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Benjamin Von Wong Speaks About His 'Underwater River' Shoot With Ballantine's Scotch Whisky

Find out how Benjamin overcame all obstacles for this phenomenal photoshoot.

Recently we caught up with Benjamin Von Wong, esteemed creative photographer, about his mesmerizing work photographing his “Underwater River” project for Ballantine’s ‘Stay True’ series. The experience, and lasting results, was breathtaking to say the least, but we wanted to dive deeper into the methodology and conceptualization of how the whole project went down. Finding time with Benjamin, we asked him about a few key elements concerning the shoot, the hardships and the satisfactions, along with some tips he could pass onto others who may want to discover such a project on their own. Check out the video along with the behind the scenes footage for more insight on this death-defying assignment.

How did you prepare for this photoshoot?
The same way one would prepare for any photoshoot – Concept Design, Team Building, Scouting, Set Design and educated guesses on lighting/equipment requirements!

How did you discover this natural phenomena? And was it something you always wanted to photograph, but with a unique twist?
I discovered this on Facebook or something similar – It was something that I instantly wanted to shoot but never had the capacity to do so.

What were some of the more satisfying and dissatisfying aspects of this project?
I think the part of what made this project so much fun was how many unknowns there were, giving you the genuine feeling that it was something that had never been done before. Similarly, there were so many moving parts out of our control that made it also extremely stressful.

From conception to execution, how long did the whole thing take?
We only had one month to put the entire project together, start to finish.

Who were the people that made up your team for this particular project?
There was a production team of over 30, with every person vital to make such a unique and challenging project come to life. Within that group we had some real specialists in their fields, from world champion free diver Lance Lee Davis to BBC Planet Earth’s Rob Franklin.

 

The toxic layer and its potential consequences is something extraordinary. Have you ever encountered any other instance where this level of danger was so imminent?
Well I shot some superheroes dangling off the edge of a rooftop and lit people on fire, those were pretty extreme. (laughs)

Photographers struggle with light and composition all the time. Shooting constantly moving subjects underwater at such a depth must’ve been exponentially more difficult. Could you share some tips or techniques that helped with this shoot?
Gosh, it’s hard to really summarize a single list. Shooting underwater is so different in every capacity, from the simple obvious things like movement, communication and safety, down to lighting. I guess if you’re looking for one example, one of the things I had was Rich, my safety diver, to help me monitor my position. He would make sure that if I started drifting, sinking, or floating he would anchor me in place. If he saw me moving with intent, he would let me go. We did a bunch of practice dives together to guarantee our communication and I would never have been able to pull off this shoot without him.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during this entire project? And how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge I faced was letting go and trusting my team to do their job. There were many people far more qualified than I was during the setup phases that I had to simply trust they had to get their job done before I even got involved! Rob Franklin for example was instrumental in setting up the boats and lights for the entire project.

How does Ballantine’s ‘Stay True’ series’ approach to work and creativity fit with your own?
I really only participate in projects I enjoy or believe in, so when Ballantine’s asked me to be a part of their ‘Stay True’ series, it instantly resonated with me.

What does ‘Stay True’ mean to you and why is it so important?
I believe that the only way to get great at something and to make an impact in the world is to love what you do, and that means staying true to who you are and what you believe in. I think that there is no purpose to life, unless you are positively affecting someone around you, and to achieve that maximum potential, I believe you need to strive for greatness in some way, shape or form.

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