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Ben Yan
Ben Yan
Born in Shanghai, China and raised in the US from the age of nine, Ben Yan has moved several times in his life and, as a result, has never really been rooted in any one place. After graduating from boarding school, he ventured out as a solo traveler, which is where his photography journey began: documenting his adventures. Naturally motivated to get a camera in his hands, for Ben, photography is almost a part of his every day and if he hasn’t picked up his camera in a few days, he gets a nagging feeling in the back of his mind.
Specializing in street photography, Ben searches for stories and experiences that are off the beaten path and finds inspiration in urban environments that offer layers of meaning and ambiguity. Named as one of the finalists in the Students of Storytelling competition, Ben tells us more about his project, What I See, which saw him exploring the city and creating scenes that included an ‘anonymous’ figure.
Ben's Story
Photography is the tool with which I find peace and flow. Looking through the viewfinder, I am transported to a world away from the constant bombardment of information and notification, one where my attention is undividedly in the present. In our current times, it is this dualistic experience of escape and presence that serve as my antidote to the Covid blues.
For me personally, street photography has allowed me to see the beauty in everyday occurrences and thus maintain an optimistic attitude, despite the challenging circumstances. I wanted to share this with those close to me, with the hopes of brightening their daily routines.
I invited several of my friends on my photo walks throughout the city and asked them to serve as my subjects. I curated scenes where they acted as ‘the anonymous person’ in compositions where I would usually have to wait for a stranger to come across my frame.
Prior to this project, my work in photography was almost always conducted physically and mentally alone, 100% present with my surroundings. It was my form of meditation. Taking someone along with me was initially very disruptive.
I felt my attention drawn away from the scenes around me and I was instead focused on keeping conversation going. We walked at an otherwise normal walking pace, but much too quick for my work on the street. There was no room for the pauses and moments of contemplation that occurred all too often when I was on my own.
However, after the first sessions, the collaborations became much more harmonious. I felt more confident in my directional abilities, and my friends adapted to my pace and also advanced quickly as models.
One of my most memorable moments on this project was coming upon a scene that I thought might be a great setting for an image and having an epiphany – I could create every ‘what if’ moment that I wanted to! Before, my work always required a heavy dose of luck and spontaneity – the right person at the right time in the right pose. Now, I had control over nearly all of that; I felt like I had just opened a portal to a new universe of possibilities.
Whereas my usual body of work consists of whatever the world throws at me, the only limit I had for this project was my own imagination. I’ve come to realize that both are equally useful, and mutually beneficial. The randomness of the street shows me new possible images that I couldn’t have conceived on my own. The process of carefully curating and positioning allows me to bring scenes to life when it would’ve taken immense luck and time to see them happening organically on the street.
Symbols of the City: In Boston, I took notice of the objects that restricted our movement ¬– fences, signs, cones – and tried to show their prevalence in society | Image © Ben Yan
The City, Take Two: Upon reviewing my previous image with other Students of Storytelling members and mentors, it was suggested that I try the shot again, but with a more pronounced human element | Image © Ben Yan
The Gear
My camera body of choice was FUJIFILM X-Pro 3. The first time I picked one up was in the FUJIFILM store in Istanbul; I fell in love pretty much instantly, but it was way out of my price range at the time. Being given one to use for this project was a complete dream come true. For my lens, I went outside of my comfort zone and made most of the images with FUJINON XF16mmF2.8 R WR (24mm equivalent). I typically use a 35mm (50mm equivalent) focal length, but I opted for the wider lens to frame more of the scene, creating images that make the viewer feel as if they are there, rather than looking into a different world. I chose the F2.8 version, as I did not need the extra stops of light or shallower depth-of-field that come with XF16mmF1.4 R WR.
The wider field of view quickly became second nature to me. It is very similar to my natural peripheral vision and I began to ‘see’ in 16mm about two weeks into using the lens. I think creating exclusively with just the one focal length helped me rewire my brain in a way that a zoom lens couldn’t. The lack of direct access to the rear screen on X-Pro 3 helped me stay in the moment and not check my images after every click. It also acted as a waist-level viewfinder, which was a very enjoyable experience that was almost reminiscent of older film cameras.
The Images
In most cases during the project, I knew which were the keepers the moment I clicked the shutter. I’m not much of a burst photographer. Oftentimes, I come back from a session with only a few dozen images, and immediately know upon importing them to my computer which ones will get the full post-processing treatment. After that stage, I simply follow my heart – whichever give me the most butterflies in my stomach are the ones I end up selecting for the project!
Bending the Truth: Can you tell this image is flipped horizontally? It’s a subtle shift, but having the words on the sign read naturally makes a big difference | Image © Ben Yan
There are a few images that I’m very proud of, but my favorite has to be the one of my friend Sam walking through Boston Common. I think it framed a number of scenes that would have been interesting on their own, but having it all come together in one image made it really special to just look at and study. I personally love it so much because the process of getting that image was so quintessentially street photography. This was during a break in a session where my friend Sam was just wandering around as I searched for the next scene. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the child racing down on his scooter and instinctively knelt down to make three quick images of him going through the natural frames created by the trees. The juxtaposition of Sam’s nearly 7ft height with the small child, combined with the sunset light glistening off the benches and reflecting the flies in the air, made an image that was so complex it would have been nearly impossible to conceive on its own. And yet thanks to the natural flow of the world, it presented itself to me and I just happened to be there to preserve it.
Upsize: Despite my best efforts to curate, life on the street is unpredictable, which can provide happy surprises like this | Image © Ben Yan
The Future
I hope that, through my photography, I can create an escape for my viewer. In today’s world, we are endlessly bombarded by notifications and messages. My intention when making images is for the work to be viewed in print, so that the whole experience is one where the viewer is able to be fully present and leave the chaos of the world behind. With What I See, I tried to embed layers of meaning into each image, rewarding the viewer who lingers and ponders.
Doing this project has made me much more observant of the world around me. I am always looking at the world with frame lines. Even if I don’t have a camera in my hands, I am searching for what would be an interesting composition. This has made everyday life a whole lot more engaging – even the most mundane tasks become opportunities for the next image.
I’m a firm believer that everyone has the capability to be creative. In moments where I was out of ideas for compositions, my partner for the day often came up with things to try that ended up being my favorite image from the day. The images we created through open-minded experimenting and oftentimes general silliness made for some awesome images and memories that helped create deeper bonds with my friends.
Gratitude: ‘What I See’ was a team effort. I am grateful to those who came along and contributed and of course, Fujifilm and Muse Storytelling for making this project possible | Image © Ben Yan
My advice for anyone planning to take on their own photo project is to make it personal. As the creator, you should be the one to whom the project matters most. I say this because, as with everything in life, there will be unforeseen challenges and roadblocks. In those moments, it will be your love for the story you are telling that will help you push through. With that said, reach out to other people for help, inspiration, and mentorship. Without the other Students of Storytelling and my Fujifilm mentors, I would not have had so much fun along the way or grown as much as a photographer and as a human.
So far, the project was created completely during the day and in color. I want to explore ‘the dark side’ and apply what I’ve learned to making images at night and in monochrome.
Explore more of Ben’s work and discover many more stories in our Students of Storytelling gallery.
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