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    • When I was at SmugMug, we were swept away by Ben’s creativity, so our filmmaker traveled to Florida where Ben was doing a fantasy photo shoot to make a short:

      We couldn’t get enough of him so we flew him to California and commissioned amazing projects. How could this mining engineer who bought a cheap camera at the Winnemucca Nevada Walmart become one of the world’s great photographers in 5 years? It still blows my mind.

      How does a former mining engineer forgo the money he could be making on commercial shoots to devote himself to environmental awareness?

      He joins us on this panel, which is open to questions, so ask away.

      This photo is strawpocalypse, made from 168,000 used plastic straws. The story is unbelievable. Who does this?

    • Welcome @vonwong ! What a career transition you've been able to make. Do I have this right? Mining engineer in Nevada ==> photographer with a strong bent towards beauty ==> artist/storyteller who uses photography as just one aspect of storytelling?

      You first caught my attention when you made photos like this one on a shipwreck at something like 90 feet below the surface. I thought the challenges for a shot like that were overwhelming but somehow it came together. Can you tell us a little about how you did it before we get into the latest part of your career?

    • Interesting. I've never actually thought about it. I guess because of the work that I do, every day is Earth Day.

      Practically speaking though, I do see it as an opportunity for different websites and content aggregators to seek out interesting stories like mine to feature... so I don't think it's completely useless. It might not help in a tangible way, but it definitely doesn't hurt.

    • Ben, you have a unique artistic style making each photo look like an illustration rather than something that came out of the camera. Do you have any preferred sources of inspiration online that help you spark ideas for the next photoshoot?

    • haha yes. I guess the simple story is Mining Engineer -> Crazy Photography -> Artist/Activist

      Creating the photoshoot 90 feet underwater was mostly luck. I had just gotten my dive certification the day before and really wanted to use the opportunity while I was in Bali to create something cool.

      The project happened through a series of random events: Me posting on facebook asking if there were good spots to dive in Bali, which lead to Cassandra AnnDragon introducing me to Dive Master by the name of Chris Simanjuntak who said that he'd help take care of dive safety for the photoshoot, who's wife happened to be an underwater model with modeling contacts and connected us to dress designer Ali Charisma, with free divers/Models Camilla Argent and Nora Lestari flying themselves in to be a part of the project...

      The actual mechanics of the underwater photoshoot were handled by Chris. I would show him a photograph of a place I wanted to go and he'd lead us there, attach a weight or hooks to the shipwreck before tying down the free divers in position. I would gesticulate wildly trying to explain what I wanted the models to do, occasionally communicating via an underwater writing pad. Once we were all set, the models would remove their mask, air, and the divers would float off out of the shot so that I could try to capture the shot I had in my mind. From there we would recalibrate, rinse and repeat.

      Models would hold their breath for almost 4 minutes at a time!

    • Not particularly. I don't tend to consume much content.

      Most of my inspiration comes from the real world - networking and connecting with people and companies. Understanding what challenges they're going through, and figuring out if a creative solution can be found.

      I actually see myself as less of a creative and much more of a problem solver. I love breaking down seemingly large problems into smaller more digestible ones.

    • haha. Not really, no. At any given point in time I have over half a dozen ongoing conversations of "ifs" and "maybes", most of which are contingent of budgets or contracts getting signed.

      As my projects have gotten more expensive and complex, they have longer lead times and there's a lot less spontaneity to them.

      I guess what I can share was a recent discovery that I need to stop hoping that my projects have an impact on the world because of the awareness that they generate. I need to start planning impact within the framework of the project itself. What that means is that I need to start thinking smaller and more local for impact.

    • Following the biggest commercial campaign of my career with Huawei, I started questioning whether or not being a commercial photographer was my calling. It was cool to get paid and be creatively challenged, but the whole process just felt so empty. After all, if you really boiled it down - I was just helping to move phones off shelves.

      When I would think back to the projects that gave me the most joy, it was this video I made that helped raise 2 million dollars for Sanfilippo, the time I surprised a chronically ill fan for his 21st birthday, or this video I made for someone who was dying of cancer.

      Though I enjoyed the crazy projects (and actually miss them), what drives and motivates me is the idea that my work can have a positive impact.

    • I actually start by asking tons of questions to understand the constraints, partnerships and limitations.

      While most people think what I do is "creative", it's actually a lot closer to systemic problem solving.

      Here's one of the slides in the deck I generally send interested parties so that they can understand all the different moving components that have to be juggled in order for a campaign to be successful.

    • Hey!

      I think one of the biggest emotions I hope that people get from my environmental art is the sense that their individual decisions make a difference.

      In the case of Mermaids Hate Plastic, we used 10,000 plastic bottles which represent the average number of plastic bottles a single American might use over the course of their lifetime.

      That means that if we changed the hearts and minds of 0.01% of the 37 Million people who watched the video, that could theoretically represent roughly 37 Million less plastic bottles used.

    • When I would think back to the projects that gave me the most joy, it was this video I made that helped raise 2 million dollars for Sanfilippo, the time I surprised a chronically ill fan for his 21st birthday, or this video I made for someone who was dying of cancer.

      You actually beat me in volunteering for one of those. It took me two days to consider the call to volunteer, then I found out you had already replied within 10 minutes. ❤️

      My question is why, after those incredibly moving experiences, did you take on the big environmental projects instead of pursuing another human story?

    • There are tons of resources online that range from semi-inconvenient (like traveling with a reusable bottle or container) to full-blown inconvenience (leading a zero-waste lifestyle).

      To me, I think that so long as its a topic that stays top of mind and doesn't become accepted as the new normal, we still stand a fighting chance!

    • I'd love to do more human stories - but the problem is that human suffering is hard to conceptualize in a way that doesn't offend anyone.

      For example, if I - as a person who never suffered from food insecurity - tries to create a project around my perception of food insecurity - people get offended. Even if I do the research, and collaborate with a knowledgeable non-profit, it's really hard to defend. I tried, it didn't go so well.

      This doesn't mean that I'm not interested in tackling other human problems - I'm always open to any kind of storytelling challenge - It's just that the opportunities haven't presented itself yet!

    • The saying “a picture is worth 1,000 words” is very relevant here - more like 1,000,000 words. Do you feel the artistic possibilities afforded by photography create more impact than words or data charts alone?

    • I think that Art, or Photography, is simply another facet of expression. Data is powerful, words are powerful, images are also powerful. They're all simply different tools that are available to us to express ourselves, neither one is better or worst than the other.

      I think what's exciting is when different mediums are combined... like this piece I did that combines spoken word and an art installation:

    • ​​Now that you are a brand storyteller, I’d love to know how you would tell the story of a brand like Impossible Foods.

      The story is a renowned team of scientists were able to make a delicious plant-based burger, every bit as good as real burgers. They sell it on that + the idea that it’s better for the planet, making them the most important company in the world.​​

      You haven’t done any environmental stories involving animals that I’m aware of. If they hired you to tell the story, how would you approach it?

    • I think that the right approach would be to have an in depth conversation with the team over at Impossible foods to understand what their greatest challenge is and see if marketing and communications is the segment that they need help in.

      From there, it would be about lining up the more practical resources: space, time, duration, activation - and custom sculpting a narrative.

      So hypothetically - if Impossible foods was looking to market how much more environmentally friendly their burger is and had access to a large hallway space within SFO airport , I might recommend something along the lines of trying to bring to life the statistic on how it takes 2500 L of water to create one pound of beef vs X L of water to create one pound of impossible meat.

      The visual of that could be hundreds of bottles of water of different sizes, hanging from the ceiling, all pouring into a single hamburger... vs. a couple bottles of water pouring into an impossible burger.

      It's the kind of visual that will have people wondering from afar, and when it clicks can occupy the kind of emotional space within someone's heart that a pure statistic just doesn't quite achieve.

      Of course, if Impossible wanted to market based on taste it would have to be an entirely different experience.

    • The visual of that could be hundreds of bottles of water of different sizes, hanging from the ceiling, all pouring into a single hamburger... vs. a couple bottles of water pouring into an impossible burger.

      Oh my God that's amazing. Someone should hook you up with Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible. You want to Google him because he is extraordinary.

      So it feels to me like teens are having trouble telling the story of their fear of climate change to olds like, you know, people approaching 30. Their protests are getting noticed. How would you advise them to tell a compelling story that would help them with old people? You have taken a few amazing photos of climate change that tell the story of us ignoring the coming storms.

    • It's a small world I'm sure it'll happen. I tend to wait until the stars align rather than to be pushy and sell hard! At the end of the day, the projects that are the most successful are the ones that are collaborative, not uni-directional.

      With regards to the next generation, I think that kids might need to start getting more granular and less idealistic. Although it may not look like it, there are tons of very smart concerned people working towards changing the system but those changes take time.

      At some point, it's less about telling people about what's wrong and more about proposing an alternative or a better solution.


      As for those focused purely on telling better stories, I would recommend focusing on small localized impact. The small successes help open up the door to bigger success. If you can convince one building to switch to solar, you can convince ten. If you can convince ten, you can now convince hundreds.

      Tell a globally relevant story but highlight the small localized impact you're able to have. It's what I'm trying to work towards on my latest pieces!

    • I think that the universe is always trying to pigeonhole artists within their most successful projects. In my case, because my ocean plastics stuff has been so popular, I've been getting more and more requests to tackle that. I often have to go out of my way to explain to people that I can do more than just represent one single topic!