On those Von Wong Volcano Photos

On those Von Wong Volcano Photos

Cultural appropriation. That word du jour that has heavily permeated discussions of race in the past few years.

Enter celebrated photographer Benjamin Von Wong. Von Wong’s epic imagery has inspired and garnered the attention of photographers around the world. He shares his photography techniques and donates his time and skill to various charitable causes. Most recently he took to the Big Island of Hawai’i for a photo shoot on the lava fields of Kilauea to “bring attention to indigenous communities at risk.” Von Wong pledged to donate 100% of the print profits to victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti where over 1,000 people died and thousands more are at risk of cholera.

One cannot criticize his heart.

However visual imagery can influence perception, building false narratives and reinforcing stereotypes. In this case, Von Wong declared his intent to highlight the plight of indigenous communities. But instead of paying respect to indigenous Hawaiian culture, which reveres the volcanoes and the goddess Pele, he used the lava as a backdrop and outfitted a model in an ambiguously “native” costume that bears no resemblance to traditional Hawaiian dress. It would be a stretch to say the costume was inspired by kānaka maolithe native Hawaiians – as traditional dress is plant-fiber based, with the exception of royal costumery that incorporated now extinct bird feathers.

Similar criticisms of cultural appropriation have been leveled against the likes of Steve McCurry, who incorporated white models dressed in haute couture in a Maasai village in Kenya, as well as British photographer Jimmy Nelson whose portraits of vanishing cultures around the world have been criticized as a “photographer’s fantasy.” Steve Corry, director of Survival International, told The Guardian that Nelson’s photos bear “little relationship either to how these people appear now, or how they’ve ever appeared. Of course, rendering people more exotic than they really are is a timeworn tradition.”


The issue of cultural appropriation can be an academic concern until it happens to you. I liked Nelson’s images when I first saw them. But now I believe that his imagery represents his inaccurate gaze of the world. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with interpreting the world as you see it, but when your stated purpose is to highlight or celebrate a culture, I would argue that you should strive for accuracy. The people of Hawai’i don’t own the rights to volcanoes, but if you’re going to show up there, why not pay more heed to the culture?

Because I was born and bred in Hawai’i (albeit not native Hawaiian), I was immediately turned off by Von Wong’s imagery. Of course, I realize I’m in the extreme minority. But at a time when many native Hawaiians (although not unilaterally) are struggling to oppose the construction of the massive TMT telescope atop Mauna Kea, it bears mentioning that the volcanoes are not props and the Hawaiians have a long and deep relationship with nature that are not justly served by Von Wong’s project.

That said, I hope he sells a ton of prints.

Allen Murabayashi donated $100 to the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation in support of Von Wong’s efforts.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 4 comments for this article
  1. Con O'Donoghue at 6:11 am

    it’s a difficult one alright.
    …influence perception, building false narratives and reinforcing stereotypes.
    But if had used more authentic dress, tradition, behavior in this situation then surely that would be even worse. Then it’d feel like he was pimping out heritage/culture for likes/charity etc.

    I think having it feel more generic fantasy feel, and trying to “make stuff look cool” is more forgivable. Unless these lava areas are deemed sacred in some way.
    It’s a minefield of people’s feelings out there these days!

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 7:29 am

      I know what you mean. I thought about this in the context of something like Game of Thrones being filmed in various part of Europe. Is it ok to film a fictional CGI giant in Iceland, but not a fantasy-based native in Hawai’i? I think Von Wong’s intent matters in this case. Sure, he wanted to shoot something cool, but he’s using it as a vehicle to help others, so although I’m torn, I appreciate his efforts.

  2. Von Wong at 1:34 am

    I knew that this was going to come up sooner or later. I made sure to bring it up in the longer form video & I tried to explain – so to clarify:

    This piece was not about Hawaii, I just happened to be in Hawaii after attending the IUCN world conservation congress and wanted to take advantage of the situation to create a meaningful piece of work.

    Yes, Pele was a backdrop – but I specifically avoided using Hawaiian tradition specifically because this was not a traditional piece meant to exploit or leverage Hawaiian culture. This was about the human species and their connection to nature. I wanted it to be ambiguously native and video-game-eske specifically to avoid any sort of cultural appropriation from any specific culture.

    My work is radically different from Jimmy’s which positions itself as documentary. I make no pretenses or claims that my depiction is anything close to reality – but rather a statement piece to drive conversation and hopefully ignite compassion.

    I’m sorry to hear that you feel offended but I did run the idea past numerous locals including the model to make sure to tread as lightly and respectfully as possible.

    • Andrew Molitor at 10:21 pm

      Hawaiian culture is really tricky to get your arms around, to be honest. It’s, um, pretty fluid and to some extent a modern, convenient, reconstruction of something that has been lost. However you read it, though, whatever you decide it is, it’s not at all clear to me that running around taking some video-game styled pictures on the lava is any more intrusive than tourists stumbling around out there taking selfies.

      I’m not *really* seeing any appropriation here. The shaman costume is a ridiculous pastiche which, if anything, appropriates from North American plains nations. I find it vaguely offensive on those grounds, but only vaguely. The lava is sacred to some in Hawaii, but it could as well be lava in Japan or wherever, somewhere where it’s not sacred.

      Given, though, the emphasis of the project as a whole, it would be nice to see some specific reference to, and respect for, a tradition or two of the local indigenous peoples. It’s not clear how an exchange of ha (e.g.) would fit in, but possibly if that had been front-of-mind at the beginning of the project, the whole thing would have evolved and, eventually, been executed along quite different lines.

      Hawaiian culture has been pretty trashed by various waves of immigrants.

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