I’ve had a number of very interesting projects, like the last impact project I did, e-waste, and I did one with clothing. When I first started doing impact work and I shifted away from creating photography tutorials that everybody was wanting, the reaction came across as a little annoyed, like people just didn’t care. They were like, “Why can’t you just take pretty photos? Why do you have to talk about all these cause things?”
That kind of followed me around for a little while. People just didn’t get it and they didn’t care. They were like, “Well, you’re a photographer. You should stick to photography instead of being preachy about the environment,” and so forth. But then in the last two projects, the feedback has shifted. I don’t know if I reached a critical momentum where I finally managed to gain enough followers or supporters that truly started to value the work that I was bringing in somehow. Now, the reaction has started to be a little bit more along the lines of, “Oh, man, when I grow up, I want to be someone who creates meaningful work.” And I think that was just something that was really cool because I never had that in the past.
I don’t think what you’re doing is preachy because, like you said, you’re a storyteller and what you’re doing is telling a story. And that story should resonate with a lot of people, I think that’s what it’s about. I mean, the e-waste one really opened my eyes.
Do you think it was worth it then? See, it’s a hard question. Would that money have been spent better actually just recycling e-waste? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. It’s really hard.
It is. These are huge, important issues. But you’re not just doing social impact work, right? You do a lot of really fun, fantasy-like photography, like the superheroes on skyscrapers and the Nike challenge, the walking on air challenge.
Yeah. But I haven’t done any fun things for the last two and a half years. They’ve all been impact projects. Even the Nike one, we used social entrepreneurs, we didn’t just use models.
How did you possibly convince people to do this? Because the thought of going up on a skyscraper, first of all, is terrifying to me.
It’s very easy to find people. The question was, “Hey, we’re doing a campaign with Nike and we want to hang some social entrepreneurs off a skyscraper. Are you interested?” And they said, “That sounds terrifying, but I’m game.” So I didn’t really have to do much convincing. All I had to do was walk them through the actual mechanics of it and get them looking comfortable and all this other stuff. It was a little bit more directorial, but there was no convincing involved. They were willing participants in this project. I didn’t drag them kicking and screaming and hang them off!
Do you not have a fear of heights?
I love heights.
How do you bring your ideas to life? Do you have any particular habits that are part of how you begin your creative process?
Yeah, it isn’t really a creative process as much as a problem-solving one. I mean, what I want and how to get there are two very different things. I can want whatever I want, but there’s no way I’m going to get there unless I gain enough pieces of the puzzle. You get there by solving things one step at a time. There’s no other way.
Do you ever find that you’ve hit a creative block then or is it more of a problem-solving block, I guess? What do you do?
My concepts are generally a little bit weak. If you look at all of my work, you might say, “Hey, Ben’s projects look pretty cool.” But then, you look at, let’s say, the electronic waste project. If I didn’t tell you what it was about, you probably wouldn’t understand that it was for recycling e-waste.
That’s actually the case with a lot of my work and that’s the creative process. I always get stuck there because I’m always trying to improve my concepts to make them more understandable for people. How do you get rid of the creative block? it’s simply iterating until you’re happy with it, to the best of your ability, within the time constraints that you have available. So once again, it’s a very pragmatic, right-brained approach. It’s, “I want to spread this message in a cool way, a positive way, because the client needs it to be positive.” Those are the constraints, and you just have to operate within those constraints. There’s no secret path to creativity for me. You just keep banging at it, keep hammering at it until it works.
The thing is, my definition of failure is very different from the average person’s definition of failure and I think that’s where the problems come into play. I did a photoshoot on lava a while back. I was trying to raise awareness around climate change. The concept was that the indigenous people have been talking about this climate change problem for the longest time and everyone’s just ignoring them. So, I wanted to stick a shaman next to lava as a metaphor for climate change and the concept was so weak that no one understood what I was talking about.
So I think the photos were cool, but the concept was weak. We tried for two days to get the shots, and one day there wasn’t even any lava to be found, so it failed. Well, sort of failed. I mean I ended up with cool photos, but it didn’t accomplish what I set out to do, so that would be considered a failure for me.
Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken?
Probably be the mermaid photos, any one of those. I just think that’s the one time so far that I’ve truly nailed the intersection of impact and fantasy all in one shot, that requires no words to explain.