Chobi Mela VI: In Conversation with Pedro Meyer

One day in 1946. 11-years old Pedro Meyer receives a present from his father. It’s a camera. Intrigued, Meyer begins taking pictures. Over time, pictures become his becoming, and a legend is born.

Pedro Meyer is lauded as one of the most innovative and accomplished photographers across the globe. At the forefront 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. In that sense, many contemporary artists consider him the ‘digital guru’, 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.

Pedro Meyer receives Chobi Mela Lifetime Achievement Award 2011, Photo by DrikNEWS

Pedro Meyer receives Chobi Mela Lifetime Achievement Award 2011. The awards were handed out during the opening ceremony on 21 January 2011 at National Theatre Auditorium, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. Photograph DrikNEWS

This year, Pedro Meyer is a visiting artist at Chobi Mela VI who is also conducting a workshop on Digital Application in Contemporary Photography at Pathshala. He is currently based in Mexico and received the Chobi Mela Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

On meeting him at Goethe-Institut a couple of days back, I was immediately struck by his energy. His ability to immerse into a conversation and be intrigued consistently put us into 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,” explained 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 being 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,” added Meyer during our conversation. “I remember on the boat trip I went to [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!”

Pedro Meyer playing with his camera before the evening presentations at Goethe-Institut Auditorium on 23 January, Photo by Zabir HasanPhotograph Zabir Hasan

“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’re changing too fast. The younger generations 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! Pedro Meyer’s magnanimous persona comes from his curiosity towards the evolving events around him. He believes in learning something new each day. Though the world has much to learn from his unwavering wisdom, Pedro Meyer lives in the moment and grows with it, thus making him the extraordinary visionary he is.

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