Unusual Beauty - an Interview with Ben Staley
Ben Staley (@ben-staley) is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, storyteller, photographer, and professional adventure-haver. His striking portraits and nature photography are a constant source of inspiration to the Ello team. Learn a little more about his latest project and past work below.
Interviewer Mark Gelband (@markgelband) is Ello’s Chief Marketing Officer, an expert in container home construction, a long-time writer, and a local everywhere he goes.
Mark: I started paying really close attention to your work when you were documenting the film you're making about ships and welders. Could you tell us more about that project?
Ben: The project is called "Starbound" and it's about a boat of the same name. The boat is a catch processor that fishes on the Bering Sea. It’s a top performer but the factory was outdated and inefficient and they were losing money. The construction project would lengthen the boat, making it as environmentally friendly as possible and saving the jobs of the 100+ crew members. The owners are doing it for the best reasons. They could have taken the easy way out and and saved a lot of money up front and had no risk, but they undertook this incredible challenge because they care about the environment and their employees and their families.
Frankly, we don't really see this kind of thing in modern big business. Companies typically try to mitigate risk and cut corners, regardless of the toll it takes on the little guys.
The owners contacted me about a year before the project was to start and were really just requesting that I film some of it and wanted to know "how much would that cost." I listened to their story and thought about it and then called them back and suggested a feature-length documentary, which they agreed to let me do. For me as a storyteller it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to capture this process and tell their story. The family that owns the boat are incredibly committed and hardworking people and they will willingly spend more money and take on this risk to do things the right way.
It’s a story I think people need to see. You don't always have to be a money grubbing asshat to succeed. You can lift up the little guy and try and make the planet a better place and protect the environment and the natural resources we all depend on to survive. I feel honored to have the opportunity to tell this story. And the images I've been able to capture are incredible. Just in broad strokes, no one has really ever seen this kind of project before to my knowledge. Picking a 240 foot-long boat up out of the water, cutting it in half and sticking 60 foot section in the middle, welding it back together and putting it back in the water. All in the space of a couple months. The hard work, skill and craftsmanship are incredible. I can’t wait for people to see it and I am hoping it gets as many eyes as possible on it.
Right now 90% of the work is done. I'll be making the first trip to sea with the boat later this summer and hope to have the doc done by end of year.
Mark: The shots of welding immediately caught my attention. What is it about the process of welding that makes a great photograph?
Ben: I don't know about other people but I could shoot welding all day. Every day. It's mesmerizing. It's the contrast between darkness and light. The speed of the sparks are fun to freeze in motion. It's dangerous, you can’t look at it, but you want to. I can stick a camera really close and see things my eyes can’t. I could shoot welders all day.
Mark: In one of your posts on Ello, you talk about two types of people – those who build and those who tear down. You allude to the deeper meaning in these phrases. How do your pictures help you define yourself as a builder?
Ben: That’s an interesting question. I'm trying to capture a dignity in people. A nobility. Often we want to stare at people or look closer at them, but it’s rude. You can look deeper into a picture. You can sometimes see deeper into a person. See things about them in a photograph that you might overlook in person because you didn't want to stare or didn't want to be rude. I think if people can look at other people and see a connection or see the humanity in them, the scars, the fear, the struggle, the joy, then we are all better off. We are all on the same damn rock spinning through space and just trying to survive. If I could help people see those things then I'm comfortable calling myself a builder.
Mark: The Bering Strait portraits series seem to serve as a metaphor for your joy in shooting "working" people, capturing the way lines in a face can tell a broader story of a person's life. Can you discuss?
Ben: The Bering sea is a hard place. One of the hardest. It's two oceans coming together and under the oceans there are two plates of the earth colliding and forming volcanoes. It's incredible. I've spent hundreds of days out there living on boats with those guys and you get to see them (and they see you) at your lowest points. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion and oftentimes, just the plain absurdity of life on a boat with six or seven guys crammed into tight quarters. Those kinds of immersive environments make the best photographs. You can’t show up for an hour or even a day and capture that stuff. It comes from days together. Seeing the right moment as it’s occurring and being there to take a snap. If you’re prepared you get the moment. If you’re lucky you can see through the moment to every moment that has led there, to that place. If you’re lucky.
Mark: One of the things I love most about your work is the way you make the "other," perhaps the not-mainstream beauty, beautiful. Is this intentional in your subjects for portraiture?
Ben: It is intentional. I like pretty girls (or people) as much as the next guy and I live in Los Angeles, so there are plenty to photograph. Maybe I'm a bit of a contrarian though; I'm just not that interested in the standard definition or interpretation of beauty. I like an underdog. I like to show people different ways of looking at something or someone. Like I said above, I like to find the nobility in people. I like the scars and the lines and the "flaws." I think those things are just way more interesting.
Mark: You also seem to like the road, woods, open spaces and playing with natural light, sparks and fire. Can you talk about these elements in your work?
Ben: I just like being outside with a pack on my back. I work hard at the landscape stuff too, but I'm continually less satisfied with the results than with my portraiture. I love to photograph roads or old cars or campfires. I guess it's the discovery and adventure I like. Finding new things (new to me) and then photographing them. Recognizing those rare moments when the light is just right. I also like key lime pie and I can’t tell you why. It just is.
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