Ben Christensen is a father, husband, and photographer. He is a lover of the outdoors and old Western films. Ben started the #LivingMyOwnWestern movement, where he encourages people to live their own Western in their own way, just like he is living his. He recently shot a short Western film with country singer Charley Crockett. Learn how Ben went from a kid that loved the outdoors to a full-time photographer, and how he views growth. Here’s his story:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re working on now.
My name is Ben Christensen, and I was born and raised in Arizona. My childhood really impacted my life and the direction that I’ve taken my career. I grew up loving the outdoors. My family spent a lot of time going to the lake, snow skiing, camping, and just being active outside. We never had video games. It wasn’t a rule or anything, but it just happened. We weren’t interested in them, because we were outside all the time.
On weekends, my dad would pack up the suburban and pile in a bunch of camping stuff to take me camping. Most of the time, I had no idea where we were going or what we were doing, but he just brought me everywhere, doing all the things that he liked to do. We’d go camping, rappelling, rock climbing, or sometimes we’d bring a couple of horses and go horse packing for days at a time. I absolutely loved it, and from a young age, I wanted more.
My dad wanted to teach me that the outdoors is a place that is safe, where I can go to reflect, to be inspired and to get clarity. So at age 10, he taught me how to camp on my own. He dropped me off at a nearby camp spot by myself, and while I’m sure he was nearby the whole night, in my eyes, I was all alone. That night I laid in my sleeping bag thinking “It’s not scary. It’s not scary. It’s not scary.” From a young age, I found peace in the outdoors that I loved so much.
Beyond all of that, my dad had this crazy obsession with old Westerns. Every night when he was done with work, he would either put on his cowboy hat or his gun rig, sit down on the couch, cook a steak on the grill and watch one of his favorite Westerns. Naturally, I started to join him and he began teaching me about the old Westerns. In high school, when my friends and I didn’t have anything to do, we always knew my dad, Morris, was at home watching Westerns and eating steak. So it ended up being a thing where my friends and I would go sit down with my dad and watch some Westerns and share some steak.
Eventually, I found this love and joy for photography, of shooting and capturing people or capturing trips that I went on with my friends. Things like snowboard trips, campouts, hiking or just road tripping. I started photographing all these different things and it led to some work. I started shooting weddings for some of my friends, and then that led to some commercial projects, shooting catalogs and lookbooks in the fashion industry and in the outdoor industry.
Between all that, I’ve always had this love and passion for the Western lifestyle, so in between projects I would shoot Western personal projects that really meant a lot to me. I always thought it’d be awesome if I could only shoot this Western stuff and nothing else. But it wasn’t just typical rodeo or ranch photography that I wanted to shoot. It was something that was specifically inspired by the Old West, and the style and feel of it. The simplicity of the outdoors was a different vision than you see in most photography today. I never thought there’d be any work in it or that anything would ever come from it. But one day, after years of shooting photography for all these different industries and telling everyone’s stories and highlighting athletes or models or commercial stuff in the photography world for almost 10 years, I decided it was time to share my story and my passion.
A few years ago, I started sharing my story a little bit more—who I am, the person behind the camera. I shared the way I was raised and my passion for the Old West with a touch of Hollywood, but that brings me into the outdoors. I shared my personal journey, and my traveling, and the people that I’ve met, and naturally, it all came together. When people asked what I was doing, the answer basically became that I was living my own Western. I started sharing that with people a little bit more saying, “Hey, I’m living my own Western.” I created the hashtag #livingmyownWestern, where I was inviting other people to share their own story and their passion for the West, in their own way, as well. There’s not one way. Because of that hashtag, a lot of people started connecting with it, and with my personal work, but also sharing their own Westerns and how they’re connected to the west, either through rodeo or through ranch, or through life and style. However it was, it kind of opened the doors of these people that are sharing their passion for the Old West in their own way. From there, I decided to run with it even more, and I really committed to my vision of the Old West and making it alive today. It’s not telling anyone else’s story or remaking old history. It’s just bringing back the simplicity of the Old West through my story and other people’s stories that live today, who I’ve connected with along my travels, through social media, and other like-minded people that are connected to the west as much as I am.
So that brings me to today. I’m still living my own Western. I’m shooting a bunch in all sorts of industries still but am known as living my own Western and being able to showcase it through my photography skills, my marketing and directing. Naturally, people have been asking when I was going to make my own Western. I have no budget for that, so I decided to connect with a lot of people that are passionate about it as much as I am—my own personal creative team—and we’re not only showcasing my photography, but we’re making it come alive through some Old Western shorts. We just recently filmed an Old Western short in November, and we’re going to be releasing it in January. We’re super excited about it! It was my vision and I’m in it! While I’m no actor, I know Westerns. Everyone who’s involved is passionate about it, even though we have zero budget. We’re going to be releasing it in January, and we’re so excited. It’s just bringing my photography to life through a Western fun short that people will connect with. That’s kind of overall where I came from, what I’m doing, and where I’m going.
How did you get together with Charley Crockett to create The Valley?
I got hired by Ely Cattlemen through an agency called Teddy Allen to photograph some of their new clothing coming out for their fall line. They wanted me to photograph it on some models. One night they wanted me to highlight Charley Crockett. I was very familiar with his music and who he was, so I was excited to meet him in person. They flew me out to Austin, Texas, and we went to one of his shows. We had about an hour before his show, so we photographed him before he went on. Then we photographed him during a show and behind the stage. As soon as we met, we started talking, and it wasn’t talking about photography and it wasn’t talking about style. Instantly, we started talking about old Westerns and Western movies. Not only movies, but certain characters that we connect with. I talked to him about Clint Eastwood, how I connect with him, and then some of John Wayne’s stuff, and Robert Redford. Then he started talking about how he was really inspired by Lee Van Cleef, and some of the old Westerns. It was really cool because I haven’t met a lot of people that have been so inspired by some of the old Western characters, and how it’s inspired their craft or what they’re doing today. I was really excited because I know a lot of people like old Westerns, but to see how much it’s really impacted Charley’s life today and what he’s doing in his career, it was really cool.
So instantly we have this connection around old Westerns. Then I told him, “Hey, in November, I’m planning on shooting this Western short that I’ve created!” and he was psyched. He’s always wanted to do a little bit of a movie-style production in his music videos for his music. Music is really inspired by a lot of the old Westerns. Even some of the music artists that were actors in them would somehow organically play some great songs in the Western. So this was all coming together while I’m taking photos of him before his show. Within that short time, we basically said let’s combine forces and let’s do it together. I said “I would love for you to be a character in this. I’m going to be in a character in it, too. Let’s make it music-driven but keep the simplicity and classic feel from the old Westerns. I’m going to direct it, and I have a whole vision in mind.” He completely trusted in me based on this short conversation. I talked with his agent, and she was down. Everything just came together within that photoshoot! I gave him a date in November and then he was just like “awesome!” and he made sure he was there. He fully trusted me and my crew.
A couple of videographers, Dusty and James, along with a lot of people that I met along my travels, came out. We styled everything with a lot of clothing I had in my closet, mixed in with a bunch of hats—the old-style tall crown kind of hats that I’ve collected over the years. We came together as friends and people that were passionate about these old Westerns. Within a day and a half, we just created a fun, simple, character-driven Western short. We were able to film it all in Wickenburg, Arizona at the ranch of one of my close friends. He was in it, too, which was really cool.
As I directed, I kept telling everyone we’ve got to simplify it, simplify it, simplify it. We narrowed it down to a certain couple of lenses. There’s no computer-animated backgrounds or crazy things, and all the stunts were done by us. So it’s relatable and fun, but it’s got a simple, classic kind of feel, and not overdone. Even the storyline is really simple. I wanted to keep it like that because what was always special to me about Westerns, is that I watched them over and over, not just one time. I watched them more and more because I was connected with the characters. I was connected with how they mounted their horses, and how they drew their guns. Or the way they wore their jacket or a certain hat. There was more than just the storyline. It was something that I watched to be inspired. So that’s what we wanted to create, and it was fun to do.
What’s one thing that you haven’t done yet but will do before you die?
One of my big bucket list items was to lead and direct my own Western, and you know, I’m doing it, even though it’s a short. I can extend that goal, though. Before I die, I will come out with an actual feature-length Western film. I want to make sure I am involved in doing that long format, real Western movie, and I really feel I can get to that point.
What does growth mean to you?
To me, growth means staying true to my passion and doing what I love. But more than that, it’s being able to do what I love and follow my passion, and feel the support and love with the people that connect with my same passion. So I’m not doing it for other people’s likes. I’m not doing it for other people at all. I’m doing it for me, but as I’m doing it, I’m feeling the support of other people that are connecting with it in a way where it’s inspiring others as well. It feels like I’m giving back in a way, or doing some good in the world through what I’m passionate about.
What piece of advice do you have for our readers?
Nowadays, I shoot a lot of different models, and I shoot a lot of different companies and campaigns. And what I’m finding consistently is people are almost losing themselves and why they even started either a social media account, or a company, or a movement in the beginning. They’ll get to a certain point where they get some growth, but they almost lose track of what they started, because they’re trying to keep up with numbers, or money, or sales, or marketing. They’re forgetting why they started. The main thing that I can share is: stay true to yourself and stay true to the beginning of what started who you are. People are connecting now more than ever—more than just product, more than just clothing, more than just what they’re doing. They’re connecting with the person behind it. They’re connecting with the story. They’re connecting with the passion that drives the company, the product, the person, the model, or the movement. So share your story, share your passion, share your fear, share your dream. And don’t just follow it—chase it. Run with it, and keep going with it. Because it will weed out the people that don’t connect with it and it will bring out the people that do connect with it. And all that matters is staying true to yourself.
How do you overcome obstacles?
I created my own world, filled with things that mean a lot to me and that I’m passionate about. It’s what keeps me strong, with my values, with my family, with my career, with my hobbies. Anything that weakens me or depresses me or keeps me from progressing, it’s not in my world. So in a way, I created my own world, and I always thought that was a curse. My family would laugh and say “Ben’s in his own world,” but I came to a clear understanding later on. That’s actually one of my greatest blessings, and it’s provided a lot of happiness. When obstacles come in my way, or people put me down, I know the world that I created. And I remember it’s not theirs. I don’t have to allow that in my world, and in my direction. So I always remind myself, this is who I am in my world and what I can do and what I want to let into my world. When the obstacles come, I keep going forward. There’s nothing that’s helped me more, along with support from my family and God. I’m very religious, with a belief of God and a Savior. Combined with all those things, that has brought me a lot of strength of remembering who I am, and what I’m capable of.
That’s what’s behind living my own Western. I came to this clear understanding that, hey, this is my world. I didn’t grow up on a ranch or moving cattle and all that stuff. But I did grow up with my love for the outdoors. Some people might say I’m no cowboy, but it doesn’t matter to me, because I know and am passionate about what I can do. I know the world that I created. I’m living my own Western, and I invite people to live their own or share their own stories in their own way. Whether it’s living their own Western or sharing their own passion. It may be through art, or through business, or whatever it is. We all have our own stories and our own passions, and that is absolutely okay.