One day in 1946. an 11-years old boy receives a present from his father. It’s a camera. Intrigued, he begins taking pictures. Over time, pictures become his becoming, and a legend is born. The boy is Pedro Meyer.
This year, we are fortunate to have with us Meyer at Chobi Mela VI- International Festival of Photography, as a visiting artist. He is also generously giving his time conducting a workshop for students on Digital Application in Contemporary Photography at Pathshala, South Asian Media Academy.
Pedro Meyer is acclaimed as one of the most innovative and accomplished photographers in the world. At the beginning of the digital revolution, he launched the first ever CD-ROM that combined sound and image to produce an emotional photo essay (I Photograph to Remember) depicting his parents’ lives, then suffering from terminal cancer. As a result many contemporary artists consider him the ‘Digital Guru’ — one that forged a bridge between the analogue and digital era of photography.
In 2004, Meyer set himself to host the first world wide simultaneous retrospective. The project, titled Heresies comprised over 60 simultaneous exhibitions in 17 countries around the world.
Meyer is currently based in Mexico and received the Chobi Mela VI Lifetime Achievement Award at the inauguration ceremony in Dhaka on the 21 January, 2011.
Meeting him at Goethe-Institut a couple of days back, I was immediately struck by his energy. He gave us his full attention and immersed himself in the conversation. That put us at ease. We discussed photography, art and storytelling. An obvious query was his decision to continue taking still pictures, when clearly a combination of sound and moving images could produce dramatic motion pictures or videos.
“It’s because I began with still photography and felt passionate about it,” explains Meyer, smiling. “I don’t think videos or motion pictures have the same depth or emotional connection with its creator. It’s somewhat very passive. But with still photography, I can feel passion, emotional involvement and personal connotations.”
That said, does digital photography allow the same intensity of personal attachment between the photographs and the artist? A 2010 editorial piece from ZoneZero (the online photography platform that Meyer founded) eloquently summarizes his take on the boom of “photographers” everywhere. He feels gratified and elated with the fact more people are taking interest in pictures. In his opinion, any simple image – years from now – maybe an important document in history.
“It’s amazing how technology has allowed people to become part of an extraordinary ability to tell stories through images,” adds Meyer. “I remember on the boat trip I went [in Bangladesh], I took a picture of a man in a different boat on the river. He also took out his mobile phone and took a picture of me. This is exciting! Technology has allowed people – irrespective of economic conditions – to somehow be engaged in the photographic process. This was unimaginable even a few years ago!”
“So, what makes a photograph the photograph?” I asked.
“Well, first of all, the photograph does not exist. The photograph that we like is based on our cultural differences, age differences and other contextual factors,” Meyer replied. “A fifteen year old boy in Mexico will like a very different photograph from a fifteen year old boy in Bangladesh because they belong to different cultures. For each of them, at that moment, that photograph is significant. As they grow older, the photograph may no longer be significant; another photograph may seem more meaningful. The photograph is anything that we like, and our likings change as we settle into different contexts.”
True, the way we perceive our surroundings change over time. Yet the restless dynamism of the 21st century makes me wonder whether we are changing too fast. The younger generation experience rampant mood shifts. What would Pedro Meyer’s advice be to the next generation of photographers? How will they keep up with the rising demands of the world around them?
“That’s simple! You have to keep learning. You have to be genuinely curious and continue learning as you age. In the analogue era, there were a few techniques you’d need to master. In the digital era, not a week passes without something new happening. It is important to adapt to these new things, to changing surroundings in order to keep up.”
As we continued exchanging perspectives, Meyer enthusiastically took out his camera and began explaining how fast technology was progressing. The possibilities were exciting! Meyer’s magnanimous persona comes from his curiosity towards everything — events, people, techonlogy — around him. He believes in learning something new each day and the world has much to learn from his accumulated store of wisdom. Meyer lives for the moment, enjoys it and grows with it. It was both a pleasure and a learning experience for me to meet this extraordinary visionary.