ArtI am the guy who dragged a model into the ocean and tied her up with sharks for conservation. Photographer VonWong, AMA
Jan 23rd 2016 by vonwong • 44 Questions • 2760 Points
Hey Reddit! Benjamin Von Wong here, glad to finally be back here for another ama. Last week I dragged a model into the shark ridden sea in hopes of drawing attention towards the need for a shark sanctuary in Malaysia. The response from reddit has been pretty huge, so I wanted to answer any questions you might have about me and or life and the universe in general.
Edit: Alright guys, it's been super fun answering all your questions! Thank you so much for your time, it was an honor to participate in this AMA! Don't forget to consider signing the petition. Sharks need to be protected. Together we can make a difference!
Why tie her down instead of slipping her feet through a ring that is then tied down? My understanding is that the latter is standard for breath-holding competitions and similar and would be safer. Did she have a knife?
Her leg was in a slipknot that was tied to about 10kg of lead - that way we could move the lead wherever we needed to.
She didn't have a knife but could have escaped easily if it ever became necessary.
I'm just going to address the question most everyone is going to want to know:
How the hell did you get that model to do that photoshoot with the sharks in the first place?
Also, have you had other ideas of similar nature?
She understood that White-Tipped reef sharks aren't dangerous - basically like swimming with large fish.
There are 440 different known species of sharks... almost all of which aren't dangerous for humans. Knowledge is one of the best weapons against fear!
This was my first attempt shooting large fish, though I have wanted to do something with Manta Rays. Not quite sure how to engineer that one just yet though. gears spinning
Some guy in the original thread said that she was a some sort of well known free-diver. was this true?
Amber Bourke is a multiple Australian freediving record holder. Ranked world #3 in 2013 and 2014 (DNF).
Does that count?
Human flesh is basically like sweet pork. So yes, your friends do, in fact, taste delicious.
Is that a fact? fascinating
How long did you guys have to wait for the sharks? Once the sharks swam by, how long did you have to shoot?
It was really temperamental - some days the sharks were particularly friendly and would come swimming by within a couple minutes, others we would spend the entire dive waiting.
I think in percentage it was maybe 90% wait time, 10% shoot.
As for "how long" you have to shoot, well, the sharks basically swim into frame for a couple seconds and are gone. Sometimes they swim back in but most of the time they just stay out !
What's a "normal" day like for you?
What's the scariest situation you've been in to get a shot?
How do you get your hair so awesome
Wake up - check emails, check facebook, send messages, sneak in coffee, check facebook, check emails, send messages, sneak in lunch, check facebook, check emails, go to a meeting, have a skype call, sneak in dinner, check facebook, check emails...lol. It takes 10x more time and effort to prep and market a shoot than to actually shoot it.
great question. Um. Probably this one: http://www.vonwong.com/blog/reallifesuperheroes/
Actually I made a video on that --> hahaa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QCppFrJLA8
I'm just really curious how many of those red thongs with your name on them have sold???
A grand total of zero unfortunately, haha. I bought one for fun though :P
how long can the model hold her breath for? did she ever panic?
She has a 5 minute + static breath hold.
She never panicked. She's a world class professional!
I was very intrigued when I saw that picture and learned it was shot in Fiji. I don't know what part of Fiji you were in but in Navua there is a very famous legend that the ghost of a woman in a white dress can be seen some nights on the Navua River, a massive river that runs through the village. It's one of those eerie local ghost tales and I thought your picture, even though that wasn't the intent, did a pretty great job illustrating it.
It wasn't the intent but I love it!
We shot it around Barefoot Kuata
Hey Ben, first of all thanks for doing this AMA :)
This question is going to sound silly because I'm actually not quite sure how to put my thoughts into words, so...
I know that you manage to gather great teams for projects all over the world by using local talent, a lot of whom are fans standing in line to assist you (slight exaggeration ^^). But how did you manage to pull in teams before you got famous? How did you start out, how did you build your career?
And what would you say was the definitive moment when you became "THE von Wong", a photography household name?
I always find this to be an interesting question. I have 100k fans on facebook and 50k subs on youtube with 30k on instagram... In the greater scheme of things that's nothing.
As far as I'm concerned I'm still not a photography household name just yet and I'm constantly trying to improve my work and take it one step further.
Ansel Adams, Annie Liebowitz... those are household names. I'm just a 29 year old dude trying to do something cool and meaningful.
To answer your question though, it is the small successes that help build the larger ones. Start off with a talented friend( model, makeup artist, hair stylist) and keep growing that team, one step at a time.
Be sure to improve and never stop being self critical.
Have you seen comedian Anthony Jeselnik's Shark Party? What's your opinion on it?
LOL. no but i just watched it. I feel like it didn't convey the conservation message as strongly as it could have but I love the idea of using one's personal strengths to promote a good cause
Fiji is known to ecotourists around the world for its world-class shark dives
WTF. NOBODY TOLD ME THAT WHEN I WENT SNORKELLING AROUND THE ISLANDS THERE.
Seriously though, thank you for your creative approach to dispelling the nonsense about sharks. Here in Australia people are going fucking nuts about wanting to kill every shark they see and it disgusts me.
How do you see this campaign helping countries like Australia where the current culture is "KILL ALL SHARKS!!1!" understand that culling is not the solution? Do you have further plans for education? What can ordinary people like me do?
Well I hope that it shows a different side to them. I'm open to collaborating with different organizations that can leverage the images to spread a message.
As for the ordinary every day person - maybe reach out to see what other likeminded individuals like yourself are around and figure out how you can assist in their efforts?
At the end of the day, a lot of it is politics. It's frustrating and I wish I was born smarter to tackle the problem better but all I can do is take pretty pictures so I try to empower those who are smarter than me to make the real difference.
Hi ben, I would really want to know what tools you are using in order to coordinate all of the people before and most importantly- During the photoshoot?
Oh, if you're talking about the mechanics of the shoot itself well... there was nothing fancy. We'd be on the boat, the marine biologist would hop into the water to look for the sharks, wave at me when he found them. I'd find a place I wanted to shoot close to them, and then wave at the models to join us... and then off we went.
For underwater communication we used hand gestures and a little plastic pad that you could scribble on with a pencil!
Pretty low tech~
I didn't find you on Reddit, but somehow I stumbled across your Superheroes on a Skyscraper last year and decided to follow you for life ever since.
What's your favorite photoshoot by far? And why?
Whoa! My secret stalker <3 :)
My favourite photoshoot I think is this shark one - not because of the photos... but because they were not only fantastical but because they had purpose.
I read the title as "[...] for conversation". I thought it was a bit of an extreme length to go to in order to have something to talk about...
To that end: how do you go about raising awareness of this? It seems that, short of there being some context of the image, it isn't obvious what the image is about.
It is an experiment - I am continuously trying to explore avenues of communication. I definitely think that I failed in converting views into signatures (millions of views on these photos but only a couple thousand signatures) but it's a work in progress.
I am trying to figure out how to leverage my strengths (create fantastical imagery) into something useful and impactful. I hope that in a year it'll become a lot more obvious.
My wife is Chinese and I've told her many time about how Chinese don't care about the sharks. How do we get this message of protecting this creature to the Chinese, a group of people who hunt sharks solely for its fins? And have you ever had sharks fin soup? Btw. Your photos are awesome.
I think that there's a slow building of awareness. Yao Ming did a very succesful campaign against shark fining. While the older generation may be a little bit more apathetic towards the suffering of animals, the younger millennial definitely care about it.
Change comes in small steps.
I don't like fish, never have. I think I may have tried shark fin soup when I was younger but I could never even stand the smell.
It's hard to convince people to change. Just like it's hard to convince a meat eater to go vegetarian, it's hard to convince a long time shark fin eater that it's not OK.
So, sharks are charismatic megafauna. What do you do to advocate for endangered or other ecologically important organisms that can never capture the public interest?
That's a great question that I've been asking myself too. As a photographer, I'm definitely limited by the subjects I can capture... but as an artist, I think it's about finding strong metaphors and getting creative.
I'm not sure that I'll ever have enough power to change the world, but at least I can help nudge it in a positive direction.
Hey Ben! Happy to see you doing an AMA again :)
I really love your transition into photography for a cause. Do you normally approach organizations for sponsorship? Or do they reach out to you? From your experience, is it similar to being commissioned by a company/client?
I approach organization for collaborations. I don't really look at them as sponsorships as much as mutually beneficial opportunities.
I also have organizations that reach out to me and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't!
It's very different from being commissioned... there's always a discrepancy in power I feel when money gets involved.
This Beauty And the Beast looking library in Austria was probably one of the most epic --> http://www.vonwong.com/blog/stiftadmont/
Hey Ben! Let me first say, you're an absolute inspiration. I love all your work! How do you manage to continually amass such a talented group of people to work with? Also, how did you start achieving such a feat?
Hey mate! Thank you for the compliments!
I think that smaller successes build up the larger ones. It is easier to get higher quality people to trust you when you have a good track record.
I guess the best piece of advice I can give to you is: Start Small and be consistent.
I still struggle finding the right people for things, it's just that no one sees that part - they just see & remember the successes that result.
Don't be disappointed by failure, you need it to succeed. (At least that's what I pep talk myself into when sh*t hits the fan)
Was the guy who posted about it on Reddit really your "friend"?
So funny story here. He's a friend of the videographer... except the videographer didn't tell me that his friend was going to post it. There's a 8h time difference between the middle east (where he's from), so he didn't see the whole reddit explosion until the morning.
OP wasn't really lying, we just all got confused
Hi Benjamin, how long did the underwater portion of the shoot take?
I think over the course of five days we probably spent 12 hours underwater?
Why do you have to say you "dragged" and "tied up" a model for a shoot? I'm sure she is very aware, willing and a capable diver. Why don't you give us her name and support her as a terrific model/diver? Great photos, but your title is in very poor taste.
Never thought of it as negative but as factual.
She had to be dragged because she couldn't swim on her own with the big dress... and she had to be tied because it was easier than having her manage her buoyancy.
Open to suggestions for next time though!
Why do photographers constantly feel the need to use over-the-top language to describe everything?
Well I think that in general we're not that great at words so we may feel the need to overcompensate. (Probably why we take photos in the first place)
I definitely overuse the words Amazing and Epic... though I would be curious how you would describe my photography?
Hey Ben, So my question is something not regarding the fishies shoot. But rather something you did a while back and I've still been curious [and trying to explore]. But seriously, how do you find a talent agent who's willing to represent a photographer? It seems all agencies here don't rep photographers, or don't want to put their foot in the water to try. Any advice maybe?
So people are under the misconception that if you have no work and get an agent, you'll get her to get you work. It doesn't work that way.
Agent's want to work for people who have so many work requests coming in that they can't handle it themselves.
See, an agent wants to earn money off her artists... and so if you can't help them earn more you're of no value.
I sorta lucked out and found someone that saw the potential of what I could be before I really had commercial clients... but in a way she lucked out finding me, since I bring the entire social aspect that she never had.
It's always a balance. You need to be something that someone wants... and that they can't find anywhere else.
It sounds vague but I hope that helps.
Hi ben, big fan and i love that you frequently post on /r/photography
do you have any advice for a photographer that's trying to market themselves and build a brand?
Spend more time thinking about how and why your project might be interesting to others. It's fun taking something pretty but you also need to think about how it's going to be interesting for other people.
Buzzfeed and Bored Panda are great insights into "what makes something go viral"
I like to leverage the internet, but that's not for everyone.
It's such a blanket question... if you had more precise questions I can try to answer!