As a photographer whose work has been shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for more than a decade, Ben Kong has established a well-earned reputation for offering glimpses of the unexpected. He travels the world taking these photographs, returning with unique images capable of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. He’s also the creative force behind First Republic’s annual photo calendar.
We recently caught up with Ben to learn more about how he came to adopt photography, which he calls his “serious hobby,” the lessons he’s picked up along the way and his best advice for how amateur photographers can elevate their own travel photos.
You’re a trained structural engineer who spent your career working in real estate development. How did you discover your love for photography?
I started taking photos around 1995. At the time, I had a work project in Shanghai, so I would go there five or six times a year. I ended up picking up a $450 camera and, in each visit to Shanghai after my consulting work was done, I would go off and take photos around China.
My camera was relatively inexpensive; for a newcomer, an expensive camera does not necessarily make better photos. It is the composition and lighting that matter.
I didn’t know whether the images were particularly good or not; I just enjoyed making them. After I took a few weekend classes, I ended up showing some of my work to a friend, who was an interior designer. He showed them to the director of the San Francisco MOMA at Fort Mason, and she ultimately asked me to print some photos to be part of the display at the Fort Mason gallery. I was in seventh heaven! I went on to display photos there from 1999 to 2010. In spite of all that, I still don’t consider myself a professional photographer — it’s a very serious hobby.
Your photographs capture stunning landscapes, personal moments and imaginative details of seemingly mundane things. What’s your process for determining what will make a great photograph?
One of my biggest challenges is to compose a picture in a way that elevates someone’s emotional reaction to the everyday world. I like to emphasize simplicity — the sparer the photo, the greater space for your imagination to roam. I love to zoom in on a small part of a larger picture.
For beautiful landscapes, I look at websites and research other photos of an area beforehand. Essentially, I know what photo I’m planning to take before I get there — it’s about how I can make it my own. For more detailed photos, I’ll get to a place and walk the streets, take in the culture and see what details I can spot. Broadly, I’m looking for things that are colorful. I don’t look for anything specific; a lot of it is luck.
What advice would you give aspiring or new photographers who want to go beyond the expected, postcard-type shots?
Let me first say that our digital age has made it possible for almost anyone to take beautiful pictures, even with an iPhone. And the “expected shots” are still important. They not only provide a storyline, they’re also a reminder of places you visited and the things you experienced.
If you want to go further than those postcard pictures, though, strive to crop from the large, real-life canvas. You’ll want to compose shots that capture beautiful details, with a hint of the location. To do this, you have to get away by yourself. Your family and friends might become impatient, but you need to focus. Take three or four hours to walk around a place alone, so that you can stop to look and not be influenced by others around you. Also, take a lot of photos. On a two-week photo trip — which I always go on alone — I’ll take more than a thousand photos. If 20 of them are worth keeping, I’ll be happy.
What are some of your favorite unexpected moments from your own travels?
No matter how thoroughly I research a destination, I never expect — nor want — my trip to go entirely as planned. Those unexpected moments, most often, contain true magic. For example, once as I was island hopping just off the shore of Zanzibar, I encountered a couple of fishermen in a small boat. I asked them if they would show me how they cast their nets. They not only put on a wonderful display of their fishing skills, but also gave me a rich description of their catches, the dangers of fishing on the open seas, the money they could make and so on. It was a priceless experience, and I walked away with some remarkable photographs.
Where are you headed this year?
I’m looking at Peru — I’m excited about all of the colorful costumes there. I’m also planning a trip to photograph castles in Germany, and from there I’d like to go to Northern France.