When all of Ben’s cameras and gear were stolen on a train from Brussels to Amsterdam earlier this year, it left him shook, but he soon bounced back and took the hit gracefully. “It changed my perspective because I instantly realized how much I love and value what I do”, he says. Having grown up in New-Zealand, Ben started taking pictures skateboarding as a teen. After moving to Melbourne, he decided to raise the stakes and go for photography full time. He’s been travelling the world ever since, working for monoliths such as Nike and Adidas as well as independent brands and an array of magazines. He’s also one of the driving forces behind Good Sport magazine and a dedicated runner himself. We spent a fun Spring day with him in Amsterdam, where he currently resides with his girlfriend.
IT’S COLD UP NORTH.
When we first arrived, we dropped off all our bags here in Amsterdam and then went to Italy for a month to hang out. We figured if we’d move here to work, we might as well start it all off with a nice holiday. At first, we lived on Prinsenseiland for about half a year, an amazing place. It’s like an island on an island. A friend of ours lives out there and his neighbor had a spare apartment so that’s how that came together. When some other friends of ours moved away, we got the opportunity to take over this apartment. We got lucky, the place is beautiful and so is our area.
This was my first winter in the northern hemisphere and man, it was so tough (laughs). Everyone says that it was a mild winter, but for me it was harsh. Not so much the cold, but the lack of sunlight is what really did me in. It felt like it would last forever. It’s fine now though. It takes a while to get adjusted I guess, to understand how the city works and to create a network. Luckily, we already had a few friends that lived here so it was easier to make those connections.
Naturally, being a photographer and doing a magazine is a good way to meet people, as is running. It gives you a chance to connect with like-minded people anywhere. That’s one of the coolest things about the job that I have. I think things would be different if I’d work a 9-5 job where I could only meet people in the workplace. I love having different people from all over around me.
If you compare Melbourne and Amsterdam, besides the obvious difference in temperature, the style of living is very different too. In Melbourne it makes more sense to have a car because the city’s so spread out. Amsterdam is much more compact - it’s probably the size of two Melbourne suburbs - but it’s high density, everything you need is right there; you can just walk or bike anywhere. There’s always something to do and it’s always easily accessible.
I lived in Melbourne for 8 years, which seems like a long time, but it flew by. I feel like I tried to leave a couple of times, but the city wouldn’t let me get away (laughs). I’d considered moving to New York and then L.A. or somewhere in Europe but somehow, the amount of time I spent away from Melbourne was always enough to balance it out while still keeping my home base there. However, I needed to broaden my horizon and now was the right time to do so. I feel like Amsterdam has a lot of positive momentum and I wanted to be part of it.
People here think it’s the strangest thing, moving from sunny Australia to here, but to Australians moving from the Southern hemisphere to Europe makes sense.
WORKING FOR THE BIG BOYS.
There were a few different catalysts which lead to me working for big brands like Louis Vuitton or Adidas. It’s not like I snapped my fingers and it happened. I had been shooting live music for a long time already – think hardcore, hip hop, indie – which wasn’t really something I made money with, but it taught me a lot. I always had different interests, like design, architecture, food and travelling for example. Those interests grew and creatively I wanted to push what I was doing; I wanted to grow and explore new territories. The way I started working freelance was pretty naïve. I’d been in Melbourne for a while and had a normal job, at a camera store. But I hated the 9 to 5 routine and wanted to be my own boss, so I just quit. I didn’t know anything; I knew nothing about business. I was like “OK – I’ve got to hustle now”, so I started asking anyone I knew for work, sometimes I’d even do it for free and I’d just work all of the time, obsessively. I was really driven and hungry, with specific goals in mind. One year, at the start of the year I set myself the goal to shoot a campaign for Nike. Sure enough, 5 months later I was in Japan, doing just that. It all worked out because of a few different things: some very supportive people around me, who I am as a person, my vision as well as the experience I built over time.
It’s funny because as a really young kid I’d gotten totally spellbound with basketball, which is odd because I grew up in a very small, isolated city in New Zealand. On a farm (laughs). So, even just having that connection to American sports was foreign. But me and my best friend got crazy obsessed by the NBA. We’d do chores to earn some money so we could go into the city and buy Nike gear. We figured that’s how you dressed if you wanted to become a basketball player. If you would have told 8-year-old Ben that he’d be shooting Nike campaigns decades later… he’d go crazy.
THE CREATIVE DREAM.
I loved drawing and painting as a teenager so my mom gave me a camera and with it, a lens through which I could see the world. I was always very culturally aware, interested in what was going on around me. Initially, I started documenting those things. At first it was skateboarding. I wasn’t as good at it as my friends, so I started taking pictures of them skating. Then the same thing happened with regards to music. I played guitar in bands for a long time, but I knew I wasn’t the best, nor was I dedicated enough to make it, but I was very dedicated to taking pictures. That’s the thread that’s woven throughout my story.
Now that I’ve been doing this for over 15 years, I feel like I have a better understanding of what I do. I believe that your experiences really dictate your outlook and your output. Today, a lot of people are chasing “the creative dream”, people want that type of job or role. The way I see it is that you could line up 5 people, give ‘em all the same subject, with the same camera and have ‘em shoot at the same time, yet you’d still have 5 different pictures because everyone has a different state of mind. A certain way of thinking shaped by their experiences. So, I do believe you can still have individualism in times of saturation and globalization.
I spend a lot time thinking about my approach to every subject. I try to compact my life’s experiences into that approach. Before I go in, I wanted to know what I’m looking for. Is it a particular emotion or feeling? Am I going to experiment with different techniques or cameras? Am I going for portraits? When you have a connection to something and an understanding, you know what you’re looking for. You want to do whatever’s in front of you justice. That’s why I hardly take pictures of skateboarding anymore, as much as I love it, because I’m not really involved in the community anymore. It’s no longer my world, I’d almost feel like an intruder.
MORE THAN A GOOD SPORT.
I started Good Sport magazine after getting back into physical activities myself, some 5-6 years ago. I started running a lot and playing basketball again and indirectly that lead to the birth of the magazine. Simply because when I looked at the publications and the photographs that were prevalent in that world at the time, everything seemed so commercial and lifeless. It didn’t appeal to me or my friends. The question was if we could make sporting images that we could relate to. That was the goal and I wanted to chase it as hard as I could.
Sports are such an interesting thing because everyone has a connection to them. Whether you’re a practicing athlete or whether you hate a certain sport, everyone has their opinions. It’s an ideal conversation starter, with a lot of emotions attached. There’s a lot more at play than the person that’s just kicking the football for instance. There’s the architect that designed the stadium, the clothing designer that drew the outfits, the chef that prepares the food for the athletes… It’s a world within the world.
Putting a new issue of Good Sport together is always a slow process. First of all because we want to create in-depth, well-researched articles but also because it’s hard to find advertisements for a print magazine. We don’t like chasing advertisers either, it takes a lot of energy. Creating a magazine means constant communication. You’re making sure people respect the deadlines, discussing with photographers and writers, talking to the printer, taking care of distribution... So, if I can cut away the stress that comes with advertising, I will. Nowadays, I’d rather work a little harder and save some of my own money so I can invest it in the magazine. Plus, there’s no steady schedule anymore. When it’s ready, it’s ready.
Right now, I’m also working on a new running magazine, along with some partners from around the world; from Melbourne to L.A. It’s a very cool, very different project. The photography is wild, the stories are wild. Each issue will always be about centered around a moment or a place related to running. Could be a particular marathon, a specific city, a certain championship. Within that one thing we try to go really broad because if we’d only document the running itself, it’d be kind of boring.
Running has kind of replaced music photography for me, it gives me a purpose to travel. It’s almost like I’m following a year-long running tour by going to all these different cities. But obviously, I have to choose between participating and taking pictures.
I follow a more traditional path of running. A lot of people get into it and want to run a marathon within the first year. And I do understand that because running is a form of escapism and people can get totally absorbed by it, but it can also easily become unhealthy. It’s great to care about it but you can’t take it too seriously. An older coach of mine told me that the best way to do it is a slow process. Start with a short distance and then slowly increase. I have a few personal goals, like improving my personal best on the half marathon, which I’m training for right now. But when it comes down to it, I want to make it a lifelong thing that I benefit from mentally, physically and socially.
I’m trying to look at it very holistically. The other goals will present themselves when the time is right. When I speak to other people within the running community here, what we’re concerned with is how we can get young people involved, or how we can work with different charities, or how we can create unique events. It’s all about balance and it took me a while to get that balance right too.
Pictures : Thibault de Schepper
Words : Bjorn Dossche