Among the hardest things to nail down about Ben Winkler is his timeline. Not just where he came from and where he’s been, but where he’s going. I reached him by phone in Sedona, Arizona where he arrived after spending the previous days hunkering down at night in places like Joshua Tree to photograph the rising moon.
“I’ll keep pushing, further east,” he says. “Then I’ll be in Charlotte, Miami and New York for some shoots, and then off to the Scottish highlands …”
That would explain the down jacket I spotted in his car when we photographed him in hot-as-hell Venice Beach a couple of days ago. Winkler, a former architect who transitioned to photography after he lost his job, keeps it fluid and loose.
He’s been that way since he was a young man growing up in the Austrian Alps, teaching skiing and mountaineering before joining the United Nations and setting off on adventures around the globe. But what’s changed has been the purpose driving him – more than wanderlust, Winkler is consumed with authenticity.
Ben’s main focus over the past few years have been photo projects that seek to introduce beauty and sex appeal in the conversation around women over 50. So we wanted to speak to him about those subjects, and the wrenching – and ultimately gratifying — decision he made to leave the rat race.
There are numerous countries I’m going to leave out but after growing up in Austria, here’s a short list of places Ben has lived: Sweden, the UK, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Israel and then the southeastern United States. That isn’t the right order, but truth be told even Winkler is skeptical I can pull something like this off.
“What are you going to do with all of that?” he asked me at one point.
Well, we can provide some context here. Leaving a youth where he was obsessed with motorcycles and girls, Winkler spent most of his time in the Middle East in the United Nations, rising to chief of police in northern Israel where his son still lives and attends university.
He left in 2000 just before the beginning of the second intifada, when things really began getting dodgy again. He struggled with his restlessness, but driven by a belief that he might not be living up to his potential, he moved to London where, with wife and small child in tow, he worked as an architect during the day and completed three degrees in the evening.
“I had to prove myself, and I had to provide for my family,” he says. “I really just went down that career path and the corporate rat race, but I was always miserable.”
He moved to Atlanta and Florida, working for a digital survey company providing digital blueprints on 100-year-old resorts and country clubs in need of renovation or rebuilds. After he hired someone younger to help him on a job that took him across the U.S., the company fired him soon after – naming as his replacement the man he hired. This was in 2009. After spending decades chasing a version of himself he was convinced he needed to become, he suddenly stopped and realized he maybe never should have.
“It was the perfect time to go cold turkey,” he says. “Was it scary? Yes. I went into photography, which I had been interested in and doing since I was 7, and I said, ‘Let’s see how good I really am. If it doesn’t work, then I have to go back.’”
He’s never looked back. Leaning on his expertise, he’s paid the bills working as an architectural photographer on both coasts. But it’s around people that he most lights up and, in the visual depiction of women over 50, he saw both deep problems and opportunity.
“It’s all about attitude, that’s the bottom line, whether it’s about Faces of Silver, or Midlife and Up, it’s about how we allow ourselves to see ourselves and be amongst other people,” he says, “And not being impacted by anyone else’s rules, standards and directions. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Over the last few years he’s photographed dozens of women, and in the process become an impassioned advocate for beauty beyond a certain age. Almost without fail, his subjects come to the shoot, often with friends or children in tow, nervous about the whole process. Two hours in and they’re laughing. When he brings them back a couple of weeks later to show them the results, “99% of the time they end up in tears,” he says.
“What feeds me is giving back to people,” he continues. “There is no tangible reward or outcome when I photograph a building. When I give something, only that little touch—to a woman where she starts thinking that maybe there’s hope there, maybe I’m not invisible and it’s really about me and my attitude … then I’ve done my job.”
There is no foreseeable end to his work. His Faces of Silver photography is available via e-book, but he’s already launched two new projects that deal with many of the same issues. In September he’ll travel to London during fashion week to shoot more women over 50. Before that he’ll go hiking in the Scottish highlands. And after that, who knows?
“My son just finished military in Israel and he’s starting university now,” he says. “Now I’m just by myself. I come and go as I please. It’s always about meeting new people, new mentalities, different views on life. If you don’t broaden your horizon, then you will never. My aim is to learn at least a little bit a day.”