A still from Benjamin Von Wong’s 'Mad Max Meets Trump’s America,' a fantasy photo series exploring the potential effects of the Trump administration’s policies on the environment and rebooting of the coal industry. (Photo: Benjamin Von Wong)
Mining engineer-turned-photographer Benjamin Von Wong’s recent dystopian fantasy photoshoot, set in a world crippled by pollution, has provoked strong reactions from both admirers and critics.
While most salute the brilliant photography, some audience members are protesting the message implicit in Mad Max meets Trump's America on social media, saying the series "doesn't target the real polluters" or that it's a distraction from the true challenge of "making America work again."
The San Francisco-based, Canadian-born artist shot the series in May 2016 at Ferropolis – a vast outdoor industrial museum on the site of a decommissioned strip mine in Germany.
Wong's background as a mining engineer proved critical in the creation of the pyrotechnic effects. And the Wasteland Warriors -- an art collective that specializes in making costumes and scenery using mainly recycled material and army surplus equipment -- also helped to give the work a post-apocalyptic vibe. You can get behind-the-scenes views of the shoot on Wong's blog here.
Wong wrapped the project last November. Even though it was conceived before President Donald Trump came to office, the powerful anti-pollution theme of Mad Max meets Trump's America inescapably serves as a strong critique of the U.S. administration’s pandering to the coal industry, and overall stance on environmental issues.
KQED caught up with Wong to find out more about the project.
Why the haters?
When I was designing the project, I wasn’t particularly focused on coal. I was focused on the broader idea that nobody likes pollution. But the people who are fighting for coal jobs to come back don’t care. They’re looking at what they need in the short term, and I get that. Unfortunately it’s not forward-thinking. There’s been a lot of knee-jerk reaction. "Instead of complaining about what we’re doing here in the U.S.," I’ve been asked, "why don’t you go talk to India and China?" But India and China are putting new environmental regulations in place; they’re actually going in the right direction. The only country going backward is the United States.
You’ve worked on a wide range of projects, and are now focused solely on conservation efforts. How do you feel you can make a difference?
By convincing corporations to start taking social responsibility, and helping them talk about it in a way that will bring the subject top of mind with consumers. I’m trying to prove that you can communicate these complex issues in a catchy way so that people will want to know more. And that you can sell a product not through what the product actually does but through what you stand for.
The next stage in consumer behavior is that consumers will make choices built around the values of manufacturers. And if large corporations start talking about their social initiatives, then the smaller companies will start doing it. We’re starting to see that. Look at the Super Bowl ads this year. Many of them took a political stance. Companies realize it’s extremely effective marketing for them to stand for something.
This work taps into a collective feeling of despair and anxiety. Where is the silver lining, if there is one?
There’s been a resurgence in resistance. There are more people now than ever speaking up in defense of the environment.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.