actorartathleteauthorbizcrimecrosspostcustomerservicedirectoredufoodgaminghealthjournalistmedicalmilmodpostmunimusicnewsworthynonprofitotherphilpolretailscispecialisedspecializedtechtourismtravelunique

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.

Proof: Twitter, Facebook
My site: http://vonwong.com

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!

Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

Hey Benjamin,

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?

A:

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


Q:

Some guy in the original thread said that she was a some sort of well known free-diver. was this true?

A:

https://www.facebook.com/ambernerissabourke/?fref=ts

Amber Bourke is a multiple Australian freediving record holder. Ranked world #3 in 2013 and 2014 (DNF).

Does that count?


Q:

Human flesh is basically like sweet pork. So yes, your friends do, in fact, taste delicious.

A:

Is that a fact? fascinating


Q:

How long did you guys have to wait for the sharks? Once the sharks swam by, how long did you have to shoot?

A:

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 !


Q:

I saw this picture when it came out, and i just thought, what a good photoshop work, but knowing now that it was a real photo... Wow, how cool! Ama eh? Well here's some questions!

Was the water cold? Did you have to feed the sharks first? Was it hard to get no air bubbles in the picture? How long did it take you to shoot?

A:

The water wasn't too cold, I don't know the exact temperature but it did get cold over time. It was particularly bad for Amber as she would be shivering so badly after every iteration.

For the sharks, we had a small cage with dead fish in it. The marine biologist would take fish out and rub it over a rock so that the water would "smell" like food to try and attract the sharks.

We didn't really feed them because if they get full they leave!

The shoot took about 3 days of shooting + 2 days of scouting and prep (testing to see if the sharks were scared of the dress)

Amber is a world class freediver and was quite good at making sure bubbles only happened intermittently. :)


Q:

I heard she is a top 10 freediver, is this true?

Source: heard about it from a top 100 freediver.

A:

https://www.facebook.com/ambernerissabourke

Amber Bourke is a multiple Australian freediving record holder. Ranked world #3 in 2013 and 2014 (DNF).


Q:

Hey Benjamin,

I am a huge fan of your work! Can you talk about how you approach the start of a project? I would love to hear more about how you take a project from a creative concept to actually shooting.

A:

Hey hey! I spend a ton of time just casting out a wide net... talking to as many people as possible.

I always try to start off a project with a single sentence. If the project can be summarized in a single internet headline then it's probably a good one.

Doesn't mean it's going to happen but it'll at least be worth a try.

I think that with my engineering background, I'm pretty good at problem solving so more than anything I try to get all the ingredients in place first and foremost... then I can cook up something awesome from there!


Q:

What sort of engineering is your background?

A:

Ironically, I used to be a mining engineer.


Q:
  1. What's a "normal" day like for you?

  2. What's the scariest situation you've been in to get a shot?

  3. How do you get your hair so awesome

A:
  1. 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.

  2. great question. Um. Probably this one: http://www.vonwong.com/blog/reallifesuperheroes/

  3. Actually I made a video on that --> hahaa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QCppFrJLA8


Q:

Hey man, as an amateur photographer I really enjoy watching the behind the scenes videos and reading your blog posts. Thanks for taking the time to also publish that sort of stuff.

great question. Um. Probably this one: http://www.vonwong.com/blog/reallifesuperheroes/

I've noticed some sort of markup code shows up on that page, you might want to get that fixed:

[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#ffffff” text=”#1c1c1c” width=”80%” height=”200px” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”When do you actually get to see the everyday person get to be a superhero? It’s a reminder that all of us, you and I, have it within ourselves to be whoever we want to be. ” cite=”-  Benjamin Von Wong” parallax=”on” direction=”left”] 
A:

Oh crap. thanks.


Q:

I'm just really curious how many of those red thongs with your name on them have sold???

A:

A grand total of zero unfortunately, haha. I bought one for fun though :P


Q:

This is not how you market things. The correct answer is "Lots! You should buy one quick before we run out!"

A:

The merch store was never about making money - just offering people a way to rock my name places :)


Q:

how long can the model hold her breath for? did she ever panic?

A:

She has a 5 minute + static breath hold.

She never panicked. She's a world class professional!

--> https://www.facebook.com/ambernerissabourke/?fref=ts


Q:

Hey Benjamin, first of all i would like to congratulate you on using your work for a good cause! My question is, you are using your photography for awareness to sea life decay. How do you think your work could affect the awareness of this? Do you think it wil make a big diference (if yes, how big of an impact do you think it wil make?)

Also greetings from Belgium ;) hope you wil be here in the near future.

A:

So, the general hope is to help encourage people that are doing great work. Right now, there is a battle in Malaysia to create a shark sancturay and the minister there needs as much help as he can get.

Dollars speak, especially in a country where tourism is so important - so my idea behind this project is to use pretty photos to attract attention to transform them into signatures that can be leveraged politically in a real world situation.

https://www.change.org/p/support-malaysian-shark-sanctuaries

I'm not sure if I'm just being sentimental here but that's the hope.


Q:

I became aware of the issue of shark fin harvesting not too long ago, but watching this Documentary Gordon Ramsey made really opened my eyes to the utter brutality of it. They hack off the fins with the sharks still alive. The meat is of no use so in some areas they just toss them back in the ocean possibly still alive.

So brutal, so senseless for a dish that could literally contain rice noodles and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference.

I think this is a very noble cause, thank you for doing this. For what it is worth I did sign your petition. I was not aware of your work before, but know that you have gained at least one fan.

A:

Thank you man!


Q:

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.

A:

It wasn't the intent but I love it!

We shot it around Barefoot Kuata


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

When you say "dragged a model down" it sounds pretty sensational, like you did it against her will. I was slightly worried.

Great beautiful work though!

Do you plan on shooting more environmentally conscious projects do raise awareness or is this a one off?

A:

We dragged her through the water because she couldn't swim with the dress on.

I hope to do more environmentally conscious projects in the future - working on building more contacts in that field along with social entrepreneurs.


Q:

Have you seen comedian Anthony Jeselnik's Shark Party? What's your opinion on it?

A:

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


Q:

Hello mister van Wong, I want to say, you do such nice projects. My wife was shocked when she look at the video. I just thinking, besides waiting moment, everything is moving around you. How can you be that focus? Did you ever thought about combining your experience with biomimicre project. What you are doing is attached to that also. Really love your work, if you ever have projects in the Netherlands. Jeffrey www.urbanphotorace.com

A:

What is bio mimicre? It sounds fascinating I would love to learn more.

I think that as far as focus goes, I have the tendency to know exactly what I hope to get... or at least, I know what I don't want so I just think about how many people's time I'm wasting if I fail, and how disappointed people will be if I don't succeed and use that to help me stay focused.

Slightly negative but... very asian XD


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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~


Q:

A pencil that works underwater? That's high tech!

A:

regular pencils work underwater :|


Q:

Hey Benjamin. How did you first start out making money on photography, and at what level were you on? How much gear did you have?

/a photographer nervous about taking the next step

A:

I began in event photography. I really really sucked. Here's my first deviant art account: iintrigue.deviantart.com

I started off with a Pentax K100D, and swiftly moved on to a Nikon D300 once I realized that I could earn money with photography.

I think the right time to buy gear is when it is the only thing holding you back .


Q:

Hey Benjamin!

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.

Question:

What's your favorite photoshoot by far? And why?

A:

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.


Q:

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.

A:

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.


Q:

Your work is absolutely inspiring and amazing. It is an incredible delight to explore your website and see what you have done. Personally I have been in a creative slump and I am terribly grateful to have found you and your work recently through the shark post. I particularly love the bird costume photos, they are right out of fantasy.

I work in a variety of media but lately I have been doing miniature glass sculptural work. Have you ever considered photographing glass artists or glass works? The glow of the molten glass is mesmerizing and I've often thought that it would be a great subject for photography. Working with molten glass is like painting a 3D sculpture out of light and it seems to me that the sculpting of light is similar to what you do. If you come to Vancouver, I would love to work with you.

A:

I would love to work with a glass artist, especially one that created large human scale works. Right now my focus is on conservation an advocacy so if we think of a project that can be simultaneously beautiful and impactful I would love to embark on that adventure.

Hit me up -> ben [at] vonwong.com


Q:

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.

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

What was the budget for the whole shoot?

A:

I paid 1000$ for the videographer's plane ticket from New Zealand. That's about it. Amber flew herself in and the Barefoot Islands sponsored our dives, food and lodging because it was for a good cause. Nauticam provided me with an underwater housing (I didn't have one) and my flights were already paid for thanks to the workshop I was doing.


Q:

What was your favorite location to shoot at, so far?

A:

This Beauty And the Beast looking library in Austria was probably one of the most epic --> http://www.vonwong.com/blog/stiftadmont/


Q:

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?

A:

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)


Q:

where do you plan to travel to in 2016?

A:

I'm hoping for Bhutan, New Zealand, Nunavut and I'll also be hitting up Germany (not sure what I'm doing there yet)


Q:

Was the guy who posted about it on Reddit really your "friend"?

A:

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


Q:

Hi Benjamin,

As for a start I just want to say: HOLY BUTTSNACKS! Those photographs were insanely beautiful.

And for my question: Since you always have a cool project going on , what will be your next goal/vision? And do you have any dream project that you would do in the future?

A:

haha buttsnacks XD Thanks!!

My next project in Feb is to go to New Zealand and help create a project that might raise awareness/funds for the Kauri Dieback Disease, a majestic tree. I don't have a tree yet, so I'm not sure if it'll happen but the flights are booked.

From there I go to Bhutan to create a project to promote cultural conservation. Where better than a country that legalized internet and television in 1997!

From there, I might go to Hawaii for a commercial job and hopefully build in a conservation element there... but then it's a project in Nunavut to speak out against Arctic Drilling.

From there it's a big question mark but I was really hoping to squeeze in a refugee project in Germany. Just not sure how to approach that one yet... but it's on the roadmap.


Q:

Hi Benjamin, how long did the underwater portion of the shoot take?

A:

I think over the course of five days we probably spent 12 hours underwater?


Q:

Why did you feel the need to alter the model so much in this photo? Not slim enough?

IMO, you should've stuck with only lighting-modifications. Now the model looks wonky.)

A:

I felt like she looked like she was falling over in the original. I didn't make her skinnier, I just "straightened her body" so it didn't look like she was falling over to camera right.


Q:

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.

A:

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!


Q:

Why do photographers constantly feel the need to use over-the-top language to describe everything?

A:

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?


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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!


Q:

Hi! My question is: What would be your dream shoot? Anything that you would stare into the air and mutter "one day..."

A:

I've been trying to get access to space but so far no luck :(

I'd love an intro to Richard Branson though