The Democratic Image Photography and Globalization PDF
Written by Pedro Meyer   

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Winston Churchill.



Pedro MeyerI have heard over and over, in many parts of the world. How new digital technologies have an unfair distribution as they follow a pattern of distribution according to wealth. Well, how could we disagree with such a fundamental reality as it applies, in our case, to photography and new technologies? We can’t, can we?


Let us look at this with a bit more skepticism and insight as this can actually lead us on to something beyond simple truisms.


I would like to say that this lack of equality is not only true with regard to photography and new technologies, but also with regard to access to water, to health care, to education, and so on.


So how on earth would someone come up with a statement singling out photography and new technologies from matters that are so much more pressing for the survival of a human being.


As you might agree, it does not make a lot of sense to make such an issue about this inequality of distribution about photography and new technologies, when in fact more important factors have not been even remotely resolved for a democratic access to the well being of all mankind.


With this in mind, I think we can move beyond such rhetoric, as I am sure that in this symposium we shall probably not be able to resolve outright any of these basic inequalities, however we can contribute indirectly in many new ways to make such a destiny less inevitable.


Just this morning the major of Mexico City announced that within three years all parks and schools in the city Will be wired with wi-fi connections that are going to be free for everyone to access. Just a few years ago, the most impoverished areas of Mexico City, all would steal their electricity as you can see in the image. So here in this new digital era, we are going to be wired in very different ways.



© Pedro Meyer


Talking about bench marks… look at this: I found this bench made out of stone back in 1974 when I made the image. And during a recent visit, to that same area I discovered to my big surprise that I had found that same bench only 34 years later, but before we move to the next image, let me point out some things within this image. Observe please, the roof is made from compressed cardboard. Keep in mind the distance from the front wall to the bench.


Now you look at that same bench, only the front wall of the house had moved up to where the bench was. The roof was now made out of concrete and they were in the process of adding a second floor. There was indeed progress.


One of the neighbors had added color to his front wall. And indeed some of the neighbors had done very well for themselves. They remained living in the same neighborhood that they grew up in. Indeed some people left the area, but then others remained and improved it, Just remember how the area looked, not too long ago.




© Pedro Meyer© Pedro Meyer












Well, I am here to report to you some news that give us reasons to believe that there is room for some optimism. We have Coca-Cola all over the planet. This of course is an item to consider for those who are after the fact that every one should have equal access across the globe.


I am sure you get the point, that the notion that suggests that for everyone to have access to something cannot be construed as Democracy of any sort. Having as ubiquitous a product as a Coca-Cola does not necessarily equal Democracy, does it?


Of course I shall remain constrained in my observations to the realm with which I am familiar with, and that is photography in it’s various iterations.


So let us start with something as basic and that has to do with the cost of film. I believe it is a pretty democratic price, when the cost of film has come down to zero. That sort of makes it quiet accessible if that would be the only ingredient to consider. But you and I know that cameras do cost something while the rest of the equipment in the form of a required infrastructure, also needs to be accounted for.


However, the continuous fall in prices for all the gear needed to make pictures gives us a lot of hope to add to the zero price for film.


The ongoing erosion in prices was last reported to be a fall of 30% year to year, over the last few years, this being true for cameras and ancillary digital tools. If the decline in prices could be referenced, let us say, to the price of a Rolls Royce automobile, such a car could today be sold for the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes. Such has been the scale of reduction, in the relationship of prices to what you can get for your money.


I still recall purchasing one of the first hard drives, a ten megabyte Jasmine hard drive in the mid eighties. I thought that drive would last until my great grand children would want to play with such stuff. It cost me $ 2000 US dls. at the time. That would be $ 200 a megabyte.


Well today, a megabyte of hard disc, bought at your local Apple store looks like this: a La Cie 250 Gigabyte hard drive costs less than $100.00 US. That would be 4 cents a megabyte. Need I say more? And this price is even going to be reduced by an order of magnitude similar in proportions, over the coming twenty years.


Now this example is not unique, it can be crossreferenced almost across the board with regard to anything related to new technologies and photography.


As economics play such an important factor in the distribution of anything with the intention of a more democratic participation, one can safely say that digital technologies play one of the key roles in making information about the world more accessible to peoples all over the world.


I would like to point out some noticeable examples of some of these trends.


Raul Ortega, one of my colleagues in Mexico, a photographer living in the state of Chiapas, produced a body of work that I found to be outstanding. A traditional book with his images was published in black and white, printed in Spain. The edition was of 4,000 copies sponsored by the state of Chiapas. Four years later half the edition was still unsold, basically due to the poor distribution of books, with his not being an exception.


In ZoneZero, however we undertook to publish that same book in electronic PDF format, and to offer it for free to our viewers for a period of thirty days. During that time frame, 24,000 books were downloaded. I am sure that there were a lot of people who got access from countries that the printed book would have never reached, let alone that their pocket books might not have been open to pay for such a book. Four years to distribute 2,000 books, 30 days to distribute 24,000 books, I can imagine you get the drift of what I am talking about.


I will offer you another example. Some ten years ago, I was asked by an American Museum that had an enormous collection of photographs, to write an essay for their catalogue, precisely knowing that their collection was so slanted to US and European photography, with the rest of the world totally under represented. What I wrote at that time, was an acknowledgement to the fact that in today’s’ world such omissions, do not carry the same weight that such neglect might have produced in a previous era.


In those years in which we did not have the tools, such as the Internet for instance, and you might want to add real quickly, the search engines, which make all that information available, the absence from such collections in essence made it so that most of us did not exist for practical purposes.


Look at the history of photography books, and you will find that an entire sub-continent such as Latin America was represented at best by the likes of Manuel Alvarez Bravo from Mexico. Later on you would find other token artists were added such as Martin Chambi from Peru or in some instances even myself, in order to maintain, some semblance that there was an interest in Latin America.


Compare such a reality to our publishing project at ZoneZero, which is being produced from Mexico City. Already an unusual concept, were a project of worldwide consequence can be produced outside the traditional centers of photographic cultural power such as New York, Paris, London or Los Angeles. I would venture to say that this is some sort of proof that the process of democratization is taking hold somehow.


Consider that over the past three years the number of page views, that is the number of pages actually seen in ZoneZero, were 114 million pages, with our viewers coming from one hundred and ten countries. Such numbers are impressive in any way you wish to look at them, but more so if you think that this is the result of new technologies and their impact on a redistribution of access to this information on a worldwide scale.


But then if you look at the work that we have shared, and you will see that there are a lot of photographers that are not that well known outside their local communities, but never-the-less with impressive work, and what you have is an opening of flood gates by bringing the work of photographers across all sorts of boarders, in numbers unheard off before.


One of the things I like the most, is that ZoneZero is being used by hundreds of teachers of photography all over the world, as their pupils get to see the work of not only the traditional text books that were used in the past, produced of course, you guessed right, in the cultural metropolis, with the same names that existed always being taught, which obviously perpetuated the hegemony of ideas and concepts of those that control the centers of power. That is no longer happening in the same manner, and I find this to be an important process towards a more democratic process of access of information. Remember that cultural identities are strongly linked to such opportunities to discover the merits of your own cultural heritage vs, that of the metropolis.


I will give you yet another example of these technological transitions, and what they have in store for photography. In the early nineties, I produced what was the first CDROM with continuous sound, and images. It was at the time a seminal work, in so far that it brought to the computer screen content that was at the time considered to be outside the realm of what one could find on a computer screen. Something personal and emotional, I am of course making reference to I Photograph to Remember. I was incredibly happy with the potential of the CD ROM that allowed one to publish such work, and distribute it on something as transportable as a disc. However, the problem became distribution. Something as new as that object, had no“place” were something like that could be found. Who sold such things? At first a few record stores, then books stores, and then increasingly other outlets. But it was all quite new and therefore without any sort of experience on the part of consumers. I think drugs were better distributed than CD Roms.


Then the Internet appeared, and the few stores that did sell CDs evaporated into thin air, I immediately sized upon the opportunity to make myself present on the internet assuming that the problems of distribution would now take care of themselves, and they largely did. I ported IPTR to the Internet, against the better recommendations of a lot of friends. But in the long run they were proven wrong, the internet allowed IPTR to take on a new direction with distribution the world over, something that was well nigh impossible in it’s previous incarnation as a CDROM. IPTR today runs off the Internet with the same sort of audio and video integrity it had coming off the CDROM with one important added advantage, it was no longer necessary to program for different platforms such as windows and Macs. Everyone could see it now.


A new platform has emerged, the iPod, and we have now made a version that you can download to you iPod, and of all the options I think this one is the most intimate. As you can see, the same body of work, can migrate from one technology onto the next. I think we have yet to discover the potential that the iPod has for photographers as a platform to plan for, to use it to make their works available for such audiences.


If you project this possibility to all sorts of educational projects, story telling, entertainment, museum guides, etc. you can find that all of a sudden photographers will be able to tell their stories using a multitude of technologies to make their work known to ever new small platform channels.


What am I telling you, with this idea? Is that the computer is no longer the only hardware that can deliver photographic images and multimedia, and in so doing I am also telling you that the prices will increasingly come down, expanding the base to which you can make your work available. Cell phones will also become a large market you will find important for your photographs. They not only take pictures but of course also display them, and if they do that, then they can also display your stories. And with a few billion phones out there, you just might have something to offer them that could be of interest.


So if the audience expands, if the prices come down, aren’t we in essence dealing with a process of democratization?


In closing let me tell you about another project I have been involved.


This is called the HERESIES project. This project is a retrospective of my work that will open in October 2008, in about one hundred museums around the world at the same time.


I believe that this project epitomizes many notions that one can put under the umbrella of democratization of photography.


It will not only be presented in those one hundred institutions mentioned before, but it will also be presented in web galleries over the Internet, all coexisting at the same time. Their intention is not to compete with each other but rather to complement one another.


Probably no two museums will show the same work that the others will, and that has largely to do with the structure that I offered to the museums, were by they can make a selection of what ever images they want to chose from a given data bank, and these are the ones that they will get prints off.


But all of this could not be accomplished with out the presence of new printing technologies, were we can get the outmost quality, better than any analog prints ever made by me, and with greater longevity than these, imagine 200 years guaranteed, while printing on demand becomes a standard.


But add to this the fact that we have built a database with all the images that I have ever produced, all of this will be accessible to all those people who have a legitimate reason to have such access to an open database with nearly 500,000 images and documents. No longer is this one of those closed databases which are so dear to those who want to protect a body of work for personal power.


The disruptive nature of an open database will long be felt, at least in the academic world, as the word democratization also comes creeping in to this world as well. The academic world is long on ideas about democracy and quite short on living up to them.


All those institutions that keep their cards too close to their vests and don’t want to open their archives, will be held to a new level of accountability of what could be possible. Much as those monks of yesteryear, who saw their power erode with the advent of the movable printing press. We shall now see certain librarians, academics, photographers or curators having to defend the way they go about in dealing with their archives. Access will be the magic word.


The notion that you would make an exhibition, and then travel the show where one size fits all, never worked, has now found a new tailor to order format, which to boot, will only cost the venue showing, one thousand dollars per participant, where as in the past such a project would cost at least twenty times more. Thus we have been able to reduce the price considerably while making the show made to order. Going in precisely the opposite direction of what traditional shows have been up to now.


We expect many people will get a chance to see this work, over the duration of this exhibition of, at least, eight weeks, and do so in any one of it’s multiple forms of being viewed. I think that this is adding a new dimension to what is a democratization process in the area of photography. Now, none of this would have been even remotely possible without access to all the new tools that the digital age has to offer.


I can remember when in the seventies, there wasn’t a single space to exhibit photography in Mexico. We led a revolt against the status quo in an art world that would dismiss photography entirely. We also made serious efforts to discover ourselves and to gain some visibility in the world of photography at large. All those efforts, as seen now forty years later seem quite basic and romantic, yet they became the cornerstone for many of the things we were able to achieve as time went on. However, it is mainly due to the presence of new technologies that our evolving dreams even had a fighting chance of becoming a reality.


As I stand before you, all I can say with the greatest of humbleness, is that the process of democratization is an ever present reality, at least so in our experience, and in paraphrasing Winston Churchill, It has been said that using digital technologies is the worst form of working except all the others that have been tried before.


© Pedro Meyer
April, 2007




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