Bridging Art and Technology at ZoneZero
By Pedro Meyer

The question I have been asked is this: Why did I start ZoneZero? Or rather why did I start Zone Zero on the Internet? As with so many things in life, we do things based upon past experiences coupled with new opportunities.

So what came together for me were the following issues. I had just had the experience of having published the very first CD ROM that was ever made with pictures with a "wall to wall" sound track; it was " I Photograph to Remember", an essay on the last years of my parents' lives. This CD ROM got raving reviews all over the world, and even sold well in the stores that sold CD ROMs. However very few people could actually find a store that sold CD ROMs, or when they found it, more often than not, the titles that they wanted were not in stock. These were early days...

Read Pedro Meyer's editorial, "The Eye" on Espanol, "El Ojo"

The problems of distribution were a nightmare, not only for my disc but for every other title that was out there at that time. Even though I was one of the lucky ones who started early in this market, and therefore had the discs available in many places, distribution was never quite well resolved in the USA where it was published, and certainly the issues of distribution on a worldwide basis was never addressed either. So yes, while you could find the discs in New York, they were not available in Mexico City where I live. It was no one's specific fault, it was simply the birth of a new industry and of new products that had no history or definition to them at that time. Every one was scrambling to define where such a product should or could be sold, and above all, how. Finally a good number of bookstores started to carry CD ROMs. Borders Books stores, which had a store just a few blocks from my studio in Los Angeles, sold them, and so did Barnes & Noble in a nearby shopping mall. I would visit the stores from time to time to see how their sales would hold up.

Then all of a sudden out of left field came the Internet, and in a matter of months, the market for CD ROMs' collapsed like a house of cards. Entire departments, display furniture and all, were yanked from these bookstores, and they stopped carrying CD ROMs altogether. I was impressed at how fast it all went from not existing as a medium, to there being a few CD ROMs out there, to there being over 5000 titles, to zero.

Yet it all made sense. Right from the start, the internet could easily replace the actual store with their ever expanding inventory with never enough shelf space, the internet offerings could be found all over the world, and with this, the problems for the distribution of such content took on a completely different outlook. The Internet as carrier of content was born.

I had a long standing desire for many many years, to get involved in producing a magazine for photography, but what always stopped me, was that my love for the art did not include having to cope and deal with the endless administrative chores related to distribution. I knew that if I decided to go into the magazine business the pleasures related to being concerned with the art, would be replaced by an endless array of activities that I did not care for at all.

But then when the Internet arrived, a lot of things started to come together for me personally. I realized that the future was going to be over the Internet, not on CD ROMs.

Read Pedro Meyer's editorial, "Terrorism and Film" on Espanol, "La película y el terrorismo"

I also realized that the problems of distribution would, for the most part, take on a new direction and that I did not have to become beholden to an administrative chore that did not suit me, should I get involved with an internet publication.

But that wasn't the only consideration to start up ZoneZero. I thought, in hindsight rightly so, that being involved with the needs of a web site on a day to day basis would keep me on my technological toes. I was clear that the speed of change was such that if one stopped, even for a moment, one would be left on the sidelines of the major events that would become the vanguard of the cultural changes of our lifetime.

It is easier to be relaxed about dealing with new technologies when one does not have a clear commitment to a specific project. So having to deal with ZoneZero became a strong incentive to keep up with what is going on. Most people my age have already retired and don't want the hassle of having such a project hang around their necks. I learned from my Dad, that working for as long as ones' health allows it, keeps the good energy flowing. So as you will see by now, the reasons behind starting ZoneZero were very varied.

Dirck had asked me about my hopes for the future of ZoneZero...

This is a very interesting and important question, one that should always be thought through, in fact I had an answer for it during the first five years of our existence, we are now into our eight-year, however, I must admit that I have not thought recently about this issue as I allowed some form of inertia to take over. The main reason that this relaxation has taken place is that we have entered a comfort zone with what is going on where we have probably not questioned enough what our stated new goals should be. Or maybe we have not issued any specific statements and just lived those unstated goals on a daily basis. I believe that our concentration on improving quality through out the site, both in performance as well as new technological ways for telling stories, is what our main driving force has been and probably will continue to be.

We want to be a bridge that will make the transition from analog to digital photography an easier one for all those photographers who want to do so. I also want to maintain a good level of discussions on the changing nature of photography and to question so many of the preconceived notions that are bandied about without too much questioning. The very nature of who a photojournalist is or what he does in today's digital world, would be one of the many items on such an agenda.

We have never advertised or made promotions of our site. The viewers came, I suppose, because of the strong incentives of quality and word of mouth recommendations. We hope to continue with such a strategy for as long as possible.

I also think that ZoneZero became a strong reference point for other sites, sometimes because we were told as much by their creators, who generously informed us of what they were doing and thanked us, other times because we can see it in the design and lay out that they have. We never felt competitive about such issues, except once, when a site, which no longer exists, could do nothing more than just imitate our efforts. That made no sense at all.

Read Pedro Meyer's editorial, "Photography and it's trails out of Kosovo" on Espanol, "La fotografía y sus rastros que llevan fuera de Kosovo"

In many ways we all inspire each other and that is positive, what should not happen however, is that someone is just too lazy to think on their own and simply duplicates what someone else has created. Aside of any copyright issues, which of course there are plenty, I feel it's an insult to the imagination to have nothing better to offer than just a replica of someone else's work. It offends me from a human point of view that someone would not have more pride in what they do. Our efforts to maintain a bilingual (English/Spanish) site have been a commitment that we never regretted even though it has imposed a formidable amount of work upon us, not only is all the content in either language, but so are all the navigation tools. The truth is that in fact we are producing two parallel sites under one name.

In another of those very insightful questions, Dirck, has asked me about the things that made be feel glad, or sad, I suppose in relation to ZoneZero.

All I can say, if I understand the question correctly, is that I would rather use the term: frustration. Probably what frustrates me the most in all these years of working with all these new technologies is the inherent and built in difficulty in learning everything that is needed and do so at the speed at which it is all transformed.

No sooner have you learned one thing when yet something newer, better, faster and cheaper, supersedes it, both in hardware as well as in software. It is at best a very humbling experience, to feel you can never be on top of it all, simply because one can never rally the time needed to do so when you are also trying to make things happen, and not just learn.

One of my biggest errors was to think during the early stages of the digital revolution over a decade ago, that we would now have tools that would empower us all to become Renaissance people, with the potential to explore and create in ways not seen or possible since that period. In fact what has happened is exactly the opposite, people have become specialists in ever more finite fields of endeavor. Instead of wider views and larger horizons, the perspective has narrowed down the worker into having ever-smaller parcels of very complex work. Some times I get to read or hear the dialogues among such specialists, and I am convinced they have invented new languages to which the outside world has not been invited.

However, to end on a positive note, all I can say is that the satisfaction of remaining in touch with such a vast audience as it has my been my privilege to have, is not only an honor, but also an incredible opportunity for dialogue with people with whom I would most probably have never been in touch with otherwise, where it not for the internet. I have made friends the world over, I have learned from people in countries that I hardly knew existed, and above all, the photographers who have shared their work with us in ZoneZero, have all benefited from the experience by all sorts of exposure to their work. One of these photographers once wrote to me, in all the 25 years of showing my work combined; I have never received so much feedback and results as with the one show I have presented of my work in ZoneZero. In conclusion, if photography is about telling stories, then it seems we are on the right track, as the stories get better and an ever-increasing audience sees them.

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