Photo: Von Wong

The viral photographer abandoned commercial success to focus on social impact, but he's still not sure he's making a difference

Benjamin Von Wong had just scored a benchmark success, his first global campaign for Chinese telecomm giant Huawei. It was 2015 and the Canadian photographer had been tasked with shooting an epic fire photo using the company’s P8 cellphone. His final image—a dramatically lit model standing before sculpted columns with angel wings of flame—was plastered on billboards and banners. In the foreground of the advertisements, a smiling Von Wong held the phone out in one hand, as if to say, “Look what you can do.”

But Von Wong wasn’t particularly happy. He was making money, but felt purposeless, his creativity used to push mobile phones to the masses. Maybe, he thought, he should quit photography altogether.

Instead, the now 30-year-old artist known for surreal, viral images made a deal with himself: He wouldn’t take any paid work that didn’t have some sort of greater social impact.

“I gave myself a one year deadline,” Von Wong recalls, “but that didn’t work. It’s finally started to work out, but it’s been a long, painful journey.”

Photographer Ben Von Wong behind the scenes of a shoot on air pollution. Von Wong

When we think about social impact photography, it’s usually in the form of photojournalism: depictions of the Vietnam War that brought its horrors home to the United States; images of rotting bird carcasses on Midway Atoll, their bellies too full of plastic to fly; the shot of a Syrian toddler washed up on a Greek shore that yanked the refugee crisis into stark, soul-crushing relief.

Von Wong takes a different approach. Using a background in engineering and a team of assistants, he crafts art photographs that tell stories of climate change, pollution and animal rights through inventive scenes and fantastical visuals. In one shot, a free diver models a flowing white gown more than 150 feet underwater, protecting a herd of live sharks from the human hunters that kill of 100 million of the creatures every year. In another frame, people breathe air from a protected terrarium under the shadow of coal mining machinery in a Mad Max-style dystopia. In another, a mermaid swims amid swirling waves created by 10,000 plastic bottles, the number the average American will use in their lifetime.

“It’s this intersection of morbid beauty and purpose,” says Von Wong. “I’ve had to find a different way to preach to people. I realized my fans don’t really care about causes. They care about photography.”

To reach them, Von Wong makes his work eye-catching and visually startling, so the medium speaks as loud as the message. He also publishes behind-the-scenes videos that document his often complex process of constructing his images, anchoring an aquatic model to sea caves or borrowing thousands of water bottles from a waste facility.

“I like to create a piece of content that will shock people in execution, so they’ll be interested in how it was done, and then I sneak in a little education. I try to gamify the education process.”

To create the sea in this image, Ben Von Wong borrowed 10,000 plastic bottles from a waste facility, the number the average American will use and discard in their lifetime. Von Wong

Measuring how effectively his message shines through is tricky. Though Von Wong can tabulate likes and views, signatures gathered for petitions and comments on blog or social media posts, how that exposure translates to action is trickier to pinpoint.

“It’s hard to track what impact I’ve had on people. You can only count the number of views,” says Von Wong.

Perhaps his foray into social impact has had the greatest effect on the photographer himself.

“As I started getting more into the impact space, I started to realize there were changes you had to make in your own personal behavior to not be a hypocrite.”

Von Wong became a vegetarian, started carrying a canteen. “Now I feel guilty every time a bartender hands me a straw,” he laughs. “As you try to delve deeper into a problem and try to learn about it, you realize how dire situations are. It’s a pretty depressing cycle. You’re racing the speed of destruction.”

Currently, the photographer is working on a project about fast fashion and designing a shoot around the coral bleaching epidemic that’s plagued the world’s reefs, giving himself crash courses in each subject as he solidifies the storyline behind each shoot.

“One of my core frustrations is I don’t know if it’s possible to lead a net-positive life. You’re still generating waste. You’re still making things worse. There are very few people who can claim to have a net-positive impact on the world from a purely environmental [perspective],” says Von Wong. “I’m leading this whole environmental charge, and I’m still ordering shit off Amazon.”

For Von Wong it comes down to tapping his talents to make change, even if the impacts are more hearts and minds than policy and legislation.

“The reason I keep doing what I do is it’s the most potent skill set that I have. It’s the only thing I’m good at in life, so it’s what I can do.”