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Episode #085

How to Get 100 Million Image Views for Conservation Causes with Benjamin Von Wong

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UPDATED: May 24, 2023
ORIGINALLY AIRED ON September 28, 2021

 

An environmental artist shares how he cracked the code behind viral images, and how that success pushed him toward focusing on conservation issues.

 

Benjamin Von Wong is not the typical conservation photographer we bring onto the show.

Von Wong's specialty is to take shocking, compelling, surreal, outrageous, beautiful images that have an environmental message inside of them. Then, he puts those images in front of millions of people, helping to open their eyes to a conservation message.

His approach to crafting images and the messages that he wants them to embody will inspire anyone who is curious about how to break out of a typical mold of conservation visual storytelling and dive into things that are, well, epic. And viral.

Von Wong worked hard on cracking the code to get his images in front of millions of people, and he wants those views to count for something. He wants each of those views to have an impact, to make people think

Benjamin Von Wong joins us to talk about what he creates and why, how he thinks about impact, how he moves through projects, and of course, what it means to make images go viral.

 

Resources Mentioned

Episode 085: How to Get 100 Million Image Views for Conservation Causes with Benjamin Von Wong

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/85

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)

Jaymi Heimbuch:
Every so often, I'll come across a photographer or a filmmaker or artist whose work I look at and I'm like, "How did I not know about you years ago?" Their work so aligns with what I am interested in and what I pay attention to, and yet, I didn't know that they were out there. And that is the case with Benjamin Von Wong.

0:00:23.9 JH: I was in conversation with a couple of other photographers who are outside of the conservation sphere, and one of them linked me to Benjamin Von Wong's website, and as soon as I started scrolling through the portfolio, I was just blown away. His specialty is to take these shocking, compelling, surreal, outrageous, beautiful images that have an environmental message inside of them. And as I dug more into his history and his work, I thought, "My goodness, I need to interview him." Because the way that he approaches the types of images that he wants to create and the messages that he wants to have are really inspiring for how you can break out of a typical mold of conservation visual storytelling and dive into things that are just more epic.

0:01:19.2 JH: His specialty also is in making these images go viral or have millions of views on them, because he started to figure out that as he built a following for his photography and really started to crack the code on getting his images in front of hundreds and thousands and millions of people, that he wanted those views to count for something. He didn't want just numbers ticking up, he wanted each of those views to actually have an impact to make people think, and so he started to be much more intentional with what he was creating and each project that he delved into, had an environmental message inside of it. And inside of conservation photography, again, we talk so often about how what you create is important, but really, inside of our field is what you do with what you create.

0:02:11.0 JH: How do you build something so that it has an impact for this mission or this goal that you have? So I wanted to bring Benjamin Von Wong onto the podcast to dive into what he creates and why, how he thinks about impact, how he moves through projects, because I know that everything that he has to say will deeply inspire the work that we do as conservation photographers. So without further ado, let's dive in.

[music]

0:02:43.0 JH: Welcome to Impact, the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.

[music]

0:03:15.1 JH: Benjamin, thank you so much for joining us on Impact, the conservation photography podcast. I know that you are not necessarily a self-titled conservation photographer, but I definitely see you as one. You're like an honorary one, and I'm really excited that you're here.

0:03:29.9 Benjamin Von Wong: Thanks for having me.

0:03:33.1 JH: So for anyone who has not been able to dive into your work so thoroughly, what do you call yourself?

0:03:38.9 BW: Oh, it's something that I struggle with, but for now, I've settled on artist and activist. I've generated over 100 million views for different causes, like fast fashion, ocean plastics, electronic waste, and so I guess the primary theme of what I've been doing has been environmental in nature, but I do care about everything. I care about the world. I think we live in a system that where every one thing impacts another, and I try to just have impact however I can with whoever I can.

0:04:09.3 JH: Well, honestly, I feel like the way that you have been going about your artwork is having a truly huge impact because you focus on the virality of something, on really bringing eyeballs and starting conversations to an issue, and I think it's incredible. And so I'm so excited to talk about your work and your method and your thought process, but let's start out with how you got started because you have such a familiar getting started story.

0:04:35.0 BW: I had a day job as a hard rock mining engineer, so the opposite, I guess, of conservation, and I was working in a mine in Winnemucca one day, and a girl broke up with me and I was trying to figure out what to do with myself, how to stay busy, and I noticed that the stars were really beautiful and I was like, "I'm just gonna go to Walmart and buy a camera and figure out how to take pictures of the stars." So photography started off as a distraction, and over time, it became a companion, it was something I could take with me anywhere. Now, I didn't need to know anyone at a party, I could just use my camera and make friends with that. It was a backstage pass to all sorts of cool things, it was an excuse to go places, it was something to do when you went somewhere. And eventually, after three and a half years of being a full-time engineer and doing photography on the evenings and weekends, I decided to quit my day job, not necessarily because I wanted to be an artist, but because I didn't want to be an engineer and I wanted to start looking for the next thing.

0:05:33.7 JH: Nice. And your creativity took a direction that I think is really interesting because you were gunning for views, but you were gunning reviews for a very different reason and purpose. We all go on to social media thinking about the impact of likes and how many people is this gonna reach and we're judging value based on that, but you're like, "I'm gonna use this as a tool. I'm gonna use the idea of getting eyes on something as a tool." What was that turning point for you when you were like, "Oh, I could make an image go viral and do something with this"?

0:06:08.2 BW: Yeah, I think it was a gradual process. So when I first started, it was very much about survival, this idea that if you had more views, then you could work with more people because more people would find you interesting, you would be able to find theoretically more clients, and so this idea of views equating value, I think, it has some foundation to it, but after having successfully made a number of things go viral, after having successfully gotten hired to do big commercial projects, I think, I started to just feel that what's the point of getting more likes, what's the point of getting more followers. I was kind of not necessarily on the full top of the food chain, but I was high enough up the food chain to feel like it was becoming a little bit self-aggrandizing and I wasn't really accomplishing anything with all of these views. And when I looked back on projects that I was the most proud of, it was invariably not the ones that had the most likes or were the most popular, so it was the ones that had made the biggest difference with the views that they had gotten.

0:07:11.0 BW: And so this one project in particular, which wasn't even a photography project, was when I decided to basically have a father, a stranger that I didn't know, reached out and said, "Hey, I saw your work had gone viral before. My little girl's dying of a terminal degenerate brain disease. She is three years old, and we think that if we can raise enough money in time, there's hopes to get her into a clinical trial," etcetera, etcetera, "Would you be open to help us make a video?" And I was like, "Well, I'm not really a videographer, but if you don't find anyone by... In two months, I have a block of time, then you can just come over."

0:07:49.1 BW: And so fast forward a little bit, they basically said, "Yeah, we don't have a videographer." I'm like, "Okay, cool." So I flew myself over, stayed on their sofa for 10 days, made a video. Over the course of a month, we raised a million dollars. Over the course of the year, we raised two million, breaking the most funded campaign on GoFundMe at the time. And it was just like, "Wow, this is what art can be used for." Art can be used to drive real awareness, real change towards specific causes, and I wanted to find a way to make my life about making a difference kind of finding that alignment between having a good time, but also doing meaningful work and generating views for something that was greater than myself.

0:08:26.6 JH: I love your philosophy of using what it is that you've created and really trying to get big views, but like you said, there has to be impact behind the views for them to actually matter to you. That philosophy around using platforms as a tool to have a big impact, is huge. I personally think it must make you feel like you aren't in your own silo, that you're part of a team, like a collective. Is that true?

0:08:55.3 BW: I think they're definitely... So people think of impact as a sacrifice, and I think in some sense, there are some sacrifices that you do make, but it also comes with tremendous upside. I feel like the people that you meet automatically respect you more, they see depth in what you do as opposed to just that first surface layer. I think maybe if I said, "Oh, you're an influencer," some people would be offended by it, 'cause it comes with all this connotation, but when you say you're doing something with a greater purpose behind it, and this is what you're dedicating your life towards, that comes with a certain amount of value attached to it, and that value carries through, I think, all your interactions, whether they're personal and professional. So one of the reasons I think people don't get into impact is they feel like they're gonna lose out on X, Y, or Z, or they have to make all these big sacrifices, but I don't think it's an either/or, I think it can be a yes/and. That isn't to say that it doesn't come with its struggles, it definitely does, but it isn't just this one side of thing.

0:09:57.1 JH: Okay, I gotta back us up for a second, because while you were telling your story, you were like, "And then we raised a million dollars and then we raised two million dollars," and you blew through that. Well, I just need to pause for a second. You raised a phenomenal amount of money in a short period of time for something that genuinely mattered to you. What was that experience like?

0:10:18.8 BW: I think it was a little bit surreal, and I don't wanna claim credit necessarily for all of it. I think as with most campaigns in life, most things that we are a part of, we are but one piece of a very big puzzle, and we stand off and on the shoulders of giants. And so I think growing up in, especially maybe a Western culture, we have this default state of imagining there is a hero that comes along and saves the day, but I don't really see myself in that way. I merely came and helped them tell a story that was already there, it just hadn't been properly told before, and the reason it worked in particular was because this family hadn't been sitting around idly, they had already fostered a lot of local connections, they had done their... Their baking sales or golf competitions, their corporate partnerships, like donation matching, and they had established the groundwork, the grounds will of support, so that when they finally were able to tell their story properly, they had an entire community ready to back them up, and that's how it managed to hit the local news, the national news, the international news, until it got on the Today Show.

0:11:21.5 BW: And so it's like, these are kind of cascade effects that were a by-product of having a good story, but I only provided one piece of the puzzle, and this, I think, is true of many, many things in life. And too often we focus on the folks that like to claim credits for the single-handedly transforming the world, and we want to be that person, but I don't really know if that's actually true.

0:11:46.0 JH: This is gonna be a really fun conversation because I very much enjoy talking with people who provide credit where they feel credit is due and are very humble and modest, and you very clearly are an incredibly modest person who recognizes that you're part of a larger collective. But I do just wanna say, your work is ridiculous and like you are a driving force behind so much of what you've helped to have an impact on, so hats off to you. And speaking of some of the work that you've created that has very purposefully had an impact, especially in the field that I am in, which is the conservation field, but you really wanted to start to have an impact when it comes to some of these big, big issues that we're facing. And so you've created a very artistic way of coming at a topic that can often just be exhausting, things that people are tired of talking about or have a difficult time comprehending, and you come up with visual ways of approaching it. So can you tell us a little bit about your environmental artistry and what you do as a photographer in order to highlight issues like ocean plastics or mass fabrication of clothing and electronic waste and so many other things?

0:13:04.3 BW: Yeah, so I've gone through, I guess, two major phases, so I'll attack them kind of separately. The first phase was transitioning as a photographer who was doing commercial work to a photographer who wanted to do impact. As a photographer doing commercial work, I was doing all sorts of weird things, like tying people off of buildings or lighting them on fire, and so a lot of the work that I created was kind of stunt based. It was about how can I do something really crazy that no one else will do so that I can attract attention. And the clients that I would attract would be people who would really be wanting to do these big crazy things. And so during my transition period, which one might assume would be simple. I basically said, "Okay, I'm gonna stop doing commercial work. I only wanna do impact stuff. I'm just going to go up to non-profits and offer to work for free, and I'm sure I can be able to collaborate with people that way," but I kept getting turned down. No one wanted to work with me. And in retrospect, I think, the reason no one wanted to work with me is because non-profits and companies and people in general are inherently risk-averse. They don't want to do something that's never been done before. They don't wanna take a chance on this weird person who has no track record of actually caring about the issue, like is this person genuinely there 'cause he wanna make a difference or what?

0:14:17.1 BW: And so I had to figure out how to take what I did, which was weird, fantastical stunt things and attach that to impact. And I made a lot of mistakes along the way. A lot of things didn't work, but kind of through trial and error, I eventually started scratching on the surface, and so I never wanted to become an environmentalist, it wasn't... I still don't really like camping, I don't like being out in nature. I'm very much a city person. I'm very happy in my room with internet, and I'm good, I'm solid. And yet, I need something external to drive that interest. So my girlfriend came up with this idea of using storms as a metaphor for climate change, and she said, "Why don't we do a storm-chasing project and we can use storms as a metaphor of climate change, and maybe put someone in front doing something else," and I was like, "Oh, that sounds like pretty interesting." And as I was planning this project, I realized, "Well, I don't know much about climate change, so I better start learning about it."

0:15:12.3 BW: As I started watching documentaries, that's when you start... You stop just seeing things, you start actually looking at them and paying attention to them and internalizing them, and you start realizing, "Oh wait, there's a little bit of a problem." And so once you start seeing something, you can't unsee it. And so I guess there's an entire learning process behind the environmentalism that has nothing to do with the photography piece of the puzzle, it was just about... Basically, starting to be interested in the first place. Everyone wants to make a difference, but not everyone is willing to put the work into it. And so I think I had to do the work, and I didn't realize that at the time. So my initial projects were sort of cobbled together. I had this vague idea, so it's storm as a metaphor of climate change. "Okay, well, I need to find a storm chaser, so I'm just gonna tag along with that," and someone decided to tag along who had an ambulance and so we stored all these props inside of the ambulance, and then I just thought if ordinary people were doing things like sitting on a toilet, reading the news or playing video games on a sofa or ironing their clothes with these big super cells in the background, we could use that as a metaphor for climate change.

0:16:13.6 BW: So that was one of my first environmental campaigns. It got a couple of million views, but the photos weren't that great from a purely aesthetic portfolio perspective, they weren't that great, but they showed me that environment and climate needed metaphors sometimes to be... To start new conversations. And that while the work that I was doing wasn't very traditional, what was interesting is that I could draw new people into the conversation, and so maybe, there was a place for fantasy and impact to co-exist. So the next project I tried was, coincidentally, while I happened to be in Fiji. I was teaching a photography workshop completely separate, and I was like, "Well, if I'm gonna teach a workshop there, what could I do while I'm there?" Asked around and some friends said there's some really great shark dives, and so I started looking around and wanted to learn more about sharks and understand their role in the ecosystem, and started to realize how we kill over 100 million sharks every single year, there's over 300 species of sharks of which only three are remotely dangerous, I guess, preaching to the choir, probably. And so I was like, "Well, okay, if I already know how to tie a model under water because of my weird stunt stuff, why don't I just tie a model with some sharks swimming around? It can't be that much more difficult."

0:17:23.3 BW: But me going to Fiji, the only thing I had with me when I went there was a shepherd's crook that I bought off Amazon for 25 bucks. I didn't have a model, I didn't have a dive crew, I didn't even have my housing yet, so I just kind of landed there and then I had two weeks to figure it out 'cause that's when I was gonna leave. And so as I was doing this workshop day and night, I was just trying to find anyone that I could talk to, and eventually, I found someone in the minister of tourism that connected me to an eco-friendly place that ended up sponsoring us and sponsoring divers and one thing led to another, and we ended up creating a campaign, it generated over two million views. Within the first 24 hours, I think it got 80,000 petition signatures to support the creation of a shark sanctuary in Malaysia, and so these things sort of cascaded one from the other. So I don't know, I feel like I'm rambling a little bit here, but those are maybe two descriptive projects of photography-based campaigns that I had kind of just cobbled together based on the opportunities that I had, based on the network that I had, and the gap in between them was almost six months. And so it might feel like a quick transition, but it was actually just really tedious and just trying to figure out like, "Well, what would work, what would not work, what could I do based on the resources that I had," and kind of adapted adapt it from there.

0:18:40.1 JH: Okay, I got a lot of questions on my mind right now. So normally, the vibe of folks I work with in general is more like, "Oh, we grind and we hustle, and we hope that someone will finally say yes to letting us photograph their work here, and we're trying really hard to get connections over here," and you're like, "And then I just went and then I talked to the minister over here, and then I just would tie the model under water and then we had too many... " You are hustling through stats that for so many of us are, whoa, big, big numbers. So I have two questions for you. Is the word "can't" anywhere in your vocabulary or mindset? Is that something that you ever think about, or is that something that you just extract in order to see what happens?

0:19:26.2 JH: Great question. The word can't... So while the work that I do looks really big, complicated, possibly impossible, and even I'm surprised by how some of these actually succeed very often, they often start from a place of very ordinary possibilities. I think a lot of the projects that I do are just like the one person or one point of contact away from the whole thing falling apart.

0:19:57.5 BW: There are so many cornerstone pieces that were necessary for them to succeed, and there's no reason why they should have happened. Like this shark project, there is no reason why with a two-week notice, I should have been able to find a shark scientist, a dive crew, a model that would be willing to fly herself over. None of this should be possible, but it is, and I think that if you stop thinking about a project as one massive thing and you think about what is the most compelling piece of it, and you're able to get that, then the others kind of slowly start falling into place.

0:20:36.4 BW: So what's an example of that? A project that I did, probably one of my most popular projects where I put a mermaid on 10,000 plastic bottles, started off because my mom sent me a photo of a mermaid tail designer while I was in Montreal because my sister was about to get married, and I saw this and I was like, "Oh, cool. A mermaid. I really love the design of this. I wanna do a project, but I want it to have an impact."

0:21:00.1 BW: And so I started looking online, and this was right when the Great Pacific garbage patch had just been discovered. And I was like, "Oh, plastics in the ocean. Perfect. Let's do something around that." What do I need to make that possible? And the first piece of that was like, "Well, I'm gonna need a lot of material, something that kind of track attention, so something like a bunch of plastic bottles." And so the first step of that project was to find a large quantity of plastic bottles, and it started off with me chatting with a friend. I was talking with a friend, we were catching up, he was talking about how he missed being a film producer, and I was like, "Oh, cool. Do you wanna help me produce this thing? I'm looking for 10,000 plastic bottles. I think it could be cool to do this mermaid plastic bottle project." And so he called a couple of recycling facilities. Actually, I think the first place he called said yes, and it was just basically... So it was basically one phone call away, and suddenly, they were like, "Okay, we have 10,000 plastic bottles. We're happy to drop it off wherever you need. It'll come in a 18-foot truck."

0:21:54.1 BW: And I was like, "Wait, I did not think that 10,000 plastic bottles would come in an 18-foot truck, so now I need a warehouse." But now, the next conversation to find the warehouse piece, you say, "I have 10,000 plastic bottles and a mermaid, can I find a warehouse?" And that warehouse suddenly becomes easier to find because you have something compelling, and then once you have 10,000 plastic bottles, a warehouse and a mermaid, and you just need some people to come help and clean it. When is the next time they're gonna get to see 10,000 plastic bottles and a mermaid. Like, it's more interesting, and then you start finding the technical talent that you need in order to hang the camera on the ceiling and you start finding the videographer to document it. But now, it's becoming an exciting thing that has momentum. So momentum, I think, is the hardest thing to build. So there are a zillion projects that I've created that were never able to get enough momentum to get off the ground, that happens all the time. So when you say, "Is can't part of your vocabulary?" It's more like they just never... They never even got to take their first breath.

0:22:54.3 BW: I might have had an idea, and I tried and I tried to get that ball rolling, and it just kind of stopped before it ever got down the hill. You kind of need to push this boulder up a mountain and then once it's over that crest, then you suddenly kind of become unstoppable and it's amazing, but there's this huge phase in between where you're just like... "I just don't know if I'm gonna make it." And that is still true today. I still do... And I think it's probably my nature, I don't like to do things I've already done before, and so every time I do something new, whether it's paid or unpaid, I try to add a level of complexity on it, and it's super stressful. It's a terrible life strategy, but it makes for pretty photos.

0:23:34.2 JH: Oh, my gosh, yeah. That was a really incredibly inspiring response to a question that was so blunt because you showed how much can be possible when you just go step by step. You create your reality that you need to work within and figure out the next step and then that becomes a reality that you need to work within and then do the next step, and pretty soon, you have this incredible thing that you've created. And so that's my second part of the question to you, and as you're kind of just grinding through these stats that are jaw-dropping statistics that are really something I think to be celebrated, and you're like, "Yeah, and then we did this and then moved on." I'm like, well, wait, Benjamin, do you ever just sit and kind of marvel at what you've accomplished, either inside a single project or just as a whole?

0:24:22.0 BW: You have small moments of celebration and then they rapidly fade to worry. I think the worry probably comes from a place of... So I think my greatest fear in life is probably the fear of relevance. There is this sense that as you become more successful, now people expect more of you, and that becomes a really hard thing to keep up with. And I don't think the fear is unfounded, actually, because I'm sure we've all heard about the 10,000-hour rule.

0:24:56.3 BW: The 10,000 hour rule promises that if you put a certain amount of effort, a certain amount of time into any craft, you can become an expert at it. However, this rule is only true if the environment in which you become an expert, doesn't change. So you can become an expert photographer because the laws of physics don't change. ISO, Shutter speed. Once you understand them, they always behave the same. When you're known for creating campaigns that go viral, then that is actually contingent on an audience and a platform in which you're designing for and the world is changing very fast. Strategies that may have worked five years ago don't work anymore today. Strategies that may have worked two years ago, don't work anymore today. And so you're constantly playing this catch up game. So it's no longer about just creating good art, it's about creating good art that will continue to spread and that you want to make sure that can continue to have an impact, and because you've done it in the past, now everyone's expecting it in the future, and no one expects you to do less than you've done in the past, even though the conditions have changed.

0:26:00.7 BW: And so while it's cool to sit back and say like, "Great, I have done all of this." What you wake up to is not to the past, you wake up to the future, and it's, okay, the world has all of these problems that still remain to be solved, how are you going to contribute to solving them and is what I'm doing enough, is the question. Is what I'm doing efficient? So not effective, but efficient.

0:26:23.7 BW: So if I take six months or a year to create one project, is that an efficient use of resources? And I think that... And then there's another layer to that is, are my career decision sustainable; sustainable from a financial perspective, but also sustainable from an environmental perspective? And so these are all the bigger questions that keep me up at night that... And I just don't feel that marveling at my past successes helps any of those... Helps to solve any of those problems, so I don't spend much time marveling.

0:26:54.6 JH: Earlier, I called you an honorary conservation photographer. I think you just launched into full-fledged, 'cause that's what we all worry about, is I wanna make a difference, I wanna do it in this way, is this financially sustainable, am I gonna be able to continue this into the future, am I actually making an impact with where I'm putting any of this, are the old structures that worked 10 years ago effective now to reach people? There's no time to sit on any laurels because forests are still being cut down and oceans are still getting polluted, so... Yeah, welcome to the club. It is one of the most fulfilling and terrifying ways that we can wish to move through the world, and I appreciate so much that you are moving through that as an artist.

0:27:40.3 BW: Thank you. Yeah, and it's great to know that there are others doing it. I was researching the Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan. He's a guy who studied civil rights movements and just to study how they happen, what are the different phases of them, and these are any... Civil rights movements, a feminist movement; these are all things that take decades to resolve, and one thing that I read that I thought was just really heart-warming, or interesting, is that activists spend the bulk of their life losing, the bulk of their career, the bulk of whatever campaign they're campaigning for losing, and if you look at the curve as the amount of awareness rises, the amount of resistance rises proportionally with it, until eventually you win and public opinion actually shifts and sways. And so basically, you can spend decades losing and you're consistently on the losing side, even though you have victories and you just feel like you're just never quite there, and then one day, you win. And then the work doesn't really end, it continues. But it was just so interesting to see that...

0:28:45.6 BW: It doesn't help me very much emotionally. There's the rational side and you're like, "Yeah, yeah, it's okay. This is exactly where I'm supposed to be right now." And then there's the emotional side. You're like, "Oh, my gosh. Is this so hard?" But there is some solace to knowing that it is normal to feel frustrated because everything is not going the way you need it to. I think we all have this natural desire to be on the winning side, no one wants to be on the losing team, and I think that's maybe where a lot of the activist kind of fatigue sets in, and maybe that's where arts... The arts in general are just super important because that's what others see, that's what they need to get inspired by. And if you can make sure that the conversation stays in the forefront and it is creating new conversations and it's making people feel like there is a lot of momentum there, then that builds upon itself. If everyone was silent, if the world was silent, if stories weren't being told, if narratives of hope and victories weren't being shared, then that flame becomes even softer and even more quiet and it becomes even harder to build any kind of momentum.

0:29:52.5 JH: I wanna go back to something that I know it sounds like I keep harping on, and it's not to be stuck on something, but it is a very, very important piece of the component, which is gauging views, but you want views to have the impact. So when you're looking at the virality of something or you're looking at the scale at which it is being seen, do you have ways that you have tried to measure impact or try to gauge if there's been conversation shifts or have you even waited into comments streams on posts? What does that kind of side of the equation look like for you?

0:30:27.2 BW: I think I've given up on trying to measure the impact of art. I've given up, not because I believe there is no impact, I've given up because I don't know if it's a very productive use of time. And so what I mean by that is, I think there's some quotes floating around around this and how the most important things in life aren't measurable. If you measured how much your partner loved you by number of minutes of eye contact per day and frequency of human contact and all these different KPIs that an app might try to track, you'll never really quite scratch the essence of what it means to be in love, or what it means to care for someone. You'll have indicators, like qualitative indicators of that, so you can kind of measure it, but you never quite get to the essence of it, and I think that with impact and art, it's sort of the same thing, so views and positive comments and surveys can tell you whether or not they can sort of indicate the ripples that are happening. I can see in someone's face when they see my work for the first time, I can...

0:31:32.0 BW: I know that when I give a talk and I speak to people and they come up to me later, there is something happening there, but trying to actually quantify it... I would love to be able to quantify it because I think if we started measuring the impact of art, and we started judging the quality of the art, not by the output of what is created, but by the outcomes of what happens as a result of the art, I think better art would be created. But I just don't know how we do that right here, right now. I think in a world somewhat dystopically, in 10 or 20 years as all our interactions start getting chronicled, and we might be able to measure certain instances in time where people's search patterns change as a result of something that they've encountered, we would be able to start getting a sense of what has changed people and when and how that change happens in certain increments. I do think that's gonna happen naturally, but I don't think it's a question worth spending too much time on now, and that is after...

0:32:35.2 BW: I started a podcast. When I started my podcast, it was to try to figure out how to answer this question. It's how do I better measure the impact of art? How does impact within the arts happen? So impact happens in the process, the process of co-creation. You can bring people together, let's say, PTSD soldiers just coming to learn how to take photos together. It doesn't actually matter what they take, the fact that they have a community in which they feel a sense of belonging and they can co-create with, is the impact that can happen just from the discovery of the art. And then you have the output of what you create, the activism side, a little bit like what I do. There are different aspects and ways that are there and there are different ways to quantify it. The reason why a lot of hospital rooms are now no longer painted white, but are surrounded with art, is that they have quantitatively proven that having arts in specific color tones help people heal faster rather than sterile white rooms.

0:33:27.4 BW: So there are studies that are emerging. They're there. I do expect this to pseudo-semi resolve itself, but I don't know if it's too worth delving deeply into. Now, what can we do about it though, without delving too deeply in the measuring of the art? I do think it's very valuable to design impact into what you do. So don't assume that just because you create something great, it's gonna lead to change. Think about how are people going to see it? What causes are gonna be supported with it? What action are you hoping to drive, and how is that something simple that people can latch on to? Who are the evangelists that are gonna ensure that the content that you create gets seen, and are you tackling the problem from top down and bottom up, and if so, how is the content going to be presented differently because those are two different demographics? And so on and so forth.

0:34:17.0 BW: So I think there are things we can do about it, but I don't think it's about focusing too much on the measurement of it, because you are stripping down the power and the beauty of essentially what it means to be human. And you're trying to convert that into a quantitative metric that really will actually strip... It would lower the value of what you create if you start just putting numbers to it. The two together is stronger, but not one at the expense of the other.

0:34:42.1 JH: I've talked before on the podcast about... People say, "I really wanna make a difference with my work." And so I've made an entire episode about, "Okay. Well, what's the action that you want to happen as a result of your work?" Now that you know that, who's the audience that you have to get it in front of in order to make this change that you wanna make, and at that point you can decide, "Okay, what's the artifact? Am I going to do an online gallery, an in-person gallery? Am I gonna make a book? Am I gonna... " Whatever it may be. And so you explained, and way better than I possibly could have why this is such an important thing to really think about and break down. But you also mentioned something earlier that I would love to dig into, which is the speed at which things are changing in terms of the platforms that we get art out on to. And can you talk a little bit about how you're experiencing that rapid shift in what's available to you in order to exhibit your artwork and how that might be changing your approach?

0:35:44.9 BW: Yeah, if we just talk online platforms, I guess, for a minute. In the past, the way... The biggest driver of traffic for me was press. If you got highlighted or featured on the BBC or Huffington Post or CNN and it was a good feature, it wasn't just kind of a passing local news thing, that would cascade onto other platforms, and popularity would feed other popularity, and then suddenly, everyone would know about this thing. These days as the world becomes increasingly siloed, you could be the most famous YouTuber in the world, and someone sitting next to you on the bus would've never heard of them. You can be the most famous Instagram influencer, and someone next to you on the bus wouldn't have heard of them, and same with TikTok, and same with Vine, and same with Twitter, and same with all these other things. And so you have these micro-influencers in every sector, and this is true of the way how content spreads too. So it's becoming increasingly rare for singular campaign takeovers. I think they're generally anchored on cultural happenings, like the Me Too movement as an example or the Black Lives Matter movements or...

0:36:47.7 BW: There are instances where they're so big, but they're bigger than any one piece or any one person. There may have been a spark somewhere, but they're truly movements in that sense, and we can go down a rabbit hole and discuss how a lot of that is because of virtue signalling and how sometimes you just have to be part of these conversations if you fall within certain categories, 'cause otherwise absence of your involvement means... Is a message in and of itself, but I just think there's this increasing sort of siloed nature of everything. And so when you only have a finite amount of time and a finite number of resources, the right question almost seems to be, "Well, where is the place where you can have the maximum chance of reaching the people that you need to?" And these different platforms will have different rules. Instagram will have different rules, and those rules can change overnight and you just have to deal with it, and then TikTok would be the same, and so on and so forth.

0:37:40.4 BW: So I find it really frustrating as a creator that has gone from... I used to create daily content and then it became weekly, and then it became monthly, quarterly, and now it's almost yearly. I don't create very frequently. I am the anti-algorithm. People these days are celebrated for doing consistent, regular, scheduled content is rewarded. The unexpected stuff that doesn't fit into that algorithm, it just kind of goes like, "Wait, what do we do with this stuff?" And it just kind of gets discarded and it's kind of weird that a machine is deciding what gets seen. They're the taste-makers of the world these days, and so it's becoming a populism-based thing.

0:38:22.0 BW: Some might say it's a democracy, I don't know, primarily because the users of the platform are not the customer, they're the product that's being bought and sold. I feel like I'm touching on too many subjects. [laughter] It's all quite complex.

0:38:36.9 JH: It's all interrelated, though.

0:38:38.7 BW: Yeah.

0:38:39.8 JH: And that's the trouble, is it's like, "Okay, well, we wanna talk about things like environmental impact, but unless we talk about the structures that exist within our online interactions, we can't talk about having an impact."

0:38:52.0 BW: Yeah, and on that same note, it's... The world is gonna do whatever it's gonna do. I can moan about this all day long. The right question to be asking is, "Okay, the world is going in this direction. What can I do about it?" And in my case... So I'm in the process right now of preparing the launch of a brand new project. It's a three-story tall art installation, it's a big ass faucet that is just vomiting plastics under different environments. It's an installation that was portable, and we moved on to different locations, and it's gonna launch in October. And I'm like, "Okay, I haven't... " Basically, haven't launched anything in almost two years now, so I... I have a following that I probably can't activate. I have a Facebook page with 300,000 followers that probably won't generate many views because algorithms have changed, and I haven't maintained it. What can I do to make sure that all this time, energy and effort spent building this actually gets seen and heard? And I have been thinking about... So instead of a... So I will have my standard press strategy 'cause it's still important, where I just... I'm gonna comb through approximately 200 or 300 reporters that have written about environment and art and plastics in the last six months, and I will make sure to email them on the day of the launch.

0:40:08.4 BW: I am also finding or thinking that if I do not have an audience that is loyal and following me and everything, well, whose audience can I steal? So I've been building relationships with WWF, Greenpeace, Oceana, Rainforest Alliance. If you guys know anyone, feel free to hit me up. I'm looking basically for partners who want to essentially open source these images. They could use this to create whatever call to action, 'cause I don't actually think that, as an artist, it is necessarily... If I created a call to action, it would be something very simple. There are entire organizations dedicated to figuring what the optimal call to action is for the optimal audience, and so if I can just provide a new opportunity to start an old conversation in a different way, wonderful. So there's a little bit of a win-win situation there, and I'm reaching out to all these different non-profits. I'm also thinking about bottom-up strategy. So I am going to be putting together a couple of images that are just going to be PNGs with transparent backgrounds, inviting people to drop this giant plastic tap into whichever environment they want, whether that is the White House, Parliament, anything. Feel free to drop this in an environment, your backyard, your neighbor's backyard, 'cause they won't stop throwing out their plastics. Who knows?

0:41:22.1 BW: I think that it's something that can be remixed, and so there's another opportunity for co-creation so that it's not just my piece, it's another. On top of this, there's an installation component of it, so it's gonna be in a gallery, it'll travel, there'll hopefully be selfies. Who knows? That could lead to a whole nother thing. So I'm basically trying to distribute as much as possible, my ability to reach people and as many levels as possible, and I'm still actually looking for ideas. So if you know any... If you have any ideas... But that's how I think about things. My things don't generally spread because they deserve to be spread, they spread because there's a lot of pushing and hard work behind it to make sure that people receive the assets they need to spread it. And so there will be a number of photos, there'll be a number of behind the scene photos, there'll be a number of behind the scene videos in different formats for different platforms, and I'm trying to prepare all of these assets all at once so that when it goes live, it has the greatest chance at success possible.

0:42:20.2 JH: Well, if you ever decide to hang your camera on the wall, I'm sure that there's a whole lot of marketing agencies that would rope you in as quickly as possible because you're really thinking through a thorough strategy of like, "Okay, well, what platforms do I have to work with? What are the avenues that I have to work with? How can I figure out assets to provide to all of these different platforms or avenues in order to make this actually go somewhere?" And that is when it comes to work that has an impact, that is where the vast majority of the time and energy and effort and head scratching really goes is, "I made this thing, now what? Now what do I do with this?" [chuckle]

0:42:58.3 BW: Yeah, definitely, definitely. One thing that I do think about as I'm creating something or before I even start is, "How will people be talking about this in words?" And I think as visual artists, we often don't think about how people are gonna talk about something. We just think that they might see something and be moved by it because the picture is a 1000 words. And what I've learned though, is that in order for something to spread, someone needs to be able to share it and talk about it. A journalist needs to read a headline. If I wanted... If my friends saw it and I wanted them to tell their friend, they need to describe what it is they see that is interesting and sounds intriguing and interesting to engage with. And so I am constantly thinking about how something spreads even prior to its actual creation. I think, "Is this something that I would wanna share if I stumbled across it? And if so, how would I share it, going from there?"

0:43:53.8 JH: So when it comes to environmental issues and topics, I mean, I know that you have already talked about how you're kind of an accidental environmentalist, and that the more that you became interested in and concerned about the environment came from almost like these little sparks of inspiration inside of creative projects. But as you've built up all of this awareness of everything that's going on with our planet, how has that changed you personally?

0:44:20.3 BW: I mean, it's made my life a lot more inconvenient. [laughter] I was having this debate with another conservation friends and she's just like, "Well, you haven't... You just haven't internalized the habits." And I think there's a certain amount of that that is true. There are things that are inconvenient because you start asking a lot more questions about different things that everyone might be pushing, and you start questioning convenience, you start questioning instant gratification. So there is some inconvenience there, but as an example, I... After my storm chasing projects or my first climate change project, I was like, "I need to change at least one thing in my life, otherwise I'm a total hypocrite." So I decided to go vegetarian. I was a terrible vegetarian at first. I think I was just eating potatoes and rice until I had critically low B12 levels, and then I was like, "Oh wait, I need to pay a little bit of attention now." So it was really hard in the beginning, but since then, I've become vegan, and now it's sort of... It's easy because it's just how I am and who I am and what I do, and so it's become a little bit more of an automated process and actually, the thought of having more choices is actually more inconvenient than anything else. I guess, that's one example of how my life has adapted. I think similarly, avoid plastics as much as I can.

0:45:34.2 BW: Definitely not a saint. When I look at the zero waste people, I feel like a total fraud and... Yeah, I don't know, I think it's something that you just... That for me is in the back of my mind kind of consistently. Still, I still don't know how great I am at it, but I don't know what benchmark to measure myself against.

0:45:52.3 JH: Yeah. The idea of how good of an environmental advocate are we is something that we're always feeling some sense of a bit of a fraud or a hypocrite or a something, because we're photographers, so however much we wanna save endangered habitats and ecosystems, we're still using products that are... This is something that came up in conversation earlier today and we're like, "Well, we're still using things and traveling and creating an impact, and we can't exempt ourselves from this unless we wanna radically change our lives, and then we can't do the work that we wanna do to help shift things in a direction that we think can be helpful."

0:46:35.8 JH: So we're kind of caught in a little bit of a catch-22, but I love how you seem to be an expert at breaking things down into manageable steps. So your first thing was, "What's one thing about my life that I'm gonna make a shift on?" And, okay, well then that changes and evolves into what's one more thing, or how does this look now, or how does this look today? And it seems like such a great approach, because I think that when we start to wake up radically to everything that's going on, when you're kind of blissfully unaware of the impact that we have on the environment and everything going on, when you awaken to that, sometimes it can feel like this huge flood of just crap, and you have no idea how to swim inside of that and how to navigate it, and it can feel overwhelming and horrible. And I like the idea that you're like, "Well, what's one thing? What's one thing?" And if you do little bits like that, those little habit shifts, I think they really do add up.

0:47:29.1 BW: Yeah, I mean, that's what I tell myself. So I feel like if you're able to make one decision that you stick to for the rest of your life, like when I became vegetarian, what is the compounded carbon footprint decrease of my personal consumption? What is the amount of suffering I have prevented with my choices? Same with plastic bottles. What would that amount look like compounded over the course of my lifetime? And so if you're able to start something and stick to it, it really does add up. Is it enough, is the harder question, because if you talk to someone like Greta Thunberg, she would tell you, "No, you're just deluding yourself, you're being a total hypocrite because you want to maintain all the privileges that modern society affords you without making the necessary sacrifices to make sure that the rest of us can make it through the next X number of 1000 generations."

0:48:16.5 BW: And I guess, for me, I just have to say, "Yes, absolutely not. I'm not ready to make that leap yet, I'm sorry. [chuckle] I wish I was ready to go and live on a farm and never fly anywhere ever again and just think that this was the best way that I can contribute and start an alternative society," but I'm not there. And so I have days where I beat myself up over it, and then I have other days where I just focus on what I can do. I don't know if it's enough. I don't know if anything is enough at this stage, but we can only do the best we can with what we know and what we feel ready for and what we can actually sustain. So if all of us were Greta Thunberg, maybe the world would be safe, but we're not, so, I don't know.

[chuckle]

0:48:58.4 JH: It's very true. And I think that there is some amount of this that is sort of a product of age as well, because I very much remember being young in college, learning about the environment for the first time and being so gung-ho, and part of it is like, "Well, I'm at this point in my life where I'm gonna go ahead and do what I can and make what decisions I can matter, but I'm also definitely gonna acknowledge and accept that I'm not willing to give up all of my privileges, because it is comfortable and it does allow me to kind of keep my soul fed. I'm not gonna give up my camera, I'm not gonna give up my car, I'm just not." And it allows me to kind of keep going in the direction that I'm going in a lot of other ways, because without my car, I can't necessarily get to the woods, which refills my soul and makes me wanna continue being a conservation photographer. There's that catch-22 in so many things that we do.

0:49:56.7 BW: Yeah. I think as a storyteller, so I try to think of it from a point of leverage, right? If we agree that small decisions really add up, then there is something to be said about being able to shift culture by 0.1 degree in a better direction. And if that is the field in which you are in, and that is what you focus exclusively on doing and doing better and doing better hopefully than anyone else, then the possibility of exponential change is greater than if you went off and just minimized your own impact, I think. And so I guess what I try to challenge myself with is just like can I leave the world on a net better than if I did not exist on it? And it's not something measurable, but it's the kind of barometer that I try to tell myself. And so I think in a certain way, there is... I feel like the career path that I've chosen justifies the travel that I need to do, as an example, if we're talking about climate change, because when I travel, I am not traveling just for my own pleasure, 'cause I never travel just for fun, I always travel for something that is going to have an added layer or two to it, and so I kind of... That's how I make decisions, and that's how I pat myself on the back and say, "It's gonna be okay." [chuckle] Is it good enough? I don't know. I'm not here to judge anybody, but that's just how it is for me.

0:51:26.6 JH: Yeah. Well, I think that there's a whole lot of people out there who are nodding when they hear that. It resonates quite well.

0:51:34.3 BW: That's 'cause they're older, right? It's like after 18, you start nodding more.

[laughter]

0:51:39.1 BW: I don't know, I'm just joking. I'm being facetious. But maybe.

0:51:42.6 JH: Well, I think that even though you have very valid reasons for wanting to move on quickly from one project to the next and to be very forward-thinking, I want you to know that I'm still sitting here just kind of reveling in the work that you've created over the years, and even in stuff that was created several years ago. I'm still sitting here marveling at a lot of what you've done, and I'm very grateful for the impact that you're making, and what it takes emotionally, creatively, psychologically, to have this level of impact with your creative work. I'm so grateful that this is the path that you pivoted into.

0:52:23.5 BW: Thank you. That brings me... I think it's great to hear that. And I think during the pandemic, I was in a clubhouse room at some point and someone said, "Did you know that art is one of the few things in the world that is an infinite resource? It doesn't matter how many people look at it, consume it, view it, share it, see it, it is just as powerful as the first time that it was ever unveiled to the world." And so if you created something and it's able to continue living because people are seeing it, sharing it, and being impacted by it, then that single thing that you've created once that did use up a certain amount of resources can continue to give and continue to change and continue to affect hearts and minds. And I think when you choose a mission behind what you do, so I'm guessing most of the people listening to this podcast who are into conservation, that is something that will always be relevant. Conservation, the need for conservation will never go away, and so the work is infinitely valuable, you just have to figure out how to make it so that others wanna pay attention to it and others can discover it and others can relate to it and connect with it and so forth. And so the art itself, I think, does have good value. So yeah.

0:53:31.2 JH: I think I'm just gonna end the podcast on that note. [chuckle] That was a beautiful note to end on, but I can't yet. I have to ask you one more thing, because as people have been listening to this and they know that by the time this airs, your project is gonna be moments from launching, so anyone who's listening and is like, "Yes, I want in on helping somehow." How do they get a hold of you?

0:53:54.4 BW: They can just email me hi@vonwong.com or ben@vonwong.com. Basically going to be putting this campaign out on the 7th of October, if everything goes according to plan, and we're gonna be looking for anyone who either wants to... So there's level one, just share, like, comment, the standard, and then level two would be like remix it, share it, introduce it to an organization or a group that would be able to leverage this somehow and build calls to action into it themselves. And then, I guess, level three... Level three has nothing to do with the art, level three has everything to do with change, 'cause once you're aware, you have to do something about it. And so we're assembling a bunch of toolkits, education, assets, just so that if people discover this and want to do something, wanna take action, that they could be empowered to do so. And so if you are in possession of any great resources or want to provide that, you're more than welcome to do that. So definitely reach out, let me know, I'm fairly friendly, I think. Yeah, I would love to hear from you.

0:54:55.4 JH: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much for your time and your energy and your expertise. It's a joy to talk with you.

0:55:02.3 BW: Jaymi, thanks. And keep up the great work. It's very hard to do a podcast. [laughter]

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