Climate change is often described as an ominous storm gathering in the distance. A stunning new series of surreal photographs makes that metaphor literal by juxtaposing people going about their daily lives against a swirling backdrop of storm cells.
“Surreal Stormchasing Portraits” is a new series by conservation photographer Benjamin Wong, a.k.a. Von Wong. The idea came about in early May during a dinner conversation with his partner, Anna, about how they could create conservation-based images around storm chasing. He loved the idea of using storm cashing as a metaphor for the climate crisis, but felt daunted by the enormous technical challenges involved: coordinating the models, building sets, designing lighting — and being able to pack up and move on short notice should there be a sudden shift in the storms.
So he called upon the expertise of fellow photographer Kelly DeLay, who specialises in chasing after storms and capturing them on film. DeLay assured him it could be done, but there would be some key constraints. They would only have 10-15 minutes to set up and tear down each shot. They would have no control over where they would go, or where they would end up by the end of each chase day. And there was no guarantee that Wong would get his shot.
Wong said they traversed seven US states over the course of 10 days, calling on local volunteers (often other photographers) to serve as models and crew. They sourced props via Craigslist and raiding skips, and a friend donated his ambulance as a transport vehicle. (It also served as a makeshift protected lightbox for Wong’s pricey Broncolor Move flash pack.) With Google tracking, their itinerary looked like this:
“It was my job to get us in front of a storm with a great foreground and in an area that we could back the ambulance in and get the shot before the supercell would run us over,” DeLay writes on his blog. And he proved a great guide. Wong said he never once felt in danger, just exhilarated, likening it to an African safari. “You feel everything [as a storm approaches],” he said. “You feel the temperature drop, the wind picks up. It’s a very cool experience.”
That said, the conditions proved challenging enough that he didn’t get everything he wanted. He quickly learned that DeLay hadn’t been exaggerating about the short time available to capture the action on film. “My dream was to have supercells, tornadoes and lightning all in one shot,” Wong admitted, “But apparently that’s not really something you can expect to happen.” DeLay writes that while there was “one great day in South Dakota complete with tornados and rainbows, amazing lightning and storm structure,” the storms moved far too quickly to allow Wong to get a good shot.
Equipment-wise, Wong ended up using two Sony A7 cameras capable of capturing both still and video footage, along with a tripod and a wide-angle lens. And he hired someone to film the entire process. “Special effects are so prevalent, people tend to attribute anything that looks a little too surreal to CGI,” he explained. “The ability to show that no, we were actually there with the storm building and the winds blowing, it really draws people in and helps them be part of the adventure.”
Wong admits that he has not always been the most committed environmentalist. “I think I definitely fit into the demographic of people who just exist in the world and surf through it. You see all these climate change things pop up, but it’s not fun to read about. It makes you feel kinda bad,” he told Gizmodo. Or, as he phrased it on his blog:
“It is almost impossible to look at the plethora of different crises that affect our world today without feeling overwhelmingly depressed and powerless. As a result, I’ve always shied away from negative news in hopes that if I ignored it, someone smarter and more qualified would come along and fix things and I wouldn’t have to deal with the negativity.”
By taking on creative projects with a conservation theme, “I’m speaking to the other [people like me] in the world,” Wong said. “It just feels like a positive way to contribute back. I like the idea that I can make a small difference.”
Check out the full gallery below, and be sure to head on over to Kelly DeLay’s blog as well for a look at even more spectacular storm footage.
Climate change doesn’t care about your day job.
Climate change doesn’t care how fast you level up.
Climate change doesn’t care that you need a vacation.
Climate change doesn’t care about the news today.
Climate change doesn’t care about how good it tastes.
Climate change doesn’t care about what you’re going to wear tomorrow.
All images courtesy of Benjamin Wong. Used with permission.