Believe me: choosing stock photos for a hacking story is the bane of a security journalist’s existence. Either you have an abstract illustration of a padlock surrounded by The matrix typography, or a dark, hooded figure leaning menacingly over a laptop computer; there is not much in between.
But, to give the stock photo industry credit, illustrating concepts such as encryption, remote hacking and malware to the average reader can be very difficult, as can getting the same ideas across writing.
To better understand the process of creating a hack photo, we spoke to Tom, a photographer who posts his photos to the imagery site Shutterstock. Using the nickname “welcomia”, he’s behind several hacking photos you may have seen before, including on Motherboard. (Tom’s native language is Polish, so these responses have been translated by VICE’s Polish office, and some of the exchange has been edited for length and clarity.)
Do you research different types of hacking? How much do you read about it before creating an image?
I don’t know anything about hacking and I’ve never paid attention to the specifics of it either. It is here the pure imagination which is at work, mine and that of the spectator, who realizes that the image illustrating an article is only a symbolic complement to the text. Not educational material featuring a hacker at work.
To be honest, a photo of a real hack would be just too boring. This is why you usually create an attractive and exaggerated image, like in the cinema. It’s like the cars that explode in the movies. If you just showed a gas tank catching fire, the film would lose a lot of its visual appeal. Same thing with stock photography.
Why are hackers so often depicted wearing a black hoodie and balaclava as they bend over a keyboard?
As I said, it’s all about symbols and the closest connotations. An intuitive, pleasant and easy, casual and often funny image for the final recipient. Nobody expects to see pictures of real hackers in a text about hackers. Usually the media cannot provide such images for obvious reasons.
“It’s like blowing up cars in the movies. If you just showed a gas tank catching fire, the movie would lose a lot of its visual appeal.”
Do the models know that the image is designed to depict piracy?
If a model puts on a mask for a photo shoot, I can’t quite imagine how they wouldn’t know what they’re doing. Even if the photographer didn’t tell them anything, which I find impossible in my job. Each model is extensively briefed on the theme and purpose of the shoot. Masked photos are somehow safer for the model. I’m sure if a model shows their face, some viewers might associate it with something bad in real life. Especially if the photo was used in a huge marketing campaign and the model’s image could be seen literally everywhere, and sometimes it does. I think that the photographer must also take care to protect his models from such possible inconvenience. I always shoot pirates in balaclavas and believe that even their immediate family would not recognize them.
How did you get interested in creating hack images?
A stock photographer’s job is to follow market trends and demands because that translates into profits. Topics such as piracy make daily headlines and blogs, given the global reach of Shutterstock, which acts as my sales agent.
Another argument in favor of creating this type of images is that pirates and piracy will remain relevant as long as our world is based on computers, more or less secure. And because it is obvious that the world is becoming more and more computerized, the demand for such photos is not going to drop any time soon, quite the contrary.
When you display computer code on a screen, how do you decide what to display? what to type on the screen?
I think that’s the hardest part, so I try not to show what’s on the hacker’s screen. First of all, I wouldn’t know what to put in it. Besides, even if I did, it’s probably best not to give anyone free hacking tutorials. One thing is sure: I never put those funny interfaces that you know in Hollywood movies. I’m trying to give the impression of working in DOS using only text mode commands. This is what system intrusion probably looks like. Simple lines of code sent to the attacked server.
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