Monday, January 30, 2006

Czech Dream or Nightmare?

I'm a documentary film nut. I'll line up in freezing cold at the most obscure film festivals just to see a film about unemployed Latvians drinking vodka and staring out the window. Okay, I exaggerate, there are no long lines for most documentaries. With the exception of the 'new documentarians', i.e. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock--who point their critical fingers at a very large and easy target--most documentary filmmakers are unheard of.

I came across a gem of a film, "Cesky Sen" (The Czech Dream) while here in Prague. It was part hype, part prank and part social commentary. Two Czech film academy students created a completely artificial hypermarket (a really huge supermarket) in a field. It was just a facade wrapped in rainbow colors. The filmmakers created the thing from scratch: ad campaigns, slogans, logos, theme music, everything. They plastered Prague with the little 'Czech Dream' logo and flooded the media with hype--just to see if people would show up in droves at the opening of the made-up market.

As a former media student and a longtime resident of the Czech Republic, I have a strong interest in the effects of the megalithic media machine on former communist countries. Imagine a country before 1989 wherein 'consumer hype' consisted of randomly joining a long line of people outside of a market in hopes that they 'just might' have tropical fruit. Like an orange or a banana. Now imagine the same country today, crazed by consumerism, wherein people knock down barricades to get to the newly built mall. Where a new 'hypermarket' (something I've never seen in America)--a supermarket the size of a football stadium--has opened every year for 7 years straight. And the people can't get enough. I live in the Prague suburbs near one of the largest supermarkets in Europe, open 24/7. It scares the Bejesus outta me, and I come from a consumer country.

This film explores one of my favorite themes: the effect of mass media on the average person. As an American, I have probably been exposed to more advertising images, jingles, commercials and sales pitches than most. I qualify as one of the most manipulated media guinea pigs in the world. As we grew and became more 'discriminating', the ads became more clever. Modern marketing is 90% psychology and 10% product. I believe that the reason market campaigns work is that they convince us to take something out of a 'want' category and place it into a 'need' category. They get into our brains and move the synapses and gray jelly around a bit. I felt this effect so strongly that I boycotted all commercial media for several years. No television, no radio, no newspapers. It felt great. Maybe that's the reason people go camping: to get away from the mass brainwash.

So imagine my interest when somebody decided to take a country relatively new to the whole mass marketing concept and bombard them with a fake ad campaign. Just to see the reaction. Naturally, opinions on the film were divided: many people hated the idea of people being duped on such a massive scale. Others, like me, saw it as chance to witness the effects of the advertising media from a different angle. It's about empty promises delivered in rainbow wrapping. I mean, you need a shirt, but does it absolutely need a designer label?

The film 'Cesky Sen' (Czech Dream) explores and explains the themes of advertising and consumerism in a post Communist country brilliantly. And it was a couple of Czech film students who pulled it off. Coincidentally, the field in which the filmmakers erected their Potemkin village - Letnany exhibition grounds - is a few hundred meters from where I live. Just about the length of the real Tesco hypermarket that was built around the corner.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Prague is breeding...BOLSHEVIKS

The new photo bolsheviks are coming to Prague. They've got all the latest gear. They've got the shmooze they learned in LA or NY or some other godforsakenly fake planet. They come here--like many other fakers before them--to sniff the Eastern European air, drink the beer, start a business. They've tried everything from shooting fashion photography to selling Russian relics on ebay. They've invested in the dotcoms, won some, lost some, came to Prague to start again. But now they're crowding in on my turf.


1) The guy who's tried 25 jobs in Prague suddenly buys a digital camera and suddenly he's a 'photographer.' This works fine for scamming impresionable art babes out of their clothes (well, so the theory goes, it's never worked for me, ehem...), but please don't tell me you plan to start a business you know nothing about. Not to mention that you should probably know how to take a picture.

2) They've got slick websites. All content, very few photos. Flash and sound and all that jazz will fool some folks from LA or NY get the picture.

3) A guy who advertises one minute as 'the hottest fashion photographer to snort coke with the skinny Milan models' one day--and the next day--he's a wedding photographer.


Glad you asked. ;)

Well, y'see, it's like this: I'm the real deal. I was taking photos professionally for at least 5 years before I set up my photo business here. Now I've been providing high quality, natural documentary style wedding photography in Prague for over 3 years. I was the first one to do it here. Hell, I never even heard of the phrase 'documentary wedding photography' before I started doing it here. Now there are at least 5 other 'photographers' in Prague advertising this very service. Humph.

A business-minded friend of mine suggested to me the obvious: that any business in a normal capitalist environment will spawn competition. The market will grow and the weak ones will fall by the wayside. Okay, fair enough. But enough of the snake oil salesmen already, alright? I had to endure years of wannabe American 'Prague writers' who were perpetually 'working on The Novel.' Now the photography stampede.

My only concern with modern marketing is that it's main purpose isn't to provide high quality at reasonable prices (which is what I do), but it exists to confuse and manipulate the consumer. There are many people that will fall for a slick website or a clever tagline. But please look at the photos.

I guess what I'm saying is this: I know I don't have a super slick website (I did it myself and I'm not a web geek, sue me). I don't like to toot my own horn. Nor do I have a staff of underlings and capital to burn on target ad campaigns.

I'm a nice guy with a camera who happens to be a professional photographer. I guess I need to get lessons in marketing, self promotion, all that jazz. If not, they say nice guys finish last. I'm going to trust in my images to sell me, not a dotcom or a slick ad campaign. I may be nice, but I don't intend to finish last.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Fun You Can Have with Drunks in Prague on New Year’s Eve

I decided to avoid the usual Prague New Year’s Eve madness and opt instead for a quiet party in one of those renovated attic flats in Mala Strana. In previous years I ran the gauntlet of fire and booze on the Charles Bridge and in the Old Town Square. Bottle rockets were fired horizontally at people just to see them duck. M80s were thrown between wobbly feet to instigate an impromptu jig on glass-riddled cobblestones. Beer and champagne bottles smashed all around. If there was any booze left in the shattering bottles it could either put out the flaming trousers or if strong enough—fuel the flames.

I used to revel in this weird festival of fire in Prague—if only to remind me that my home country does not allow either drinking in public or fireworks. What a boring fucking country. But we have guns, so I guess it balances out somewhere...

Enough writing and on with the pics. Self explanatory, really: people having fun in an old attic flat in Mala Strana.

And for anyone interested in technical photo details: to get the 'swirling blur of flame and booze' portraits, I simply set the camera dial on my Nikon D70 to 'drunk portrait', which is an icon with a leaning person and a bottle.

Just kidding. I set the exposure to the ambient light of the room
(combo of long exposure plus iso of about 800), then set the flash to ttl mode (or flash auto fill) -- et voila