Transcript of Rick Smolan Interview

Turn up the volume, it's Silicon Valley Radio. Former Time-Life and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan has an eye for great images and a talent for attracting big-time sponsorship. Last February, his skills led to 24 Hours in Cyberspace, an event in which photographers from around the world captured images relating to the Internet.

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What photographer's sensibilities do you bring to the Internet?
Rick Smolan: Well, you know, it's sort of hard to figure out when you sit down and do a project like 24 Hours in Cyberspace. How do you make pictures of a place that doesn't really exist? It's sort of the place between your computer and mine. We didn't want to simply show people sitting in front of computers, which is what people were worried this 24 Hours in Cyberspace project was going to be all about.

What's the first thing you do after you have an experience online where you get a new idea, where you meet a new person, where a piece of information changes something that you would have done differently? And so, the pictures that we asked our photographers to try to capture were things that happened as a result of having been online.

That still sounds pretty abstract, but we found, for example, that a lot of religious groups are finding it's a terrific way to keep in touch with their brethren around the world. It's no longer who happens to live in your community that's part of your flock or your congregation, but it's who believes the same things that you do.

It's not necessarily just religion, but any sort of group of people who are interested in the same subject. There are a lot of medical stories of people who were looking for alternatives to what their doctors had told them.

There is a wonderful story called "Will's Page" about a little boy who has leukemia; he developed leukemia when he and his parents were on vacation in Hawaii when he was two years old.

Out of, I guess, a sense of frustration and powerlessness, this little boy's father put up a home page just basically keeping a diary of their emotions and their reactions and the things they learned and how it's changed the relationship between him and his wife. He wrote about what it's like for this little child who's known nothing but hospitals and operations since he can remember.

Interestingly, he sort of did it for himself, but now, all of a sudden, he's hearing from other people all over the world dealing with similar problems with their children, with loved ones. They're finding that maybe it's not changing their situations, but that somebody else has dealt with the same terror; somehow it's reassuring to know you're not alone.

I think there's a tremendous feeling of isolation when people receive news like this.

SVR: When you started 24 Hours in Cyberspace, minus the technology, why don't you explain what that vision was.
Smolan:Sure. For the last 15 years I've created something that was sort of considered to be the Olympics of photography. I say that kind of facetiously, but I mean the idea was basically every year I would invite the world's best photographers from National Geographic and Time and News week and Life Magazine and publications around the world.

I started this series called "The Day in the Life" books back in the early '80s. The idea there was to take the world's best photographers, give them assignments, put them in a really interesting country, and say, 'At 12:01 midnight, on your mark, get set, go; and at 11:59 at the end of the next day, you've got to stop.'

This particular project was very different because instead of doing a country, we were trying to do this place called cyberspace. The challenge for the photographers was to try to capture the human face of cyberspace on this one day.

SVR:What was groundbreaking about what you did?
Smolan:The strangest thing for me was that all of the projects I've ever done in the past have been a little bit like doing a movie, which means that you shoot the pictures and then you spend several months going through them, and editing them, and writing them, and laying them out, and basically you have a lot of time to craft the results.

And this project felt very different because literally while we were still in that room in the China Basin building, minutes after we would post the pages we were getting e-mail back from the people in the pages saying, "You spelled my name wrong" or "That wasn't what I said to your photographer" or "My child is actually three, not four."

It was almost like having a live audience and you were doing a stage play where you could hear people laughing or booing or hissing or applauding in real time, so you could change what you were doing. Whereas all of the other projects we didn't even hear back from the audience until nine months later.

So there was a sense that this was a real-time event, that while we were doing this the event was being changed by the audience. It reminds me of that incredible day that O.J. was driving down the highway in his car and people were seeing him on TV in the car, then running outside and then getting into the next shot of the TV.

I mean they were literally running out of their houses realizing he was going to be at their exit in like three minutes. And it was like the media was affecting people who were then affecting the media. It was just like weird feedback loop. I think it was the first time in history where the media actually changed the event in real time. And that's how it felt for us doing 24 Hours in Cyberspace.

SVR:How will the Internet change?
Smolan: Everybody keeps saying, "Rick, it's just CB radio, it's a fad, it's going to go away." And I say, "It's not like CB radio, it's like the telephone. It's going to have a huge effect on all of our lives. It's not going away. In fact, you can't stop it now."

My father the other day was saying, "Well, you know all this stuff about pornography, if the Germans are so upset about it, why don't they just unplug all the Internet access?"

And I said, "Dad, it's like saying just unplug your left arm," because there are so many things that are now dependent on the Internet. There are scientists, there are doctors, there are communications, there are businesses.

First of all you couldn't unplug it if you wanted to, because it doesn't exist anywhere. It's a virtual network. So there's no "there" there. That's a really hard concept to explain to people. It was designed, as you know, to be impervious to any kind of nuclear attack or war. The message will just find another way of getting around any systems you unplug.

This whole thing reminds me a little bit of the premise of Terminator, the first movie. I don't know if you remember that, but the whole premise of the movie is that on Sept. 7, 1997, I think, they added one more computer to this neural network that was growing all over the world which now we think of as the Internet. In 1984 when they made that movie I'm not sure that was what the analogy was.

And suddenly this brain woke up, you know. It knew how much money was going from one country to the next; who was at what stop light; how many phone calls you'd made. And this brain came alive and looked at us and said that human beings were parasites who were polluting and fouling the planet and it decided to wipe us out.

I mean in a way, it's kind of interesting to think of where the Internet really is heading because it is almost like watching an organism growing neurons and synapses and connections and data sensors and eyes and ears. It's quite fascinating. And no one is in control of it.

I love science fiction, so I have a macabre fascination with the type of technology that no one is really steering.

SVR:What were your top-10 favorite anecdotes taken from that experience?
Smolan:One of the best things was the Lubavitchers in cyberspace, this Jewish community in Brooklyn that publishes readings from the Torah every day. The pictures are just wonderful. It just fascinates me to see them, and people like Buddhist monks in Japan, using the Internet.

You just don't think of religion and the Internet somehow as going together, but in fact this is happening all over the world. There were some very disturbing pictures from a fellow up in Canada who claims the Holocaust never happened. 24 Hours talks about the dangers of hate-mongers online, and the fact that if you have a slick Web site you can say things which are complete lies and influence people.

It's kind of wild to think that everyone is up in arms about child pornography, which I think is terrible, because what's a lot more frightening to me are these hate groups. For the first time in history people can find each other anywhere on the planet. That's a lot more terrifying to me in terms of the long-term danger to the human race.

There are two sisters who are strippers up in Portland who use the Internet, partly to advertise their strip shows. They say it saves them a fortune on Federal Express of sending out their pictures to get booked for these different events. They're called "The Lick Sisters." The pictures are wonderful. They're very funny. The two women are college-educated, very attractive. They do breast cancer benefits in Portland. It's just kind of wacky.

There's an amazing story of five classes of sixth graders, located all over the world, who conducted a mock space launch on Feb. 8, 1996; the kids are from Argentina, Moscow, London, Texas. Each class was taking part in this mock space mission. And the kids in each of these countries got dressed up in space uniforms and built space capsules. In the Soviet Union, they actually launched little rockets. They went looking for red mud in quarries pretending they were on Mars. The pictures are just fantastic.

And just imagine how exciting it would have been when you were in sixth grade to be thinking of talking to other kids in other countries. We're all sort of using the Internet to pretend we're on our way to Mars.

I was a terrible student. I was always bored to tears in school. And the fact that you can talk to human beings all over the world makes learning such an exciting adventure for kids, which is the way it ought to be.

As an adult, there are not enough hours in the day to learn all the things you want to learn. It's such a pity when I think of how I spent so many years in school just daydreaming and being bored out of my mind when now I think learning is so interesting. So I think the Internet is just opening up all these opportunities for people.

SVR:What do you think will keep the Web from really developing into a vital medium? Are there any setbacks or worst-case scenarios you can envision?

Smolan:There's a wonderful gentleman named James Burke, who wrote "Connections." It was a PBS series, or a Discovery Channel series. And I saw him a few weeks ago when he was out here in San Francisco. We were on a conference panel together, and I showed him all the pictures from 24 hours in Cyberspace.

And he said, "The diversity in these photographs is extraordinary." He was talking about the fact that this is such a global phenomenon. And he had two comments. He said, "First of all, you know in America the Internet is another form of distraction. It's, 'I'm either going to watch TV or I'm going to surf the Net or I'm going to read a book, or I'm going to go on a date or I'm going to go jogging.' It's one of many things that you can do."

Very few people in America would find that their lives were seriously hurt by not having Internet access. Right now it's kind of a novelty, and it's great, but the world wouldn't end if you lost it. But he said, "In many third-world countries and Eastern Europe and parts of the world where technology has barely even scratched the surface of people's lives, the Internet has become a lifeline to them. It's become their only way of communicating with the rest of the world, of asking questions. It's their access to libraries, to news information. It's giving them a different picture of the world than they've ever been able to have before." And he said, "To those people the Internet is not a distraction or a diversion. Their lives would be seriously curtailed or damaged or their opportunities would disappear if the Internet were suddenly cut off to them." So that was an interesting viewpoint I thought. And the second thing he said was, "Wouldn't it be a shame if the fact that we're all connected to each other lessened the diversity? If we all became this sort of homogenized mess?"

You know, when you go to countries now that I went to 20 years ago -- I used to travel around Asia a lot as a photographer, and I used to love going there because as an American who had never been to Asia my mouth was open at how different each of these cultures were -- I thought Asia was Asia. I didn't realize at all how diverse, how distinct each culture was throughout the world in every country.

And Burke said, "But now when you go to a lot of these countries, you see strip malls and McDonald's and Burger King and Pizza Hut and all this crap everywhere you go." And he said, "You know, wouldn't it be an incredible shame if instead of the Internet encouraging or allowing people to maintain what makes them different from each other and find other people like them who are interested in that particular subject, it created this sort of bland Muzak-y kind of culture where everything was kind of the same mess?"

SVR:A lot of people felt 24 Hours in Cyberspace was a really neat project, but what sort of practical applications were spawned by it?

Smolan:I have to be honest with you. The goal of this wasn't to create a business, a daily 24 Hours in Cyberspace news organization, like a CNN or anything like that.

I like projects that have a discrete beginning and ending. All these pictures, all these stories could have been done over several months. And people said, "Well why did you spend all this money to send all these photographers around the world? Why didn't you just have one photographer and send him out for a few months and pay him well. I mean who cares if it was all in one day?"

And I said, "Well, that's the fantasy of this thing, is that you're looking at a typical day, a slice of time. That's what a time capsule is."

SVR:What constitutes a good photograph? What elements are necessary for a photograph to be captivating?

Smolan:Well, for me, I think that pictures are on sort of a scale of 1 to 10, a 10 being a pure design, a beautifully designed, lit photograph. And 1 is where it's a really interesting picture, but it's badly designed.

So 10 is all design but no emotional aspect at all. And 1 is a really incredible picture but a really lousy picture at the same time; it's got lots of things going on in it, but it's not a very good picture.

So I guess that I like pictures that come in at around 5, you know, where half of what makes a picture interesting is because it brings tears to your eyes or you're just absolutely riveted by what's going on in the picture. But then there's also a sense of design and composition and light and texture and mood, where the photographer really captured the Cartier-Bresson "decisive moment."

SVR:What was your thought in creating this vision? Was it something that came from a more '60s ideal of what the Internet should be, a kind of a community-sharing experience?

Smolan:Well, somebody joked, in fact Tom Melcher, the technology director and my partner on this project, that we should call it "Webstock." I wasn't crazy about that, but in some ways it made sense.

I think that I'm basically an optimistic person. And I think that most people mean well. I don't think most people are evil or bad. I think most people are looking for the same things, which is a sense of community, a sense of family, a sense of accomplishment, a challenge. And I think that the Internet, right now, represents another opportunity for people. Particularly for creative people. I wanted to try to show people why it's so important.

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