When Hunger Hits Pirate

This inspiring journey to see child hunger from a different angle started with a chance encounter at last year’s EG Conference between epic photographer Benjamin Von Wong and Second Harvest supporter Lise Buyer, who underwrote the project. What followed was months of brainstorming and hard work that culminated in two hectic days of photo shoots, costume changes, and set-designing on the fly. The result is five incredible photos that bring a new reality to the often hidden problem of child hunger.

Von Wong worked closely with Alisa Tantraphol, former associate director of strategic partnerships at Second Harvest, who relied on a network of friends and volunteers to find the child models, costumes, set locations and props that were needed for the kind of fantastical photos Von Wong is known to create. They were even lucky enough to have friend and fellow photographer Asa Mathat help with set direction. The three of them put their heads together to produce the effect Von Wong envisioned, and then he worked his magic.

Behind the Scenes Pirate

The spy-themed photo was shot at Martha’s Kitchen, a local soup kitchen and longtime partner of Second Harvest. It took some work to make it look like the boy was hanging on wires. The arctic explorer was actually climbing a rack at Second Harvest’s Curtner Center in San Jose, California. The pirate was slogging through her treasure at Nativity School, another Second Harvest partner. Arteaga’s Food Center was the backdrop for the knight’s battle through the grocery aisle, and Lincoln Glen Park was the scene for the archeological dig.

Each new shoot required a complete set change – and all of this in just two days! And of course there were glitches. Like when they got all set up at in the Nativity School cafeteria for the pirate shoot and then realized it wasn’t going to work. Everything had to be moved to the library upstairs. Check out this behind-the-scenes look at the photo shoots and find out who helped Von Wong bring his vision to life:


We talked with Von Wong about how he got involved with the project and what makes him tick. Here’s what we found out.

Q: What inspired you to get involved?

Von Wong:

I had never heard of Second Harvest before. It’s an amazing organization that’s getting great results. But I didn’t know about them.

Lise approached me at the EG Conference last year. I didn’t know who she was either. She said she had an amazing organization that she thought I would enjoy being introduced to. She asked if I’d be interested in working with Second Harvest if they were interested. My reply was I’m always interested in talking to anyone doing great work.

I sat down with Alisa and Stephen Brennan (marketing director at Second Harvest) and we bantered about my vision. It was immediately apparent they wanted to do something regardless. We all had the desire to come together and do something. We all made a commitment to make it happen.

That was really something, because it’s not obvious how to take a fantastical photographer and design a campaign around a problem that is really invisible.

I really have to credit Alisa for bringing it all together. If there was one MVP, it was Alisa. She was the pivotal point. She produced it.

When Hunger Hits Crew

Q: What is the creative process?

Von Wong:

I approach everything like it’s a problem that needs to be solved. Everything is about problem-solving.

First I had to understand what the problem was. What the struggle was. Second Harvest has a strong corporate donor base, but not the best online presence. I wanted to bring my ability to generate online awareness. Although I can’t say it will be more effective than a corporate fundraising campaign. That’s more traditional.

But what I can do is create media assets to strike up the conversation in a newer way. I’m always looking for some new story to tell. Success stories and documentaries are great, but sometimes they can become redundant. I wanted to find a different way to talk about the problem.

My style is fantastical, surreal. I like to find the fun in it. It’s education by adventure. It creates something new to talk about. It’s additional eye candy to rope people in instead of the same old hunger sucks and it’s terrifying.

So when you’re solving a problem, that invariably means a lot of back and forth. We went back and forth on ideas and images until we settled on the idea of kids on an epic quest for food.

We finally came up with “When Hunger Hits.” For a while it was “It shouldn’t have to be this hard to find food.” But we decided that was too negative. We wanted to change it to something more positive. We went through a bunch of iterations.

At the end of the day it’s about making a strong campaign. It’s not about my ego, or anyone’s ego, it’s about making the strongest campaign possible.

Q: Did you learn anything you didn’t know about hunger?

Von Wong:

I was definitely shocked by the numbers. More than 1 in 4 people in Silicon Valley are at risk for hunger.

Also, the fact that it was invisible. It’s not something that had really crossed my mind. It does not represent my childhood. Nobody I know had that story. Or if they did, I didn’t know about it. It’s shocking how close to home the problem is and how little I knew about it. So it was knowing what I didn’t know.

But what I was even more shocked by was Second Harvest’s impact. I had never envisioned what a million meals would look like. But the Food Bank distributes the equivalent of a million meals every week.

I was impressed by the hunger statistics. But Second Harvest’s metrics blew me away. Here was a solution. You hear a lot about problems, but you don’t hear a lot about solutions.

So that was a lot of why I wanted to help. And this campaign could be used by food banks, or any organization that fights hunger.

Second Harvest has a model that works. They are capable of feeding huge numbers of people because they partner with local organizations and food distribution sites. If the campaign helps all these organizations, that’s great.

Hopefully it will get people to donate to Second Harvest.

Q: What motivates you, with this project and others?

Von Wong:

I approach life in an interesting way. I’m curious to know my potential as a person. And I judge potential based on my impact on others. Ultimately I’m curious to see what kind of an impact I can make on the world. Sometimes it goes well, other times it doesn’t. That just seems to be part of life

It’s about getting up every day and wanting to make an impact. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m in a unique situation. I have no kids, no other life responsibilities. I’m still young. I have nothing better to do with my life.

Q: How did these photos come together?

Von Wong:

Alisa found the kids for us. Working with children is stressful, because you never know how they are going to do. It’s guaranteed that everything is going to take longer. You just hope for the best.

And we were not having them do normal, easy things. We were having them do tough things. Hanging from poles. Climbing. Riding in shopping carts. It was tough.

You plan for the best, and expect the worst. But it all came together. It was super cool to see all the volunteers come together, from make-up to costume, to lighting and other assistance. So many people came together.

We all just wanted to make a difference and be part of something greater. It was extremely heartwarming.

And we got all five shots.

Behind the Scenes Spy

Q: What were the challenges or obstacles? Any surprises during the shoot?

Von Wong:

Every shoot is an obstacle.

For example, when we were in the supermarket trying to shoot the girl riding in the shopping cart. We realized there were a lot of labels we couldn’t show. Copyright issues.

How do we erase every single label out of the shot? We decided to move at the same speed as the shopping cart so it would blur out all the logos on camera. And the photo ended up even better.

Q: What do you hope comes out of this campaign?

Von Wong:

I really hope that first people share the project because it’s a great excuse to share really fun images on a very serious issue. I hope parents share it with their kids so they can be more aware. It’s very cool in terms of the personal impact.

No one person is going to solve hunger, but everyone can make a difference. I hope Second Harvest sees a bump in donations.

The hard thing about being an artist is I can’t track my own impact. I won’t know whose lives have been changed. Maybe no one’s.

I would love to hear back about the campaign. If it has affected you, let me know. Those stories are always so great to hear.

And I hope this gives Second Harvest the opportunity to talk about hunger in a different way.


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