move on. Like, everything needs to be right there in that one sentence, whether it’s your pitch or, you know, just when I open, like like when I look at your Instagram, I open it and I’m like, Wow, like, you can see just so much content right there.
00:15:51:25 – 00:16:11:09
Or if I open your website, it’s like, you know, pretty quickly what you’re doing. And I think that’s just so, so, so important. And yeah, just having that kind of one liner. That elevator pitch is so important for not only your marketing, but just talking to people in general about what you do.
00:16:11:11 – 00:16:40:00
Yeah. My one liner for the longest time was I take photos that people think are photoshopped. And so that just makes you go like, Wait, I want to know more. Like, what do you mean? Like photos that people are Photoshop? And it’s like, Oh, like, I tied them all underwater with sharks swimming around and they’re like, Wait, what? And so that that’s how it that’s how conversations get started, right? Like the more amount of wait, what like, tell me more or that that feels unexpected. I think the more of that sensation you can create that the quicker you can break down barriers.
00:16:40:02 – 00:17:06:12
Totally. I do mostly personal branding photographs of women, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard women say, I hate having my photo taken or I’m not photogenic. And so my kind of line was, I love photographing people who don’t think they’re photogenic or my favorite person is the client who hates to be photographed. So it’s like figuring out what it is that. Who do you want to appeal in that one line? I love, love, love that you brought that up. So I hope people listening will start thinking about, like what their one line is going to be.
00:17:06:19 – 00:17:21:12
Yours is particularly genius because you are actually in your sentence, you’re calling out a person’s problem and you’re offering a solution, whereas mine doesn’t do that. So I actually prefer your one liner and I need a better one now.
00:17:22:12 – 00:17:32:00
You know, I think it’s all about like figuring out people’s pain points. And I know you do this. Like for corporations, for example, I know you’ve worked for like Nike and Green Nike.
00:17:32:02 – 00:17:32:17
00:17:33:02 – 00:17:46:21
Yes, OK. Like a bunch of different corporations. And I wonder if that’s something that you could apply to that. Like figuring out what are the pain points of these different corporations or whomever you might want to work for and start using that as a one liner? And you know.
00:17:47:16 – 00:18:22:13
Yeah, I haven’t figured it out. Exactly. So the best kind of word that I found that summarizes my work in in a single word was like unforgettable. Like, I try to create work that is. Forgettable in a world where everyone is creating content daily, I try to create work that is unforgettable. So rather than try to just throw information on people like How do you own a piece of someone’s heart is the way I try to think about it. But converting that, incorporating like the social impact component of what I try to do along with everything else, I haven’t quite found an elegant one liner yet for my current work.
00:18:22:19 – 00:18:24:12
But maybe that’s another conversation we can have.
00:18:24:18 – 00:18:38:24
Sometimes we kind of tell people, and I know, I know what you do encompasses so much, but can you just try to summarize a little bit about, you know, about what you are passionate about and what you are trying to bring awareness to?
00:18:39:08 – 00:19:20:14
Yeah. So the way I describe it in a bio is I’m an artist an activist that has generated over 100 million views for different causes like ocean plastics, fast fashion and electronic waste. And I just think that that just speaks to the reach and the the topic up to them, to look at it, to decide whether or not they like the how it’s done. But essentially, I create I’m like a one person agency. I do everything from concept development all the way to like lunch, press and marketing and putting out press kits. And so I’m like this sort of one person team that just spends all my time really trying hard to create something that the world hasn’t seen before, and to make a important social issue into something that’s like conversationally friendly to the average person.
00:19:20:25 – 00:19:55:09
And the way I do that is not just through the photos, but there’s also the video components. There’s, you know, most recently, a lot of physical art installation that people can visit and interact with and take photos in front of. And then there’s an entire like press and press and digital strategy, which I’m trying to open sourced as much as possible. This idea that you can call people in and invite them to participate in the projects, too is is one of the things that I’ve been working on most recently. So I mean, I can break down, for example, how this giant plastic type project I’m putting together and the what the different layers are, if that will make it a little bit more granular.
00:19:55:14 – 00:19:57:09
Yeah, absolutely. I would love to hear that.
00:19:57:21 – 00:20:28:12
OK, cool. So the Canadian Embassy in Paris reached out and they wanted to commission an art installation. And so it was originally supposed to take place in Paris and COVID happened. It got canceled and I got it, got be revived. And so I essentially convinced them to let me build the art installation in Montreal, which is where I currently am. And and then I would ship it to them in Paris. And so they really wanted this physical art installation. And then I made this installation that could travel so that I personally could photograph it in five different locations here in Montreal.
00:20:28:14 – 00:21:04:09
So we we built this like three story tall giant facet with plastics just leaking out of it all over their environment. And then we moved it to a beach, to a landfill, to a playground, to a recycling facility, to a container yard. And then now it’s off on its way to a gallery in Paris. So now you have an installation piece, you have a photography layer piece. And then I wanted to figure out how we could engage the public. So now I’ve I’ve cut out this giant faucet and put it up against the green screen so that anyone who was interested in photoshopping it could now photoshop a remix of this art installation themselves and others.
00:21:04:11 – 00:21:39:01
They can open creativity piece of it. But then to incentivize participation, I put together a $10000 prize pool from all these different sponsors so I can draw a prize every single day of the entire campaign, which will continuously drive momentum to it. But you don’t just want to create awareness for something, you want to attach it to a solution. So I have 10 different non-profits that have all these different call to actions that they’re working on, which all revolve around this concept of turning off the plastic tap. So going straight to the source and figuring out how are we going to stop producing plastics in the first place? Yeah.
00:21:39:03 – 00:22:11:14
So now we have creatives that are amplifying the campaign with their own followings. You have nonprofits that are amplifying the campaign with their own followings because you’re helping them communicate something that’s important to them and then you’re helping brands or the brands are going to help amplify the campaign because they too want to talk about the fact that they’re involved in something bigger than themselves. And so now you’ve sort of stolen or you’ve borrowed the followings of all these other people, giving them an opportunity to be a part of something greater.
00:22:11:20 – 00:22:18:01
And now the campaign can spread. And so those are kind of the layers of engagement that I try to think about as I build out something like that.
00:22:18:27 – 00:22:39:27
I mean, it’s it’s pretty genius that you actually have a team of people marketing for you that I mean, obviously you did a lot of work to get to that point. But to be able to have other people spreading the word for you, it’s like you have these like evangelists who are helping you and and not only helping you, but helping what the important work that you’re doing is really cool.
00:22:40:09 – 00:23:12:00
But I think it was born out of necessity, right? Because what happens today when you put something out on the internet, you’ll launch something and it’ll be cool for twenty four hours and nobody will ever look at it again. Yeah, yeah, right. Like, that’s just the way it works, OK? And if it was as if press picked it up, if I if I got on CNN or BBC or something, it would still be hot news for about three days and then it would just fade once again. And so I think there’s something to be said about being able to create something that can continuously refresh itself.
00:23:12:02 – 00:23:47:25
So that is it is consistently current with the times. I think the work that I’m doing in social work, so I do I do a lot of campaigns around social issues. So one like this one’s around plastics as a as an issue like the plastics issue isn’t going away, like in 10 years, we’re still going to have the problem. So the work essentially is timeless. And so what I what I’m doing, even though I’m not able to keep up with the young kids these days and posting stuff like 15 times a day, I think I can own the SEO game because now when you type plastic artists or plastic photographer or environmental artists on Google, I am going to be in the top three pages.
00:23:48:02 – 00:24:20:12
Yeah, yeah. And I’m going to stay there for the next conceivable amount of time, so long as I can continuously make sure that my work stays relevant and I continuously innovate and create things that are conversation worthy. So I think it’s just a different strategy. The flashiest people on social media these days are all kind of pushing for this high frequency content creation strategy, and it makes sense because that’s what the platforms are incentivizing. But I just don’t work that way. It’s doesn’t interest me. And so I’ve had to adapt and find different ways in order to survive.
00:24:20:14 – 00:24:29:25
And so if I can’t create content every day, how can I give the people who are creating content every day something to share that I can benefit from and kind of work it out that way?
00:24:30:00 – 00:24:57:23
So smart, so smart. When you were just talking about, like, you know, influencers who are all over, you know, that whole the way that they have to be on social media, I just makes me like, like makes me so uncomfortable. So I love that you are able to be successful in this way without having to constantly be all over social media. It’s so smart. And so one of the questions I had for you was how like, how did the Canadian embassy? OK, wait, let me make sure I got the right. I say the right Canadian Embassy,
00:24:58:07 – 00:24:59:12
Canadian Embassy in Paris.
00:24:59:16 – 00:25:07:06
OK, yeah. So they contacted you. How? How did they find you? Is this because of your SEO? Like, how did they decide like we want Ben?
00:25:07:23 – 00:25:35:19
So I did a project with the Canadian Embassy at the Canadian Embassy in Singapore, but they discovered me through my CEO. So Canada, the country has a cultural export program where they like to find artists that are tackling issues that Canada as a country wants to promote. So that is environmental issues, indigenous rights issues, LGBTQI issues among a couple of others. And so I was discovered basically through my SEO. Yeah. OK.
00:25:36:03 – 00:26:03:10
Awesome. All right. This is good. Now I know what the work that you do is incredibly important and you’re an artist and you know all of these things. How do you with all of these important things like making money, doing this, I guess, because I’m sure there are people listening who want to be doing these great projects and, you know, whether it’s for social causes or personal reasons or whatever that that is, but are thinking, Well, how do I monetize this? Like, how do I pay my bills?
00:26:03:13 – 00:26:39:13
Yeah, I mean, maybe the first place to start is to recognize that nobody hires you to do something you’ve never done before. Like, people need to see what you’re able to do so that they can hire you to do that about the same thing, but slightly differently, right? Even the most innovative advertising agencies are the most avant garde non-profits. Generally speaking, nobody likes to take risks. The bigger the organization, the more money they have behind them, the less risks they want to take. And so what can you do to prove that you can do whatever it is you want to do with zero resources and and bring that to life? So that, I think, is the first thing to start first place to start.
00:26:39:29 – 00:27:07:06
How you make money doing it? I mean, there is like the poetic answer where you say, What is it, Alan Watts, who says, like what if money was no object like? The only way to become great at something is to do something because you would love it and want to do it, and then you become great at it. And what’s your what’s your great at it? And nobody else can do it and you can get paid for it. So like, sure, that’s great in concept in practice, a little bit a little bit harder. And so maybe I’ll just give like how I make money.
00:27:07:09 – 00:27:08:28
If you’re OK sharing that, yeah,
00:27:09:05 – 00:27:44:23
yeah, yeah. So I make money through commission projects, right? So I can’t say that unless they’re like an A-list client like Adele or. Something with high licensing rates. It’s not a very profitable thing because I’m basically taking all the money that I have and I’m doing more than I need to because I care about the outcomes of what I create more than like, I want the client to be happy. And yes, that’s fine. But the client’s bar is usually significantly lower than mine. And so I’m going to take all the extra resources I have to make sure that it can reach as many people like this entire online component of the the campaign with the giant faucet is entirely self-funded.
00:27:45:09 – 00:28:20:08
There’s like, that’s not parties outside of the scope of my brief, but it’s putting like two or three times the amount of workload on that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And that’s something that’s important to me, right? So but I do make money there. There’s a long tail effect to the work that I create because it has a high SEO value, which means that any time a magazine, a trade publication, a museum, a library, a book is trying to talk about these issues and looking for interesting ways to communicate it. I get licensing rights from those over time. I have received commercial requests in the past where companies will come in license images.
00:28:20:10 – 00:28:54:21
That’s also great. I tend to make quite a little bit of revenue pre-COVID, especially from speaking engagements. Because once again, I lead a nontraditional life and it works very well in more corporate circles, and I’m able to break down a little bit of the work that I do into marketing lessons that are actually very practical for people. So that’s another avenue of income and ability to travel. And then the final way that I would make money is through consulting. So people come and they’re like, Hey, we want this used to happen all the time, so people would come in the like, we love what you do.
00:28:55:02 – 00:29:30:04
You know, this is what we do. Do you have any ideas? And then I would go through this process of giving them all these ideas for free cause you are trying to like, catch them and and then it would fall through for whatever reason. And you’re like, Man, I just wasted all this time for nothing. So that is what you don’t want to do is give ideas up for free, what what you do instead, when someone says, I love your work, what do you think? I’m like, I’m sure we could figure something out together. I’ve met clients that are in your exact situation and this is how I’ve helped them in the past. The first step is to go through like a design process together so that we can better understand what it is you’re looking for and what kind of solution I might be able to help you find.
00:29:30:06 – 00:29:52:08
And I may not even be the right person for it, but I can help you get there and come up with an idea that will really, really work for you. And so I do this consulting thing on the site, which is essentially an invisible part of my business, because those projects either see the light of day and are not attributed to me, or they don’t move forward because after they actually took the time to properly think about it, that actually this is this is way too complicated. This is not what we’re actually looking for.
00:29:52:20 – 00:30:32:00
Right, right. It’s so interesting to hear you say that because even though what you’re doing is it’s different than just portraits, it’s all the same. You had to build your portfolio. You don’t just get hired by Nike because you’ve never done anything before like you. You had to build that portfolio and show the work. I mean, so that’s number one. And then I love to that. There are lots of different ways that you have income coming in, and I think that’s really great. I think it’s really smart to have different income sources. And overall, you know, it just if something happens like COVID, for example, OK, maybe the speaking engagements might have stopped, but you’ve got other things going on with licensing agreements and all that.
00:30:32:09 – 00:30:38:29
I really love that. Like, we have to be able to shift and make turns all the time. And yeah, I love that you do that.
00:30:39:06 – 00:30:42:16
It’s great. Yeah, I mean, you also don’t have a choice, right? So, yeah,
00:30:42:26 – 00:30:43:20
00:30:43:27 – 00:30:55:16
totally. Probably the best thing to become comfortable with as an entrepreneur is just comfortable with change and to figure out like, how how are you going to adapt? Because the only guarantee is that things are going to change?
00:30:55:27 – 00:31:22:00
Yeah, yeah. Another thing you said, too, is how you do kind of like the consultations with the people who are interested in what you do. And I mean, that’s huge. You even if it is a portrait shoot for someone or high school senior photos or whatever, you have to make sure that you are going to provide the service that they are actually looking for. Otherwise, no one’s going to be happy in the end. So it’s crazy how all the different moving parts are very similar. You’re just applying it to a different type of art and client. And
00:31:23:15 – 00:31:45:02
yeah, it’s really, really cool. So when you gave your kind of like about you, you know what you do, you said it kind of quickly. You said there was fast fashion plastics and tell me I can’t waste. Yes. OK, iconic list. The project I was when I was looking to your Instagram was kind of interested in the really the tall closet one about fast fashion. Will you talk? Talk a little bit about that?
00:31:45:18 – 00:32:16:25
Yeah, that was just a fun project that came together. So I was I’d come to the conclusion that doing large epic photography alone was not going to be financially sustainable because why spend so much money for something that will only be relevant for 24 hours? You know, maybe 20 years ago when you were creating these like big campaigns and you could put billboards around and it could really like last keep and hold people’s attention for a long time. There was a place for such a complex.
00:32:17:00 – 00:33:04:01
Photography, but these days, I think it’s more about what’s new or what’s fresh or what’s quicker. And it’s just keep that content. We are kind of moving. And so I was like, OK, I really need to start thinking about how I can get into the installation space. And so I was invited to do a talk in Egypt with the Nexus community, which is a group of young philanthropists that are looking for ways to put their money to good use. And I was chatting with my friend as well as the organizer, and we were trying to think of, Well, how could we make this trip to Egypt be more than just a speaking engagement? Would it be interesting for them to sponsor or support a campaign and they’re like, OK, well, what do you want to do? And so we came up with this idea of making the world’s tallest closet, which would fit one lifetime of clothing.
00:33:04:03 – 00:33:51:03
So this is like a 10 story tall, big. Well, it’s really just a rectangle with two doors, but we just organize like all these clothes, all these clothes that we were able to collect inside of this one structure to represent how many clothes we use in a lifetime. And we organize the clothes from like long dresses all the way down to like short little baby clothes all the way to the top end. And that was just a project that we put together to to to ignite a conversation around around that topic. All right, once again, as a as a curiosity prompt there of saying, Hey, have you ever thought about all the clothes that you’ve worn in one lifetime? You know, if each and each cotton T-shirt uses up twenty five hundred liters of water? What about your entire closet? Do you really need this extra shirt? Do you need to buy new clothes in which to wear it once? Like this is a problem.
00:33:51:09 – 00:34:00:06
So, but but without even saying it in that many words, right? You just say this is how much clothing you wear and a lifetime you come to your own conclusion?
00:34:00:18 – 00:34:51:03
Yeah. And those are things that I have never heard that before about using utilizing water for cotton. And it’s just not something that I have ever registered. I just buy my clothes. And and then that’s not to say I don’t buy, you know, there are specific companies that I prefer because of certain practices, whatever. But there, I think, you know, most people just buy their clothes because they like them. And I love that it’s it’s so thought provoking and educational around it. Do you OK? This is kind of like, I don’t know, probably a tricky question, but do you feel like it truly is making an impact with what you’re doing? Like is, do you have like people telling you that they’ve changed the way that they either purchase clothes or use plastic? You know, how have you found, I guess, that it’s made an impact?
00:34:52:03 – 00:35:31:10
Yeah, so I have anecdotal stories or people come up and they’ll say that their behavior is change or that they implemented a new policy in their company as a result of it. I’ll obviously see the work getting used and reused. You know, so like when the work goes from being on my website to now being on a stamp and then being inside of a book to then being in a museum, you kind of go like, I guess it’s it’s clearly having some kind of an impact somewhere. And then you get students that are like doing their school projects and then they’re reaching out to me and they’re like, Hey, can I interview you for my school project? Like, OK, well, I guess we’re sharing this work like it’s it’s getting around, but like.
00:35:32:09 – 00:36:03:07
I think we we think about change in the wrong way, we think about change is like a binary like change or not change like ice or water. But the truth is people are kind of on a spectrum, right? So if you go from like negative twenty five degrees to Celsius, zero being when ice turns to water. So if you’re out negative twenty five Celsius and you go down to like negative 20, like, that’s progress that’s changed. But it’s not visible change. And I think that’s what these projects are.
00:36:03:09 – 00:36:39:21
For me, they’re an opportunity to remind people who already care about it. They’re an opportunity to help people who already care that want to talk about it in a different way. That’s cool. Be able to talk about it. It’s an opportunity to bring new people into the conversation that may have never heard about. It is an opportunity to give people more resilience who already believe in it. And how do you measure that? How do you know? Like, I don’t know. And it’s actually something that deeply bothers me because I have all these KPIs, right? Like I have the I’ve done hundreds of articles that have been published in and I have like the hundreds of thousands or millions of likes and I have the awards and all these things.
00:36:39:23 – 00:37:14:10
But like those have nothing to do with the actual outcomes right of the projects. But I don’t know if you can, even outside of the art world, if you can truly claim attribution for any kind of change, right? Societal level change is a result of like massive collaboration between a whole bunch of different parties. And yes, we tell ourselves stories of these individual heroes that come up and change the world. But it’s actually like a collective sustained effort where where people work towards something that they believe in over really, really long periods of time, that that’s the only way true sustained change ever happens.
00:37:14:12 – 00:37:46:21
And so maybe it’s just the wrong question to be asking, and the right question to be asking is like, OK, I know, I know that. Like, how can I design what I do best to reach more people and to connect deeper into the communities? Mm hmm. Because art alone can’t create change, but art in conjunction with communities, policymakers, NGOs, grassroots organizations, that’s when you can start feeling a little bit more. Because awareness alone doesn’t lead to action, you need to know what to do. And so helping to close those gaps, I think, is really critical.
00:37:47:11 – 00:38:21:15
Wow. Yeah. I mean, clearly, I would like to believe and again, like you said, it is a spectrum, but I would like to believe that, yeah, you are bringing change and and to bring it back to the impact that we can make in a business just as a portrait photographer. When I think about if someone left my studio feeling really great, feeling beautiful, feeling, you know, just having an experience like, for example, I had a client who said that weekend after her, her photo shoot, it was like a Wednesday or something.
00:38:21:17 – 00:38:46:27
That weekend she went out and bought a bike because she just felt like she’d been lifted out of a fog. And so she started biking. And, you know, little things like that, I’m like, OK, I feel like I did something great, even though I’m just a portrait photographer. Like, I made a difference in this woman’s life. And like you said, it’s a spectrum. But if we can bring it back to what we’re doing and how we’re going to provide service and yeah, we might not necessarily be changing the world on a grand scale. But there’s always a way that we can impact someone in a positive way.
00:38:47:04 – 00:39:27:06
Yeah. And you know, all change is important, right? Like how you show up, like there’s if you’re only showing up to the world and you’re not showing up to your family and the little things that matter, then are you really doing your part, right? So I don’t think there’s any kind of light of judgment that you want to cast upon anyone that they’re not doing enough. But I do think like as long as we are always continuously trying to do better and to be better and to when we notice opportunities to lift others up that need to be lifted and we have the opportunity to live up to the values that we we believe in and that we preach about, right, like practice what you preach.
00:39:27:08 – 00:39:35:08
And then I think that continuous progress towards being better not just for yourself, but for others around you is the right mindset to have.
00:39:35:24 – 00:39:58:26
Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you for everything you just said. I mean, you’re clearly someone who is just very intelligent, very passionate, and you care a lot about a lot of things. And it’s really I’m just really grateful to have, you know, learn about what you do and and to have been introduced to you because it’s you’ve definitely got me thinking a lot for sure.
00:39:58:28 – 00:40:04:05
So thank you so much for having me and thanks for everyone for listening to my rambles.
00:40:05:23 – 00:40:25:25
You guys are curious about the latest campaign. You can head over to turn off the plastic tap .com to just see how the entire campaign is put together. See how the different elements are participate in it if you want to or just watch the videos on how it came together. There’s like ten thousand dollars of prizes to win, and all you need to do is watch the content or share it. And then that would be great.
00:40:26:06 – 00:40:41:06
Yeah, awesome. Awesome. OK, so real quick, though, before I ask about your Instagram and all that. I always do four questions at the end of each episode, and I’m wondering if you’ll answer those for us. And the first question is what is something you can’t live without when you’re doing a photo shoot?
00:40:41:27 – 00:41:08:17
The one thing that I always have in every photo show I do is people, and it’s not actually like not necessary to the subject, but like people around me. There is an entire team of invisible people that that I build along the way that help make these projects happen, whether they’re just assistants that are helping in the background or producers or scouts or anything like that. Like, there’s just there’s always people. And so I don’t create anything that I do alone. I always need help to do it.
00:41:09:08 – 00:41:15:26
Yeah, I love that. OK, the number two, how do you spend your time when you’re not working answering emails?
00:41:15:28 – 00:41:17:00
Well, wait that’s still working
00:41:18:21 – 00:41:19:12
That doesn’t count
00:41:20:22 – 00:41:44:20
as a hard one. It’s a hard one because my work and my life are actually so intertwined that, like my being, is actually my working. Like, I love meeting new people and talking to them, but that could be networking or it could just be hanging out. I love traveling, so I guess traveling and meeting people is what I like to do and probably would be doing if work wasn’t a piece of the puzzle, right?
00:41:44:22 – 00:41:49:22
Okay, cool. Very cool. OK, number three is what is your favorite inspirational quote?
00:41:50:20 – 00:42:23:00
I started. So I mean, as I’m segueing a little bit like I started writing every single day for the last 20 days, and I’m curious to know how long I can keep it up. But it was specifically this idea that I would be listening to podcasts and hearing things that I would find interesting and then never recording them down anywhere. And so I started this thing on Medium. It’s called Von Wong Daily, and I write daily thoughts. So like today’s thought was about how in order to make bread, you need water, flour, salt and yeast. But just because you put the right ingredients together doesn’t mean you have bread.
00:42:23:02 – 00:42:56:05
You need a fifth ingredient that is time like it doesn’t matter what you do, you still you can’t. You can’t poke it. You can’t, like, screw around with it because then you’re going to ruin it. And so I think we often wonder why things take so long when we have all the right ingredients in place, like why are people not discovering us? And sometimes it’s just because you need time, like time is actually an ingredient. And so that would be an example of a thought that I would have written down today. And so it’s not really a quote because I don’t think a favorite quote really exists for me. But I do like to collect quotes and ideas, and I’ve recently decided to start learning, learning, practicing, writing in public.
00:42:56:07 – 00:43:00:22
And so that’s just, yeah, Medium.com Slash von Wong daily.
00:43:00:29 – 00:43:09:23
Yeah, fantastic. Well, check it out. OK, in the last question is what would you say to people who are just starting out? Like, what’s your best advice for people?
00:43:10:10 – 00:43:31:03
I think it’s important to think about what you enjoy doing and not about what the tool is. So don’t think about it. Don’t say I want to be a photographer. Think about what about photography? Do you enjoy and make sure not to lose sight of that as you build your photography business? Because I think that’s something that people do very often.
00:43:31:12 – 00:43:38:28
Yeah. Perfect. Great advice. Awesome. And then tell us again just your Instagram. Handle your website just where people can find you.
00:43:39:09 – 00:43:53:23
Yeah, you can. Just Google Von Wong and you’ll find me on all the platforms Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, whatever. I don’t post very often. I’m fairly inconsistent. And so um, but when I do post, it’s usually something interesting.
00:43:54:01 – 00:44:01:00
Yeah. Cool. Awesome. Well, thank you again, Ben. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this with us, and I will see you online.
00:44:01:06 – 00:44:03:14
Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time and having me.
Thank you so much for listening to the Portrait System Podcast. Your five-star reviews really help us to continue what we do. So, if you like listening, would you mind giving us a review wherever you listen? I also encourage you to head over to SueBryceEducation.com, where you can find all of the education you need to be a successful photographer. There are over 1,000 on-demand educational videos on things like posing, lighting, styling, retouching, shooting, marketing, sales, business, and self-value.
There’s also the 90 Day Startup Challenge, plus so many downloads showing hundreds of different poses. We have to-do checklists for your business, lighting PDFs, I mean truly everything to help make you a better photographer and to make you more money. Once again, that’s SueBryceEducation.com.