Benjamin von Wong: Catalyzing Hope and Imagination for a Solarpunk Future

May 2024

Benjamin von Wong is a world-class photographer, multi-disciplinary artist and environmental activist, known for his visually stunning and impactful projects that highlight critical issues around social justice and climate change.

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Benjamin von Wong: Catalyzing Hope and Imagination for a Solarpunk Future
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About The Episode

In this episode of The Founder Spirit, the methodical Benjamin von Wong, a world-class multi-disciplinary artist and environmental activist, shares his journey from a mining engineer to a renowned photographer. 

Upon discovering his passion for photography as a hobby, Benjamin quickly gained widespread recognition with an underwater shipwreck shoot in Bali. Despite commercial success, he experienced emptiness and briefly contemplated quitting photography. 

Benjamin soon found renewed purpose by focusing on projects with social impact. As an environmental activist, he highlights art as a catalyst of hope and imagination for a Solarpunk future, where humanity lives in harmony with nature, prioritizes sustainability, and thrives through the use of renewable energy and eco-friendly technologies.

How did a former mining engineer who bought his first camera at age 21 become a world-class photographer and artist? 

Well, tune in to this genuine conversation & find out. 


Benjamin von Wong is a world-class photographer, multi-disciplinary artist and environmental activist, known for his visually stunning and impactful projects that highlight critical issues around social justice and climate change.

Trained as an engineer, he seamlessly blends artistry with catalytic action and collaboration. Completely self-taught, his artworks have generated over 100 million views on topics like ocean plastics, fast fashion, and electronic waste. Supported by organizations such as Greenpeace, Nike, Starbucks and Dell, Benjamin also holds a Guinness World Record for the largest art installation made from plastic straws.

Episode Transcript

[00:02] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.

“I think very early on, it was clear that I was not that talented at anything. And so I grew up very much believing that I wasn't a very creative person. And if anything, I was just absolutely average at most things.”

“I do think that holding a camera, it changes the way you see and navigate and interact with the world.”

“The environmental movement really has somewhat of a crisis of imagination. We struggle to even believe that change is possible and we settle into apathy.”

“By creating art that helps support a just and equitable transition that is inspiring and surprising, we can actually give people hope and momentum and highlight something that we can all be excited to work towards.”

Joining us today is methodical Benjamin von Wong, a world-class photographer, multi-disciplinary artist and activist, known for his visually stunning and impactful projects that highlight critical issues around social justice and climate change.

Trained as an engineer, he seamlessly blends artistry with catalytic action and collaboration. Completely self-taught, his artworks have generated over 100 million views on topics like ocean plastics, fast fashion and electronic waste. Supported by organizations such as Greenpeace, Nike, Starbucks and Dell, Benjamin also holds a Guinness World Record for the largest art installation made from plastic straws.

How did a former mining engineer who bought his first camera at age 21 become a world-class photographer and artist? Well, let’s talk to him & find out.

Hello Ben, welcome to The Founder Spirit podcast! Great to have you on the show & thank you for taking the time. 

[02:09] Benjamin Von Wong: Thanks for having me, excited to be here. 

[02:11] Jennifer: Benjamin, as a child, I was told that you were not particularly artistic, and in fact, no one from your family thought you were going to become an artist. So what were some of your formative experiences and adventures? 

[02:24] Benjamin: So, I grew up in a lower income household, for the most part. My parents were fairly poor, first generation immigrants doing multiple jobs when I was growing up; and yet they believed in giving us every single opportunity possible. 

So, starting from three years old, I had violin lessons, as every good Asian family tries to give to their kids. And then I dove into martial arts, I picked up drawing lessons of all kinds, dabbled in pottery, ceramics. You name it, my parents tried to put me in it, not because they thought I had any talents, but just that it would be healthy for me to try different things. 

And I think very early on, it was clear that I was not that talented at anything. And so I grew up very much believing that I wasn't a very creative person. And if anything, I was just absolutely average at most things. 

[03:15] Jennifer: You know, I had a similar story from my side - I never thought I was creative. You also come from a Chinese-Malaysian family in Montreal, Canada. How do you think growing up in a multicultural environment influenced your trajectory? 

[03:29] Benjamin: I went to 13 different schools in 3 different countries in 3 different languages, so I spent a lot of my youth traveling around. 

I think growing up in Montreal, I was kind of the Chinese person. When I was in the US, I was the Asian guy. But then when I went to China, I was the Canadian guy. And so basically, my experience was one of not really fitting in, of always being somewhat of a third culture kid that didn't necessarily belong. 

And I think there's some benefits to that, the major ones being that you approach the world with a lot more curiosity to try to figure out where these commonalities actually lie. And over time, I just became really good at making new friends and saying goodbye because I don't really hold onto things that hard. And so I can dance through different worlds a lot easier, as a byproduct of that. 

I think similarly, from a values perspective, I've gone through a number of different educational systems, and in doing so, maybe picked up the values of different places and spaces. 

I think the one that particularly influenced me were probably the values of community. So much pride around community and showing up for people has ingrained into my personality today. 

[04:37] Jennifer: That's wonderful to hear. As mentioned, you bought your first camera at age 21 while you were still working as a mining engineer. How did you eventually uncover or discover your true passion as a photographer? 

[04:50] Benjamin: Yeah, so I started off photography the same way I started off many other hobbies. I just bought a camera and decided to do it, after a girl broke up with me while I was working in the desert in Nevada. I remember sitting down at the Starbucks reading the user manual because I had no idea how to use it. 

That hobby just grew, probably because at the time, I was a little bit lonely, and the camera was like a companion that I could bring with me anywhere I went - it was like a travel companion. 

And over time, I started finding photo clubs, a community to support me - I quickly became better. I think there's something also about the timing in which I picked up photography that was pretty significant because I picked up photography in 2007-2008, right at the rise of Facebook. 

And so I was taking photos, putting them online. My friends were complimenting it or talking about where I was or how cool things were. And that gave a positive feedback loop for me to want to create more. 

And so the digital feedback loop, the ability to start a fan page, all these factors just allowed me to grow super quickly - it felt very motivating to continuously improve. 

And I think in the early days of Facebook, things were so beautiful. You would find people with similar hobbies and share them in these groups, and there was this really collaborative energy to whatever you were interested in. And I think you can still find it, but it was just very prominent at that time. So it was a very positive cycle that really helped me get very good very quickly. 

I think it's something that you don't need to have talent to do it. You can actually just pick it up because the feedback loop is so tight. The best way to become a better photographer is to take more photos. I took 10,000 photos in the first year, you can put that 10,000 hours rule into practice. 

[06:27] Jennifer: And as you became quickly (a) better photographer, do you recall the moment when you first realized that this could be a viable career path? Was it under a particular circumstance? Was it through a series of photos? When did you realize that you could do this for a living? 

[06:42] Benjamin: It was kind of interesting. I had the reverse experience, which is I had a day job as a hard rock mining engineer, and photography was clearly a hobby. 

And I still remember in the first six months, someone in my photography club couldn't make it to a gig and asked if I wanted to do it. And I was paid $250 to photograph a party for 6 hours, and I was like, oh, my gosh, I just got paid to have fun, this is amazing, I should keep doing this. 

And so I started marketing myself as an event photographer, looking for little opportunities to make money and buy more gear. Photography is gear heavy, especially in the beginning. I slowly grew my business, and within the first year, generated $10,000 and that positive cycle started picking up momentum. 

By year two, I remember having this moment where I was just like, oh, my gosh, I have two jobs now - I have photography and engineering, and that wasn't the plan. 

And so I actually quit my photography job because I just want to have a job and a hobby. And I decided to pull out of weddings and events and switch over to doing more fantastical and surreal things. So my first step into realizing it was a career was that I didn't want to do it as a career. 

But then, fast forward, the reason why I quit my day job wasn't because I wanted to be a photographer. The reason that I quit my day job was because I woke up one morning realizing that I 100% did not want to be an engineer anymore. And that even if I didn't know what I wanted to do, I knew for sure what I didn't want to do. 

And at this point, the plan B was go get an MBA that would also make my parents happier because, you know, Asian parents and artists careers are generally not that compatible. 

But I quit in December, you can see this whole thing wasn't that thought through, so I missed the application cycle. And I was like, well, since I have nothing to do, I'm just gonna travel for while. And I quickly realized that the best way to travel for free was by teaching photography, because photography is so location agnostic. 

So I would find a photo club somewhere in the world that was interested in what I was doing, ask if they were interested in hosting me. That would usually come with a free plane ticket and a sofa to crash on. 

And I would do this presentation, I would make ten new friends, and out of that, I would have a bunch of new collaborators. And I just kept doing that. I was basically nomading from one place to another, depending on where the opportunities lied. And it was a really playful, fun time traveling the world, having a free sabbatical.

The sabbatical eventually grew into somewhat of a career - my sponsorship deal started getting bigger, I started getting paid a little bit more money, and my following continued growing all the way up to some 350,000 followers online. And that ability to tell stories that were getting seen by people eventually led to work, but that was a 2.5-year journey.

[09:19] Jennifer: And when you're standing behind a camera lens, what do you see that you don't necessarily see in the physical world? 

[09:27] Benjamin: So, when I first started out, I still remember the magic of being able to stand physically in a place, but see the world completely differently. When you're looking for a shot, you start paying attention to composition, light, shadows, moments, smiles, emotions, because you're hunting for something. That draws you directly into the present, into details - it transforms the way you see the world. 

As you get more into the construction of an image where I am now, you're creating the scene, the world that you wish others would see. You have the opportunity to design every aspect of that, from lighting to physicality, and the experience that others are going to have. 

And what I'm constantly wondering is how do I ignite in people a sense of curiosity, like something magical where someone looks at it and they're like, where is this person? What are they doing? What am I looking at? Because I think that image that you're creating is all about creating a conversation, generating engagement. 

I do think that holding a camera, it changes the way you see and navigate and interact with the world. 

[10:24] Jennifer: Speaking of that sense of awe and curiosity that you're trying to convey, looking at your earlier works, I was really captivated by the surreal and dreamlike quality and how you were pushing the boundaries of conventional photography. 

What were you trying to experiment with at that point of your career in order to break out as a professional photographer? 

[10:48] Benjamin: So one of my core values is curiosity and adventure - I love novelty, I love experimenting, I love exploring. And you can see that in my work, it was very experimental in the beginning, it was visually stunning, but otherwise random. 

I'd play with fire for a while, I'd play with costumes, I'd play with special effects - so novelty was a big one. There's also the aesthetic that comes from my upbringing. When I was younger, I really loved reading science fiction and fantasy work. And you see that in the work that I create, whether it was through big, epic dresses or really unconventional locations. I was always trying to say, come into my world. 

And on a more practical level, too, I felt like people were more compelled by things that were more different. And so the more weird, the more surprising you can make something, the more chances people would pay attention to it. 

The truth of being an artist is that you need to create things that people want to see. Otherwise, you're never going to be able to make it. And a part of it was also creating things that were popular in order to build a following and be engaging while also staying authentic and true to what I cared about. 

And then it kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create this positive cycle by showing people what you want to do, and that enables others to help you find the next thing. Because you're lighting a beacon in the sky and saying, this is what I care about, or this is what I love. And others can find you and help you along the way. 

[12:27] Jennifer: Well, that's quite exemplary in your first viral piece, which is the underwater shipwreck shoot that you did in Bali about a decade ago. It was a very complex shoot, and it took a tremendous amount of teamwork and preparation. 

Can you just tell us a little bit about how that project came together? I don't want to say too much, I want to hear your words. 

[12:31] Benjamin: Yeah, so my parents wanted to drag me onto vacation, and they had chosen Bali as the destination in Indonesia. And I'm not a big vacation person, vacations kind of stress me out because I don't know what to do with myself. There are no parameters, there's no mission, it’s just like be. 

And so I thought, why not get a dive certification. And there's a shipwreck, that’s really cool, I need to take some photos there. But I can't just take photos of a shipwreck, that would be boring because everyone's already doing that. I need a model, a freediver, then we need a costume. 

Anyways, one thing led to another. I basically ended up tying a model 30 meters underwater in a shipwreck in Bali, working with this really talented crew of freedivers. Chris Simundrantak was the safety diver who facilitated the photo shoot. One person that I had met who was working at Nike flew in from Singapore for one day just to make a video. And that video ended up going completely viral. It hit 2 million views - I was published on so many different news outlets at the time. 

And I still remember being like, wow, that was completely unexpected - how did I go viral? And I think the one thing that this project had was that it was very compelling in words. 

Even if I'm a visual artist, how people talk about what you do really matters. And if you can't make it interesting for people to talk about, then they're probably not going to do that work for you. 

That project, beyond the visual beauty of it and the craziness of tying a model underwater, it taught me the importance (of) the conversational aspect of my work and how it could spread with words. 

[13:59] Jennifer: But technically, it was also very challenging because you're tying free divers 30 meters underwater, and there has to be safety divers, and you have, I don't know how many minutes to take the photos, and then the safety divers would come and give the oxygen to the free divers. 

But how did you find, in terms of convincing people to work with you as a volunteer to fly in from different parts of the world where the slightest miscalculation could spell some disasters? 

[14:32] Benjamin: Yeah, I think (it’s) this idea of perceived risk versus actual risk. So the actual risk was very low because we had a professional crew of safety divers. And the models are free divers, and they can hold their breath for 3.5-4 minutes, so they're very comfortable underwater. 

Actually, the person that is least comfortable underwater is me. But I'm just there focused on my photos, I trust the safety divers around. So then maybe the next question is, well, how do you convince the safety divers to come and support you on something that you've never done before? Well, I already had a portfolio of doing weird and crazy things. 

They flew over primarily because they had seen that I had created a bunch of fantastical work in the past, and they were interested in experimenting, even if the chances of success were low. And I think that as things build momentum, as you start saying, hey, we have a location, we have a dive crew, we have a model, the whole thing starts to become more and more possible. 

You're taking something that's just an idea, and you're giving it form because you're bringing other people who believe in it. And that shared belief that something is doable starts to actually transform into reality. 

Sure, it starts off with just an idea, but as you start convincing more people that it is possible and getting the most critical, the hardest pieces of the puzzle down, then the rest of it can flow into place. 

And I think that's still true today, and I think it's probably what it really means to be an artist. Because when you're an artist, you have an idea in your head, and now you just need to convince everyone that is a good idea, it is a feasible idea, it is a smart idea, it is a marketable idea, and that is really the work. 

The job of the artist is to help people visualize what they cannot see. And if you can do that, then you can create a career out of that. 

[16:08] Jennifer: But that's also true for startups, how founders get started, they just have an idea to create something, and then they have to go raise the money, build the team, create the product, and build it from scratch. 

[16:19] Benjamin: Yeah, except I think a startup is a far more ambitious project in many ways, because you're spending decades building a company. Huge respect for these corporate visionaries who can see a 20-year thing coming to fruition. 

[16:33] Jennifer: From that shoot, you quickly gained widespread recognition. But after working on this very well-paid global campaign, you mentioned in an earlier talk that you felt empty and actually considered quitting photography for the second time perhaps. Why was that? 

[16:49] Benjamin: Yeah, for me becoming an artist by mistake and because I was doing all these big, elaborate stunts, it felt to me like the most obvious place that I should end up was in advertising and marketing. And so I was like, if I can become a commercial photographer, that is the goal. 

But then, of course, being hired by Huawei, which was at the time the second largest cell phone company in the world, to create a global campaign where my face was plastered all over these billboards, and getting paid very well for it.

I was just like, is this really what I want to do? Is it spending a lot more time in meetings, in prep because you have to de-risk the project that you're working on? What was the end goal? 

The end goal was to sell more product - it felt kind of pointless if it was just feeding the wallet. I think one of the reasons why it felt so empty was because I got there so quickly. Basically within three years of quitting my day job, I get this huge project. And I'm like, oh, wait, what do I actually want? 

And that's when I started considering the projects I was actually really proud of. And it was always projects that had some level of social impact, and that became the next North Star that I decided to work towards. 

[17:49] Jennifer: So in your search for meaning, you've worked on many projects that didn't have commercial value, but aligned with your artistic vision and values. 

And you worked on the saving Eliza campaign, in which you created a viral video for free and raised over $2 million in a GoFundMe campaign for a 4-year old girl who was diagnosed with a terminal disease. 

I know that had changed Eliza's life forever because it saved her life, in what way did it impact yours? 

[18:20] Benjamin: The Eliza project was one of those random, bold experiments that I decided to do. So I hadn't made any videos really by that point, but this family said, hey, you have experience making things go viral, do you think you can try to help us make a viral video? And they wanted to raise a million dollars in a month. 

And so when I went there, I actually planned to fail. I was recording myself being frustrated at trying to do this, and the idea was make this video, fail at raising money, and then record the story of what failure looks and feels like in hopes that might create the successful story. 

But it ended up being a success. I didn't even need to fail to succeed in this one, and it was completely unexpected. We ended up being the most funded campaign on GoFundMe for three years. And it was such a surreal experience that I just registered it as anomalous blip on my radar. Like, I tied models underwater, I lit some people on fire, I raised $2 million. It didn't feel like something that was necessarily going to be a trend. 

But when I look back it really helped me realize that storytelling is a powerful tool, and that an individual can make a big difference and can actually alter the trajectory not just of an individual, but an entire community.

That family has grown into the leading foundation that has raised the most amount of money for this disease. And they continue to fight and raise money because a cure hasn't been found, even though Eliza was part of a clinical trial. 

And so, for me, I think it was just about realizing that things are possible, like dreaming big, making a difference, leaning into the power of storytelling. This is something that has some meaning and is worth pursuing. And so when I reached that junction point of wondering what do I do with my life, it became clear to me that, at the very least, I should be pursuing something impactful. 

Could I replicate that level of success another time? Probably doesn't even matter, it just mattered how it made me feel, the pride of saying I can help people with what I do. I think (that) was really the big unlock and believing it was possible. 

[20:13] Jennifer: So, saving Eliza wasn't the only time where you changed somebody's life trajectory. You also managed to surprise Tyler Grace on his 21st birthday. 

[20:22] Benjamin: You've been stalking me. 

[20:24] Jennifer: Yes, just Internet stalking. So, if you want to watch that video of how Ben wrapped himself in a cardboard box and delivered himself to Tyler's home (chuckles) and surprising him, you can find that on YouTube. 

And tell us about storm chasing across seven states and how you became a climate activist. 

[20:48] Benjamin: Yeah. So we're at this point in my life now where I have a little bit of money in savings, thanks to this big job, and I've decided that I want to make a difference in the world. And I really liked the unexpectedness of fantasy and how that world-building could bring things into my life. And so the question was, like, how do I merge these two worlds together? 

And initially, my idea was to collaborate with nonprofits. I figured that I could take my portfolio, go to nonprofits, and say, like, hey, guys, I'm happy to work with you for free. But it turns out that nonprofits are very risk averse, and I'm very experimental. There was a mismatch between these two worlds, and no one wanted to work with me. It was actually quite humbling. 

I realized ultimately that it's not people's fault for not wanting to work with me, they actually have no examples of what is possible when you combine fantasy and impact together. So it's my responsibility as an artist to show that it is possible. 

Storm chasing was the first project that I did to raise awareness for climate change. It was actually my ex-girlfriend's idea, she wanted to go storm chasing for fun. And I had a friend who was a storm chaser, and so reached out to him and asked if we could join him on his next storm chasing adventure. 

And as we were thinking about what kind of impact could you associate to storm chasing, she came up with the idea of what if we had ordinary people doing ordinary things in front of these big brewing storms, the same way that people might be ignoring climate change? What does that look like? 

And so we found an ambulance; in that ambulance, we put all these props. And we picked up volunteers along the way who wanted to model for us, and went storm chasing over the course of two weeks. 

And you're racing these big brewing supercells that are traveling at 50 miles an hour, and you have to get in front of them through the road network, set up your whole thing, take photos, and then pack everything back up and run away before the storm overtakes you. It's the most absolutely insane experience. 

But more cool than the photos themselves, for me, I think, was just realizing that actually the environment requires a little bit of abstraction and interpretation, and art is really good at that. Climate change, for the most part, is invisible, it’s time-based. So you need to apply some level of artistic control to tell that story if you're not just focusing on devastation.  

And although from a portfolio perspective, these photos aren't the most beautiful, they're not the most elaborate. They highlighted the possibility of taking photography and fantasy and impact, combining that all together. And it just showed me that it was possible. 

[23:07] Jennifer: Right, I was going to say there's a guy sitting on the toilet working against being swallowed by the storm. How many minutes did you have to take the shot? 

[23:14] Benjamin: Yeah, you have five minutes. It's crazy, you feel the pressure drop from minute to minute, and you feel the wind picking up, all the animals go silent. You feel really small in these moments. 

And, we got even caught in a couple hail storms where, these huge golf ball-sized hail just starts falling out of nowhere. And then you have to hide in all these different shelters like gas stations or whatever. And 30 minutes later, it's like boom, it's sunny, it's crazy. 

[23:39] Jennifer: Well, since your storm chasing days, your arts have definitely become an exploration into the environmental crisis, fast fashion, ocean plastics and electronic waste, as we had already mentioned.

You've also received support from organizations such as Starbucks, Dell and Nike. And some people may say that these are the same organizations that are spawning over-consumption and creating the problem to begin with. So how do you deal with that paradox? 

[24:01] Benjamin: Great question. So as an artist who likes to do really big, complex, expensive things, the only way for me to make a living is if I take money from those who have a lot of it. So that's the super pragmatic way of looking at it. 

The other, from a theory of change perspective, is that in order to move the world to where we want it to be, you need both the carrot and the stick. And so I'll use the stick doing my own personal projects, calling companies out or working with organizations like Greenpeace.

But then also work with corporations when they do something right. So, for example, Starbucks switched away from straws. Does that mean that they're still not producing a whole bunch of plastics with their cups? No, it doesn't clean the slate. But it does say, we're removing something from the supply chain that is both unnecessary and hard to recycle. And this is a good thing, so we should celebrate that. 

And so when I create a piece of art with an organization like Starbucks, they gave me some money so that I could pay communities to collect straws for nine months across the entire country of Vietnam, 168,000 plastic straws, so that then I could hire local builders and fabricators to help build this free art installation on display in public, so that I could then take photos, get a Guinness World Record.

“The Parting of the Plastic Sea” is a Guinness World Record art installation out of 168,000 plastic straws. That art piece is used by everyone for free, by schools, by nonprofits, by for-profits, anyone who wants to talk about how small little decisions add up and how plastics is a problem, they get to use it. 

I think it's great that brands are funding this kind of work, it's basically creating a public resource out of that money. Because we live in an extractive, colonial world, the best thing that we can do to honor the money is to create something beautiful and meaningful and giving it a soul, but it isn't done in a way that's cleaning the slate. 

Another example was with Dell, they hired me to create a campaign around electronic waste. So, yes, they are a big producer of electronic waste - they're also one of the largest recyclers in the world. But for them to recycle e-waste, people need to give them e-waste. 

There is this dance between these two parties, where if ever I can help facilitate and lubricate the wheels of social change in some way, shape or form, I'm going to try to do it, whether it's the carrot or the stick. 

[26:21] Jennifer: Right, I think it's also about focusing on the impact that you generate through your artwork and not necessarily looking at who you're being sponsored by. 

As an artist, it's probably very difficult for you to measure the impact of your work. You know, you and I have talked about this. I know I struggle with that for sure with this podcast. But how do you measure the impact of your artwork?

[26:42] Benjamin: You know, for the longest time, I really cared about measuring the impact of art. So much so that I started an entire podcast for a whole year called Impact Everywhere during the pandemic, exploring positive impact in unexpected places. 

And I specifically ask all these different people, who are making a difference in the world, how they measure their impact. And I was just like, if I can figure this out, then I can sell the impact of art, and there would just be more artists creating impactful work. 

And I think I landed on the answer that measuring impact was actually the wrong question, at least when it came to art. The closest analogy I can give you is when we think of love and relationships, what are the KPI's for you, Jennifer, that you love your husband. 

What would you measure? Would you measure the amount of time together, moments of contact? If we got really good at measuring these KPI's, would we really get to the essence of the impact of that love has had on your life? And it just felt like such a dumb question to be asking when you put it on a human relationship level. 

While an indicator might be the number of views, the number of organizations making use of the work, the places that it was displayed, the accolades that it's received, you wouldn't actually ever truly know the impact of the art itself. Because as an artist, you're creating work, you're putting it out into the world, and there is no feedback loop. 

So here's another story. During the pandemic, I was trapped in my home and I couldn't go anywhere. And I was just like, I cannot contribute to anything, what am I doing? And I receive a Google alert on my email one day for my name, and it turns out an entrepreneur all the way in Wuhan, China called Huang Ning Ning, never heard of this girl before, started a company to create products like bags and shirts out of upcycled plastics. 

She credited for quitting her day job, in part, the “Mermaid on 10,000 Plastic Bottles” project that I had created. And I was like, I would have never known that someone's life trajectory was altered because of some art that I created. 

I personally have stopped thinking about that and started focusing my energy more on, how can I create something that I think is going to resonate with people. My responsibility is not to do every aspect of the art creation and the impact measurement piece. For me, as an artist, I'm just going to focus on creating art, and hope it does a really good job of serving the movement. 

[28:39] Jennifer: I agree with you on that wholeheartedly. I've been reading the Bhagavad Gita, which is the holy Hindu scripture. And one of the key lessons is that you have the responsibility to work, but you should not get attached to the results of your labor. 

Sometimes I'm like, who's listening? And how many downloads, and how many audience am I reaching around the world? And having read the Bhagavad Gita, it made me realize, if you do what you feel is right for you that has an impact, you shouldn't judge your work, whether success or failure, on some figure.

But I think it's really hard because I'm also very goal-oriented, I'm also an Asian immigrant. 

[29:24] Benjamin: Well, it's definitely a dent. In terms of your podcast, I was listening to one of the episodes where you were interviewing the founder of Athletic Brewery, who's talking about why he didn't drink anymore. Actually (it) really inspired me, and I ended up, since listening to that podcast, decided to stop drinking. So I've been sober for the last two months, and absolutely loving it. 

And I think for someone like you on the other end, if I didn't tell you, you would never know. And I would just be one view on your dashboard, yet it's that one view that really makes a difference. So it's really funny how the systems that we have in place prioritize one kind of success and are completely incompetent at measuring the depth of impact. 

[30:00] Jennifer: I think you're absolutely right about depth of impact. It's really about touching somebody's soul, like, what you did with Tyler Grace and saving Eliza, you altered the course of their destiny in some way. 

[30:12] Benjamin: That's kind of wild to think about. 

[30:13] Jennifer: You know, much of what we had discussed earlier about your artwork is about raising awareness for the climate change and the environmental issues that we have. But you said you also realized that this awareness doesn't equal change or solution. 

So how do you see your artistic style evolving along that same thread and turning that fear-based narrative to one of hope? People don't like that fear-based narrative, because it doesn't inspire them to change. 

[30:44] Benjamin: Yeah, my work has gone through multiple stages of evolution. I think when I first started out in 2016, fresh in, I had this theory in my mind that if only more people knew about the problem, that they would alter their behavior and change. 

And if we just take plastics as a microcosm, plastic awareness is at an all time high, but there's more plastic produced today than ever before. So our behavior is not matching our awareness. When I take a step back, what needs to change are the underlying systems of incentives, we need to address from a systemic and policy level. 

And so my work, when it comes to activism, has actually shifted to focus more on systemic change as opposed to individual change. And that means I'm working with the United Nations and different governmental bodies trying to create symbols that help the movement. 

And to your second point on people being really frustrated with fear-based narratives, this is something that I've also banged my head against. Personally, as an activist who is creating all these climate stories, I am getting increasingly depressed because the science only gets worse. And it is not very encouraging to be part of the losing team. And I think many people in the climate space feel that way, especially if they've been doing it for 5, 10, 15 years.

And so, back to this idea of the carrot and the stick. We also need something to work towards, something to look forward to. And I think the environmental movement really has somewhat of a crisis of imagination. 

We know where we want to be in 25 years, but we don't know how we're going to get there. Because when we look at the polarization, the misinformation, the big entrenched systems that are keeping us from changing, we get really depressed. So we struggle to even believe that change is possible and we settle into apathy. 

And so what I want to do with my work as I look towards the future is I really want to start focusing on these narratives of hope. I want to start talking with as many people who work on near-future solutions as possible - people who are thinking about justice, equity, inclusion, while combining that with technological innovation. 

And how do I make sure that the art that I create can help accelerate that change? Because I think by creating art that helps support a just and equitable transition that is inspiring and surprising, we can actually give people hope and momentum and highlight something that we can all be excited to work towards. And then instead of settling into apathy, we can start triangulating on a shared vision for (a) hopeful and positive future. 

And the aspiration, for me is to first start figuring out how to contribute to this movement. It's called the Solarpunk Movement, which essentially describes a future in which humanity, technology, and nature coexist peacefully together. 

And I think when we look at narratives that focus on the future these days in media, it's mostly dystopic. And we need more stories where things are a lot more exciting and beautiful, and so forth. 

And so my goal right now is to start this Solarpunk art fund funding these projects on the forefront of innovation and hopefully create a model that is successful and attract new people into that. Because we don't create change alone, we create it together. And whatever I can do to help spur that on would be really amazing. 

[33:48 Jennifer: I love the idea of the Solarpunk art fund - I just recently learned from you what solarpunk actually means. (chuckles) 

I think art has the power to create that future where everyone can see the hope and the potential of what we can create together. 

The challenge for me is how do we create that collective consciousness? Because everyone is so polarized today. So I don't know if you have any thoughts on that, but I'd love to hear it, because I know you think a lot about these things. 

You're not just an artist, an activist, you're also an engineer, and a deep thinker. 

[34:23] Benjamin: Yeah, I mean, how do we create a collective consciousness? I personally feel that one of the greatest tools that we have at our disposal is the ability to be curious. It's really hard to hate someone if you're curious about them. 

If we can cultivate more compassion and curiosity in the world for everything and everyone, then we will have a greater ability to navigate these hard and dramatic conversations. I think it's when we cast judgment upon people, instead of thinking why do you think this way, you think oh, you're an idiot for thinking this way - that's when people shut down. 

And there's so many studies that have been done, even in a very polarized country like the United States, where actually, most people agree on most things, and it's always the very loud, polarized minority that hijacks our primitive monkey brains and keeps us from seeing each other as people. 

And while we can't really control the world, we can control ourselves. And so this idea of creating a collective consciousness is maybe about starting with ourselves, finding those that believe in the same things that we do, who will meet the world in this way and hopefully try to radiate that outwards to the best of our ability. And I think that's really all we can do. 

[35:33] Jennifer: That's really nice, thank you for sharing. 

I want to go back to your art now. I know it takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and dedication to bring your vision to life. In addition to the Strawpocalypse, your Guinness World Record art installation in Vietnam, you've also built the Giant Plastic Tap using trash from the slums in Kenya, and sculptures made from over 4000 tons of electronic waste from Dell. 

And also the world's tallest closet in Egypt that's over 9 meters, and 3,000 articles of clothing. And then most recently, you built a biochar that's over 6.5 meters tall from two tons of bamboo biochar. Well, the list goes on. 

And it's wonderful to see how the artist, the designer and the engineer ingenuity in you all come together on these large-scale, complex projects that takes months to do. But at the same time, I think the audience is wondering what is he going to do next. And so do you feel the pressure to outdo yourself every time? 

[36:46] Benjamin: Yeah, definitely. One of my big fears is fear of irrelevancy. Like what if I have something to say, but no one cares, no one wants to listen? What if my greatest successes are behind me? How would I think about my life differently? 

These are definitely thoughts, questions, doubts that continuously sneak in, along with the real challenges of being an artist, doing weird pioneering work that no one really understands. So it is pretty hard. 

I just moved to New York in December of 2023, because I had come to the realization that although I have friends all around the world, I don't belong anywhere, I don't have my people. I haven't invested any time in building a community or a team. 

The hypothesis is that if I'm able to build a community of people that I want to co-create with, where I feel supported and inspired by, the work will naturally get better over time. So New York was a place that felt like it really held that energy, that diversity, the capital, the inspiration, the technical know-how. It really felt like this was a place where I could find everything or get lost in it, one or the other, we'll see. 

Instead of trying to pursue success, I have decided to focus on how I could cultivate the conditions for success to become inevitable. That was by one of my friends, Vanessa, who gave me that little nugget of wisdom. I'm like, oh, that is wise, I'm going to integrate that. 

[38:08] Jennifer: That's pretty deep. I'm gonna have to think about that. 

[38:11] Benjamin: Because success, how can it not happen if you're surrounded by people who inspire you, who are talented and all this other stuff? 

[38:17] Jennifer: What do you think your journey has taught you so far? 

[38:20] Benjamin: I think when you're young, you have this urgency to do all these things, and it's very frenetic. It doesn't matter how much you've accomplished, new challenges will appear. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. How are you going to create the rules that you want to live by to have a meaningful life that you can stick to, I think, is really important. And the more you can find harmony, the more pleasant that journey is going to be. 

I've spent a lot of time trying to get to places and to get accomplishments in my box. And these days, I still have that ambition to make a difference in the world, but also do that more gracefully and more harmoniously. 

[38:54] Jennifer: Speaking of the rules, you want to talk about your golden guidelines? 

[38:58] Benjamin: I feel like that's an entire podcast in and of itself. 

[39:01] Jennifer: That's right. I can post it on the show notes. 

[39:04] Benjamin: Yeah, it might be great for you to post a link to the show notes, but long story short, I was going through a challenging time where I was considering changing careers and not being an artist anymore, because I was just not sure if the work that I was doing was as effective and joyful as I wanted it to be. 

And so I started writing down these wisdoms on how to prioritize, how to find purpose, and how to maintain a generative, energetic mindset. And I ended up creating all these little rules to remind myself in hard times what to do, how to perceive the world. And it's evolved into a living document, I keep adding to it over time. 

I guess I can just read a few of them that maybe are interesting. One around how do you prioritize things? Demand enough to thrive. If you seek abundance across all your life pillars, it becomes really hard to tell which one to focus on. 

But if you focus on enough-ness instead, do I have enough money to keep creating the art that I find meaningful? Do I have enough community support to create the art that I want to create? Then enough-ness becomes very easy to prioritize because you start figuring out what you don't have enough of. And by just equalizing the enoughness, you ensure a healthy baseline. 

I have something here that's about decisions are not better, worse, or equal, choices can be both different and correct. And I think sometimes we agonize so hard over making the right decision when really you could have just taken any decision, and they're both right. 

I have something here on finding purpose, it's important to make space for ends in and of themselves rather than just doing things that are a means to an end. And too often when people are way too goal-oriented, they end up making everything about the destination rather than the journey itself. And it changes the very flavor and texture of the experiences that you live. 

I have one here about pursuing rejections. So no one likes to be rejected, let's be honest. But if your goal is to accomplish 100 successful rejections a year, then you're going to try a lot more things, because really, success is only a byproduct of rejections. I mean, rejections are mostly the common narrative. And so if we can pursue rejections as a milestone or goal, it can actually make success kind of inevitable once again. 

[41:02] Jennifer: I love that, pursuing rejection, and I have to tell that to my kid.

[41:06] Benjamin: So, yeah, every time I talk to people, I try to get little nuggets of wisdom and integrate them into my own life rules. 

I have a piece here about financial archetypes - I had such an unhealthy relationship to money. And so it's been a really interesting journey to deal with my emotional relationship to money and to understand the different financial archetypes. 

[41:23] Jennifer: I'm also a guardian, by the way, of money. 

[41:25] Benjamin: Yeah, the guardian. Yeah. So I've been working a lot on that and it's been so great. So the guardian archetype for the listeners is defined by no matter how much they have, they are scared of losing it anyways. 

And I think it was very telling to me that my relationship to money, my fear of my runway running out, has not changed over the last ten years. I am so much more stable today, undeniably, from a numbers perspective, and yet the amount of fear I have for my runway running out and losing everything is still the same. 

And it has been so helpful to just know that is the case and to be able to say no, I feel the discomfort, I'm going to move past it and all it took was understanding and awareness of how I am and what I need to work through has been so healing. 

So, I don't know, I really like my golden guidelines. I would love for everyone to give me feedback and if you have anything to add. It's been so fun to make these rules and dive into them. 

And every step of the way, you can create whatever reality you want. And so taking the time to just say what makes me tick, how can I become the best version of myself, not just for work, but as a human, how can I show up the best? It's just a really fun exercise to just sit down and think through. 

[42:33] Jennifer: You're inspiring me to go on the journey to do that actually, nowhere as philosophical or deep as yours I can tell you that. 

Anyway, we're coming to the end of the episode. I want to ask you last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you? 

[42:49] Benjamin: I think the founder spirit is to not be scared when inspiration calls. So if you have an idea, even if it seems like a terrible one, just pull on that string. And don't be scared to play, don't be scared to experiment. 

Be curious, lean into the curiosity because you never know where it's going to take you. And even if it's the wrong direction, at the very least it's going to be an interesting one. 

And I think the best life that you can possibly live is just an interesting one, in which you are learning both about yourself, the world, and your place in that world. 

[43:22] Jennifer: Thank you. 

We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, we have a quote from JR, a French photographer and street artist, and also Ben's favorite artist: 

“What we see changes who we are.”

So, Ben, I want to thank you very much for coming on the Founder Spirit podcast today. And let's all imagine a Solarpunk future together where we can live in harmony with nature and technology. Thank you!

[43:53] Benjamin: Thank you so much. 

[43:57] Jennifer: If this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on, that is As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at

The Founder Spirit podcast is a partner of the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net-zero economy and restoring planetary health. 

Ben, what was the best purchase that you've made in the last 30 days? 

[44:40] Benjamin: This - bladder control pills has absolutely transformed my life. 

I wake up at least once a night to go pee, sometimes usually around like 3-4am, and I can never go back to sleep because my brain just starts rolling. And it's the worst thing, I'm exhausted and I can't go back to sleep.

But turns out, there are these bladder control pills for old people. And it recommends taking them like three times a day or whatever. But I just take it once before going to sleep. And it's got like nothing in it. It's pumpkin seed extract and soy germ, which is basically all it is. 

And for whatever reason, this thing is keeping me in bed. I don't need to go pee in the middle of the night and I have been sleeping the best. I can't recommend it enough.

[48:18] Jennifer: Great life hack.

[46:16] Benjamin: Yes, number one, great life hack.

[49:18] Jennifer: That's hilarious.


Show Notes


(02:24) A Multicultural Kid

(04:50) Discovering Photography as a Hobby

(09:27) Perspective Behind the Camera Lens

(12:31) Underwater Shipwreck Shoot in Bali

(16:49) Feeling Empty Despite Commercial Success 

(20:48) Storm Chasing Days

(26:42) Impact of Art

(30:44) A Solarpunk Future

(36:46) Fear of Irrelevancy 

(38:58) Ben’s Golden Guidelines for Decision-Making

(42:49) The Founder Spirit

(44:40) Ben’s Life Hack - Bladder Control Pills


  • Collaboration and effective communication are crucial in overcoming challenges and convincing others to support your vision.
  • Finding purpose and impact in your work can reignite passion and motivation. Finding meaning in your work is more important than pursuing external markers of success.
  • A Solarpunk future is a vision of a world where humanity lives in harmony with nature, prioritizes sustainability, and thrives through the use of renewable energy and eco-friendly technologies.
  • Turning fear-based narratives into messages of hope can inspire people to take action in the climate movement.


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