Mermaids Hate Plastic
Von Wong's Project to Reduce Plastic Pollution
Photography by Benjamin Von Wong
Many of us may think plastic pollution is boring. Photographer Benjamin Von Wong does, but he also knows it’s a staggering problem that needs addressing now. According to his figures, if we do nothing about the looming disaster, there will be more plastics in the sea than there will be fish by the year 2050. To bring people’s attention to the situation, Von Wong decided to figure out a way to present it in an interesting very public manner with a photographic series and a message: Mermaids Hate Plastic. What better way to illustrate the danger of future seas filled with plastic bottles than by pairing that image with a beautiful vulnerable mermaid and the impact such a future would have on her species? Now, we all know mermaids aren’t real, but they are the perfect symbol for the beauty of all sea creatures, whether plant or animal, and the threat pollution has on their continued existence.
The series depicts an incandescent mermaid in various poses being trapped in her ocean home, sometimes struggling to reach land, by 10,000 plastic bottles in different configurations. Von Wong says the average person will have used and discarded that many in 60 years. As plastic bottles take approximately 450 years to degrade, that’s a lot for humans, animals, and mermaids to be running, or swimming, away from.
This is not the first time Von Wong has rallied behind a cause near and dear to his heart. He says of himself, “One of my greatest strengths as an artist is that I am often too naive to realize how crazy my ideas are. I dive into them headfirst, rallying volunteers around a single cause. Thanks to the help of people who are often complete strangers at the beginning of my projects, what starts off as a small idea blossoms into a full-blown production.”
Von Wong had a clear idea of the kind of campaign he wanted to wage in order to bring attention to plastic pollution. He also knew he was only one man and would need a community of people to help him realize his vision. For that reason, he enlisted friends, acquaintances of friends, artists, and designers to help him. As well, a waste management company provided the 10,000 plastic bottles needed for the shoot and delivered them in a 50-foot truck at no charge. Volunteers also came out in droves to remove the labels and wash the bottles.
A friend even provided the warehouse space where the shoot would take place, and another friend, a professional rigger, suspended Von Wong’s camera from the top of the space with a system of pulleys and plywood so he didn’t need to find a cherry picker. The camera was controlled by an iPad and connected to a large-screen TV lent by Costco.
Plastic pollution may be a boring topic, but there is no doubt people are aware of its existence and have a deep desire to do something about it. The local news media also got behind the idea after getting wind of it causing even more volunteers to stop by and lend a hand.
Once the preparations were made, Von Wong and a painter spent an entire day experimenting with a number of different ways to configure the bottles, which resulted in different patterns, like drains and waves, for different shots. They also designed a faux beach using a particular kind of flooring that was lent to them by Power Dekor.
Then, of course, there was the creation of the mermaid, arguably the most important element in the series. The chosen model, Clara Cloutier, was fitted with an exquisite silicone tail designed exclusively for the shoot by Cynthia Brault. Cloutier was also covered in body paint in shimmering hues that lent her the lustre of the ethereal being. Not only were the patterns of the bottles changed for effect, so were the poses of the mermaid. As well, her hair, body paint, and tail had to be tweaked to perfection between each shot.
Von Wong knows it takes more than a series of thought-provoking pictures to begin solving a problem, so he also created a message and a website called Mermaids Hate Plastic. Hoping the results will ignite a conversation and encourage people to take action, a petition on the website invites everyone to pledge to re-use, and depend less on plastic, by signing the petition and adhering to the pledge.
It was our great pleasure to talk to Benjamin Von Wong about the Mermaids Hate Plastic project and his attempt to reduce the amount of plastic in the world for future generations.
CKW Luxe: When did you initially become aware of the enormity of the problem of plastic pollution, and what made you decide to do something about it?
Benjamin Von Wong: I don’t think I can remember a specific date and time. I think it’s something that I’ve always known, but it was just more convenient to ignore the problem than try to tackle it. Plastic pollution is a topic that I’ve always wanted to confront, but didn’t know how to. When my mom found me a mermaid, all the pieces fell into place.
CKW: Creating Mermaids Hate Plastic was clearly a labor of love for you. How did you make it one for those who signed on to help, or did you have to?
BVW: I think it was a labor of love for all who signed up to participate. After all, there was no other incentive for them—no money, no fame. If anything, they deserve more credit than I do for having agreed to participate in some dude’s crazy idea.
CKW: This project took a community of people to bring it to fruition. What was your reaction to the spirit of those who helped, and what does their involvement tell you about people’s commitment to the environment?
BVW: It’s heartwarming to see people rally around a common cause. I think the most important lesson that people took away from this project (the ones who participated) is that every person matters and can make a difference. That’s something we often forget.
CKW: Are you pleased with the response to the project and the petition, and where do you go from here? Will you expand this project or are you setting your sights on a new cause as we speak?
BVW: I’m pleased with the response so far in terms of visibility and exposure. I have to admit that I was hoping for more than 10,000 pledge signatures, but hey, it’s a start!
I definitely want to continue tackling different environmental causes. The only constraint is that the projects aren’t boring or repetitive. I have no idea what the next project is, but stay tuned.
Benjamin Von Wong is a noted conceptual photographer who uses his skills and art to tell epic stories as well as to bring our attention to the world around us, making us think about the effects our actions have on our home planet today and will have in the future. Using various photographic techniques, Von Wong encourages us to see the world through his eyes, and with the use of intricate productions, creates images for us we could otherwise only imagine.