Do not miss this and save in your calendar:




Alejandro Cartagena is a renowned photographer known for his captivating series CARPOOLERS and his pioneering role as the co-founder of Fellowship, a platform that champions historical and contemporary artists at the forefront of photography, generative art, AI, and video. With a unique blend of expertise in photography and AI, Alejandro Cartagena has carved a distinctive path in the NFT space through his dedication and innovative approach. By seamlessly merging traditional photography with cutting-edge technologies, Cartagena's work with Fellowship showcases the transformative power of AI in the realm of art, pushing boundaries and opening up new creative possibilities. Fellowship's exploration of the intersection between artificial intelligence and art offers a glimpse into the future of artistic expression in the digital age.

In a captivating dialogue with Anika Meier, Alejandro Cartagena delves into the history of photography and the term post-photography. Their conversation extends to the dynamic interplay between art and technology, exploring the innovative realms of CARPOOLERS and Fellowship. As the discussion unfolds, they also venture into the boundless possibilities that lie ahead at the intersection of art and AI, painting a vivid picture of the future landscape of artistic expression in the digital age.

Anika Meier: Alejandro, when did you first pick up a camera?

Alejandro Cartagena: My first time picking up a camera was back in the Dominican Republic. I was in a bird-watching club, and we took pictures and developed the film at school.

The first time I used the camera as a tool to create art was in 2004. I had quit my job in the service industry and delved deep into the rabbit hole of contemporary photography.

Dalos Dov, For Friends #5 – Alejandro, 2024.

AM: Do you remember when you learned about photography as an artistic medium?

AC: It was in 2004, after a workshop called ANALYZING IMAGES, that I learned about photography as an artistic medium. For the first time, I was told that I could make photographs (stage them and/or make all sorts of formal decisions) and create a story or develop an idea with them. I had always associated the idea of nostalgia with photography—something you use to remember the past. This new way of thinking about photographic images shook me completely. I left everything to pursue it.

AM: The philosopher Roland Barthes was pleased that a moment from the past was present when he held a photo in his hands or leafed through a book. Today, the message on the bright screen is simply: "It is just so." (Wolfgang Ullrich)

Through social media and messenger apps, photography has transformed from a medium of documentation and memory into a medium of communication. What the philosopher Roland Barthes calls "punctum," the captivating and irritating moment of a photograph, is usually sought in vain. How do you perceive this change in the medium of photography as a photographer?

AC: Photography changed everything. It silently inscribes itself into everything we see and do. This slow indoctrination into seeing the world photographically is what you call a transformation into a language, because in reality, photography is a "wild" medium like all other art forms, with its meaning being fixed by the context rather than from the image itself.

What Roland Barthes proposed, I would argue, is that photography has an intrinsic mechanism to seduce viewers via nostalgia. Nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. That image he saw that formed his entire theory means absolutely nothing to the next viewer, and so what he described as "punctum" was a personal connection via nostalgia to an image.

Photography is a flawed language, but when placed on social media, it functions as a trigger for the ideas and meanings that these sharing systems have built around them.

Alex Webb, Nogales, Mexico, 1995.

AM: Who are the photographers you look up to?

AC: I think of the history of photography as what most inspires me. The flaws it has (many white, western men created it, and the lack of other voices) and the stories that are missing. I see it as a place to find loopholes in what else can be addressed via this medium. What has not been looked at, or what other ways can we think of one or another subject matter? I like to think of the different moments the medium has undergone where it has questioned its intrinsic values. The photographers that experiment with those ideas are very inspiring.

AM: Photography has radically changed over the past decade due to social media, smartphones, and now AI. The term post-photography is very present in relation to AI. How do you define post-photography?

AC: For me, the shift in photography began in the 1980s with the Pictures Generation. Artists viewed and utilized photography not merely as a chronicle of time, but as a visual tool that had generated an abundance of visual material, rendering the creation of new images unnecessary. Photographs could be appropriated and recontextualized, and through these simple acts, the meanings of the images were altered. This is the point at which I would identify a potential moment of contemplation regarding the rise of post-photography.

The photographic image began to show massive cracks in its supposed duty of recording reality. The advent of digital photography exposed the vulnerability of a photograph to adhere to its prescribed function: a record of real life. Suddenly, every photographic image was plagued with doubt. The era of "is that photoshopped" began, and photography shifted. These two moments prompted contemplation of the next stage for photography now that it was constantly being challenged and consequently relieved of its duty as a document. The signs had been present since the invention of the medium that this image machine could simply be a tool of subjective artistic representation, but it took almost 150 years for artists to dismantle the role that society and art had assigned to the medium. With the advent of AI, photography will possibly undergo a moment of crisis regarding its relevance as a medium in artistic use. I believe that this crisis is a valuable one to experience.

Joel Meyerowitz, Sequels #6, New York City, USA, 1966.

AM: When you look at images created with AI these days, is the history of photography still a point of reference for artists?

AC: For some artists, I assume that the history of photography is still a point of reference. AI images are becoming more diverse in how they are created. One excellent example of a cross-pollination of mediums is the BLIND CAMERA project by Diego Trujillo.

Diego created his own AI model, trained on videos of Mexico City, and then developed a sound camera that would interpret sounds and convert these auditory moments into images based on the model trained on the city's videos.

The act of creating AI images on the streets creates a very intriguing situation for this emerging medium. Field AI creation is evolving the concept of street photography to capture a slice of life. Is what Diego did then the same thing? Even though it involves AI, the city influences what the AI model creates. I appreciate the challenges that this project introduces to the conversation. What exactly has he invented?

Diego Trujillo, Blind Camera #14, 2024.

AM: What do you recommend to artists and collectors who would like to start learning about the history of photography?

AC: The book THE PHOTOGRAPH AS CONTEMPORARY ART by Charlotte Cotton is a fantastic guide to understanding how photography functions as an artistic medium. It breaks down the ways in which different generations of artists have utilized the medium. This would be the perfect place to develop a love for this medium.

AM: You are an expert in photography and its history, and you’re internationally known as a photographer for your series CARPOOLERS.

AC: CARPOOLERS is part of a larger body of work about homeownership in Mexico. For thirteen years, I worked on projects that explored how this cultural phenomenon had been imported into our Mexican culture and how that tropicalization created a series of unintended consequences. Issues with transportation and ecological degradation were two of the things that immediately showed up in many of the major cities in the country. The rapid development of these new housing complexes being promoted by the federal and local governments came at high costs for their new buyers. With very little planning, many of these new homeowners found themselves stuck with high transportation costs and had to inevitably rely on illegal transportation from and to the newly built suburbs they now lived in. My images show them in a strange private and public moment on the way to work. These scenes became more common because of the developments that were happening.

Alejandro Cartagena, Carpooler #10, 2011.

AM: What is more important: creating an iconic image or a body of work that stands the test of time?

AC: I am obsessed with the history of photography, and so I am constantly looking for “loopholes” in what has already been photographed. Thinking of CARPOOLERS, what you see is a project that not only makes sense to create based on the points I made above, but that also speaks to the many projects that came before about labor, car culture, and urban development. These images reference these subject matters but introduce a conversation with those other projects.

You see urban development in CARPOOLERS, but not by taking pictures of the city, but by visualizing one of its consequences. We see ideas of labor, but instead of creating the now cliché representation of hard work, these in-between moments of the workers have the strength to still make us think of the intensity of their jobs without having to represent that literally.

Finally, you see a reference to the preference for individual transportation systems like the car and the car culture that has been exported from our northern neighbor, the USA, into our country. Instead of favoring public transportation, private cars are championed as a sign of social well-being and as a status symbol. This process of connecting with other projects is something I think of a lot. Will it always make for good projects? Maybe not, but it helps me have a little bit of structure.

AM: When it comes to the history of photography where do you see AI?

"It’s bullshit, because AI is not photography. Generated images are hallucinations. How can you mix that up? Of course, there is no absolute truth. But using AI is destroying it completely. The mistake that many people make is that they see AI-generated images as a logical evolution from photography." This is a quote from Boris Eldagsen, taken from a recent interview with the Art Newspaper. German artist Eldagsen's artwork, PSEUDOMNESIA: THE ELECTRICIAN, won the creative open category at the Sony World Photography Award in 2023. He refused the prize because he used an artificial intelligence image generator to create his submission.

AC: There is so much to unpack there. I’d say that I do see AI as a sister tool to photography. Midjourney, stable diffusion, etc. are not the only ways artists are creating AI images. Some use their own photographs, their own videos, and their own sounds to create new AI work.

If you train a model only based on your photographs, is it not related to your photographic practice? When thinking of collage, do the photographs used in it stop being photographs because we call them collage? Photography is not only a medium but also a way of seeing the world. 200 years of being in the photographic era have made us see the world in a photographic way.

You can also create photographic hallucinations with AI. They are not photographs, but they work like photographs. Does that not make them photographic?

Boris Eldagsen, Pseudomnesia: The Electrician, 2022.

AM: Let's ask Boris Eldagsen these questions on Twitter when we publish this conversation. He will be part of our upcoming exhibition titled THE PATH TO THE PRESENT, 1954-2024, that we will present in Berlin on the occasion of the GENERATIVE ART SUMMIT by the Foundation Herbert W. Franke.

How did you get from creating art yourself to co-founding Fellowship?

AC: I’ve always had a drive to support creators. I had a photography school for almost 10 years; I taught at the university; and I have a publishing house called Los Sumergidos to publish Latino artists.

When I started my artistic career, I was given spiritual and conceptual support. I learned that art is also about giving and supporting each other. Fellowship is an extension of that belief. I had always wanted to build a gallery or a place to support artists and their careers, but it always seemed impossible. I did a ton of mentoring for years, but I still felt I could do more. Fellowship has granted me the opportunity to do all the things I wanted to do for other artists.

AM: What were your goals in the beginning with Fellowship? Have your goals changed over the years when interest from collectors changed from photography to AI?

AC: Fellowship started as a photography NFT collection. Studio137 and I had been talking about the opportunity to build a once-in-a-lifetime collection that would survey the projects that had shaped the medium. We focused on 20th and 21st century photography and built what we think is one of the most comprehensive and curated NFT collections of photography.

Our focus expanded when the artists we were collecting asked if we’d help find more collectors for their works. It was an organic path to start offering the work via a platform, though it has always been strange to call us that because we offer curatorial services, mentorship, tech support, and career-building opportunities.

We came to this because we were passionate about supporting artists and the excitement of collecting works of art, but now we help artists build projects and help them find the best ways to offer them to collectors.

Mixed into all that, the whole Fellowship team is obsessive and excited about doing new things that push our understanding of art. We work with artists that touch our hearts and minds. It is a bit romantic, but we are all here because we love art and love to build cool stuff.

Laurie Simmons, In and around the House II #25, 2022.

AM: When it comes to photography and NFTs, to be honest, I have been critical from the very beginning in regards to well-known photographers releasing their work again as NFTs. These works have already been sold in the form of prints, very likely in editions and in various sizes. What are your thoughts?

AC: I see no issue. NFTs are a new distribution method for photography. Let’s take it a bit further. Photography was one of the first mediums ever to be digitized. Photography was one of the first mediums on the internet. It’s digital heritage has been there for a long time.

The NFT technology was not there for that digitization of the medium, and so no one had considered offering digital editions for the medium. I think there is an issue with asking photographers not to print books after they have sold their work as prints. Photography’s nature permits it to have different outputs. If the artists say that the NFT is a digital original of their work, who can say that that is wrong?

Let’s go further. If they want to sell them as key chains, as t-shirts, or as disposable vinyl prints, who has the authority to say any of these outputs are wrong and should not be done? The artist has the ultimate say as to how they sell their art and what to call their art. And if there are collectors interested in those digital objects or weird physical gadgets, well, that's great. No one is holding a gun up to their heads to buy.

AM: How did well-known photographers respond when you reached out to them about releasing AI with Fellowship?

AC: Some of them have also been exploring AI, to our surprise. But most of the conversations are about how these tools create images. There is a natural curiosity in the photographers I talk to. I haven’t had any pushback because we are here as curious participants, trying to understand what this is. When you come at it this way, the conversations tend to be uplifting but also challenging.

Charlie Engman, Funhouse Mirror #025, 2023.

AM: Is there a difference between a good photograph and good AI art?

Kenny Schachter, the art critic and artist, spoke about art and technology when I met him with my students from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna at your pop-up gallery that was part of the first edition of the Digital Art Mile. He said
, "Good art has to last." And, "Good art is in no way subjective."

AC: No, either they work or they don’t. I’d also not say good or bad; maybe it's best to call it relevant or not relevant. Relevant because: do we want to spend time on that image when there is a flood of images out there to consider? I don’t look at art to see if it is good or bad.

Photography has a known grammar and lineage that can help discern if the image is relevant or not. As for relevant AI art, the grammar and traits of what make a piece important to consider are in development. So you can’t judge AI and photography the same way. They are different mediums with only similar aesthetics.

AM: I think the question if art is good or bad is valid. And the main criteria is relevance in regards to the past, present, and future of the medium. There is a history and this history will always have a next chapter. What will this next chapter be about? Writing this chapter is the job of the artists of their time.

Not only AI art but the NFT space itself changes at rapid speed. The interest shifted from photography and generative art to AI. Why did people lose interest in photography NFTs?

AC: There are many answers to that! Photography never had its moment in NFTs. It is one of the most digital and technologically native artistic tools, so for us, it is still perfectly suited for NFTs.

When photography was pushing for a spot in NFTs, the big conversation was around generative art. AI had been lurking too. But all three mediums needed more time to mature. But in this heavily financialized space, it was not easy to talk about art. The conversation around provenance, chain, and collector-controlled outputs seemed to hover over everything, and that is not something that allows for art to flourish.

So now we are at the crossroads of a dwindling demand for generative art and photography, and we could also argue for AI, not because of the art but because people got tired and expectations got chattered. That’s why building a project based more on the art, even when it is difficult to build a market, is very much needed for longevity and self-sustainability.

I do understand the importance of the 2021 push in NFTs. We couldn’t have advanced in certain things if it weren’t for all the things that happened then. But it is a different moment with new opportunities; even for photography, it is just going to take more time.

Roope Rainisto, Auto Dream No. 3 from Reworld, 2023.

AM: Fellowship keeps pushing the boundaries. In the autumn of 2023, you launched Daily. Why did you set up a new platform for AI?

AC: In the summer of 2023, we came across several artists that we felt were doing some amazing AI video art. We included them in our Post-Photographic Perspectives program, Part II, and they received a warm welcome from the community of artists and collectors. We did some research and were amazed that there wasn’t a comprehensive way to see how AI video had been evolving.

AI still images were getting better and better, so we made a leap of faith decision and thought that it would be an interesting project to build a curatorial survey of AI video before it became as perfect as what was happening in AI still images. That was the start of Daily. Soon, we found dozens of artists who were experimenting with these tools. Niceaunties, Mind Wank, Olga Federova, Milo Poelman, and many more were doing crazy cool stuff around July and August 2023.

There was a moment that we saw a critical mass forming around these video tools, and it became inevitable to not jump into building the program. Since I now spend more time curating for Daily than doing my own work, I try to work with artists that challenge my understanding of art. I want to have fun and, if possible, help artists build their careers, and Daily offers both right now.

Niceaunties, Hair Spray from Auntiedote, 2024.

AM: How would you sum up the past nearly twelve months on Daily? What are your observations regarding technology and the focus of artists who are experimenting with these evolving technologies?

AC: There are two aspects I would like to point out. First, my experience working with artists on video projects has been challenging and has pushed me to develop a whole new set of tools in order to communicate effectively in the language in which these artworks operate. This has been advantageous, as I bring a fresh perspective to the videos that immersion in the medium alone might not provide.

This has also shed light on the second aspect of the program, which is that everyone is primarily asking questions about what this medium is capable of, what it can communicate, and the messages it conveys. I could say that I see four main areas in which most artists experiment: a) experimentation with the tools, involving technical complexity and pushing the boundaries of what the tools can achieve; b) aesthetic explorations, focusing on form and visual appeal; c) narrative and storytelling, with a strong emphasis on content and various storytelling techniques; and d) critique of the tools and medium, where some artists address issues with the technology and may incorporate elements from the other areas to convey their ideas. There are other ways to categorize what has been happening on Daily.

Ultimately, our intention has been to collaborate with as many artists as possible to help us create a smart contract that will serve as a comprehensive survey of AI-Video during its formative years.

AM: What artists are always curious to hear: How do you select artists? What are your criteria?

AC: I look for things that wow me initially. Then, I delve deeper to see if there is consistency in the various pieces they produce and, if possible, an evolution in their practice. If that checks out, I present the work to the rest of the curatorial team. If there is a connection with the work, we invite the artists to submit a proposal or directly invite them to participate.

We review a lot of work, and due to our small team, we can only support the work we believe in and can stand behind, ideally on a medium- to long-term basis.

AM: Is the following of an artist on Twitter or Instagram a metric for success?

AC: Never! I don’t think about or check the following of an artist on Twitter. If the art is good, it should speak for itself and not be good because there is someone with a loudspeaker making noise 24/7.

Alice Gordon, Create a Harmonious Workplace from Cognitive Behaviour, 2023.

AM: What comes to mind when I hear and think about the word "daily" is the essay AETHLETIC AESTHETICS by Brad Troemel.

"The artist’s aura has been leveled and spread across dozens of daily opportunities to comment, like, and reblog."

Or, on the topic of an iconic image vs. a flow of images: "The idea of memorizing art-history slides to demonstrate a mastery of the canon now seems like a quaint reminder of a time when individual works somehow meant more than the always fluid relationships between them. Audiences no longer have the luxury of imagining that there is a static regime of aesthetic stability dictating quality and meaning. Passive viewers, who consume at the same pace as those they follow produce, and context hunters, who compress that process in time, end up with the same hermeneutic, finding meaning in the lines drawn from one bit of information to the next."

Troemel wrote this essay in 2013. What have NFTs changed when it comes to producing, publishing, and selling art?

AC: This is a fascinating concept, and I think we are in the middle of that zeitgeist. It spawned from influencer culture and has plagued our world. NFTs are a consequence of this in some way. Value was being assigned to virality, and monetization slowly became professionalized. But that was a very commercial endeavor. The creation was content, not art images, to reflect on and ponder.

NFTs have an influencer culture vibe nonetheless, even if we call everything art. It is about making noise and grabbing attention. Art will always struggle to be seen because it is not as easily digestible and packaged as content is. I still think that NFTs are, even with all their defects, one of the most exciting distribution methods available today. We just need to make more noise, like the influencers, I guess. There is no simple formula.

AM: Is it more important than ever for artists to also learn about the business side when they study art?

AC: I’ve lately seen many comments on this in the traditional art space. I can only talk from experience, and for me, I didn’t think of the business side until there was a business side to think about.

That is, for the first six years, I had very few sales and no gallery representation, and I was fully dedicated to experimenting and building projects that fulfilled my artistic ambitions. That dedication and obsession led to the development of strong work that then led galleries, publishers, and curators to be interested in my work.

Art is a trust-based practice. To be a professional artist is to be honest and trustworthy. Do what you say you are going to do; be fair with collectors and institutions that support you, and that should be enough to get you going.

AM: What is your perspective on the relationship between a high price and the cultural significance of an artwork? In the realm of NFTs, a high price often signifies a collection or piece being labeled as "grail."

AC: In the NFT space, I feel that a high price and the cultural significance of an artwork are not really correlated, even though that is what we expect. High prices tend to respond to market sentiments and other things right now.

How many of the works in the NFT space will actually be studied as works of art? As images that somewhat transformed the way we think of the world, life, and culture, or as aesthetic icons that show a before and after of the way images are made? Maybe it is that it is still too nascent, but most highly valued NFTs have a long way to go in terms of building cultural and artistic value.

My answer is also based on what I have seen command the highest prices in the traditional art space: artworks that mark a decisive change in how we thought of art, or artworks created by artists that contributed to change and transformation in art via the art and the ideas that they pushed. Usually, culture and understanding of the work come first. Then there are the giant price tags, with some exceptions, of course.

Elman Mansimov. alignDRAW, 2015, minted 2023.

AM: What is your advice for artists who start working with AI and would like to release NFTs?

AC: Pace and diversify your practice. Think of NFTs as part of your practice and not your only way to distribute your art. Do prints, books, teach, and have a regular job. Find multiple revenue streams in order to have the liberty to do whatever you want with your art.

Whether you sell or not, it won't break you. You can experiment more and take risks that, depending on your art for income, won’t allow you to. Right now, the NFT space is undergoing a slow but steady transformation in quality. The better the art that is offered, the more confidence collectors have in collecting. If you are an emerging artist, this is a great opportunity to push your art to the next level. Competition is strong but very healthy. It is one of the most exciting moments I’ve seen in terms of art in the NFT space.

AM: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas with us!