The storyteller Ben Staley grew up in Alaska under the simplest of circumstances. He did not have a carefree youth – with visits to the cinema and restaurants, fairs and television – or even a toilet that flushed. Instead, there were lots of books, bonfires and stories. Privations … yes, but also a wealth of experience that he draws on today and that shapes his work as a director, cinematographer and photographer.
Ben Staley met the British singer and photographer Seal for an interview on behalf of Leica to talk about his signature camera, the Leica Q2 “Dawn” by Seal, and about Leica and the similarities between music and photography. It was a meeting characterized by an extremely relaxed atmosphere – just as if two really good old friends were getting together. In fact, it was only the second time the artists had even seen each other in person.
How Ben Staley experienced the appointment with Seal, whether there are similarities and what his next projects are, we discovered in our interview with him.
Ben Staley, anyone who takes a look at your curriculum vitae will quickly realize how important stories – the images that arise in your mind, for example, when you look at a photograph or a film and get involved with it – are in your life. From today’s perspective, are you glad you grew up in the isolation of Alaska, or would you rather have gone a different way?
When I was young I longed for a “normal” life, for the things other kids got to do, simple things, ride rollercoasters, eat at restaurants and even watch TV. But for me those were all rare and special events. There were no restaurants nearby, we didn’t have electricity and thus no television. We ate wild game and fish. I chopped wood to heat our house and, by all accounts, I’m sure life was more difficult than for most. Looking back now I see how my upbringing has shaped and benefited me later in life. Working as a filmmaker and photographer I specialize in remote and challenging locations. Right now, I’m doing a project deep in a South American jungle; I’ve also worked high in the Andes mountains, sleeping alone at over 17,000 feet. I’ve spent hundreds of days at sea in difficult and cramped quarters on small boats, and I’ve been deep into caves in Southeast Asia. Africa, the Amazon and even the far reaches of remote Siberia, have all been work locations. The way I grew up just made me more comfortable with discomfort, and for that I’m grateful. Sure, I like working in a studio with a musician, actor or model, but I’m just as at home high in the mountains or deep in the jungle.
The stories you tell in your articles today inspire many people. What meaning does this have for you?
My own inspirations are sacred to me, so if something I do inspires someone else, well then that’s the greatest gift. Our ancestors used to draw on the walls of caves with blood and ash and plant pigment, and now we have much more advanced tools. But the impulse is the same, to share our human experience, to proclaim, ‘I am here and I have seen these things, done these things. I have lived.’ If anything I write or capture is seen by anyone, I’m just grateful to be alive and touch another human.
In the interview you conducted for Leica with the British musician and photographer Seal, it becomes clear how much your stories captivate people. Seal appreciates your photographs and films and calls you a friend. What does that mean to you?
Seal is an iconic, legendary artist, and his work has touched millions of people around the world. It’s a great honor and privilege to have the opportunity to work with him and Leica. Most of my close friends are artists and creatives, actors, musicians, filmmakers and photographers, and with Seal it is no different. He is extremely knowledgeable about photography and camera technology among many other things. It’s a great joy to discuss art and creativity with him. I always learn something. We share pictures via text all the time, even if we are on opposite sides of the planet. Right now he is in France and I’m in a jungle. He is a dear friend and I cherish the relationship.
Seal says that a Leica “decelerates the way you photograph, it captivates you in a way that other cameras can’t”. What is your experience with Leica?
I don’t have to think about a Leica when I’m using it. There is no barrier between what I want to capture and pressing the shutter. The cameras feel perfect in my hands. They feel RIGHT. I can’t say this about any other cameras. Here is an example: for my shoot with Seal I wanted to use the M11 for some shots but I didn’t own one, so I asked Seal to bring his personal M11, so I could use it on our shoot. Now this is a professional shoot with a big crew, a deadline and a lot of pressure, and I’m going to use a camera I’ve never used before. Potentially a very risky choice. I picked it up and there was no hesitation, no learning curve, and the images I captured of Seal with his M11 are maybe my favorites of the entire shoot. I had the confidence to do that, sure; but it speaks volumes about ease of use, the simplicity, elegance and function of the camera.
What do you take away from the meeting with Seal?
Having the honor and opportunity to photograph Seal for Leica has been one of the great joys of my professional career. He is an artist I have the highest respect for and someone I consider to be a dear friend. I know that we have more art to make together, and I can’t wait to see what that will be.
On your website, you say you’re looking forward to all the stories that haven’t been told yet. What do you think is the more appropriate vehicle for that: text, photographs, or videos?
Right now I’m writing the screenplay for a feature film I hope to direct. I’m also preparing a pitch for a documentary film I hope to make about a scientific and conservation expedition into the deepest, most remote part of the Amazon jungle. One of my great dreams is to go on tour with an A-List musical artist or band, and photograph and film the tour with my Leica cameras in a verité, reportage style. This is a major goal of mine and something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Crossing fingers that an opportunity presents itself!
Director, filmmaker and photographer Ben Staley (1973) was born and grew up in the remoteness of Alaska. Stories have captivated him from the beginning; they were his only window into the world. Today he tells them with his camera. Staley produces independent films, music videos and commercials, as well as documentaries and television programs for Netflix, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, History Channel and more. Find out more about his work on his website and his Instagram and Vero channel.