Think Stock Photos of Hackers Are Cheesy? Blame This Guy

An interview with the man who tries to make typing code look dramatic.

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Nov 25 2016, 11:00am

Image: welcomia/Shutterstock

Trust me: picking stock photos for an article on hacking is the bane of a security journalist's existence. Either, you've got some abstract illustration of a padlock surrounded by The Matrix typography, or a dark hooded figure leaning menacingly over a laptop; there isn't much in between.

But, to give the stock photo industry some credit, illustrating concepts such as encryption, remote hacking, and malware to the average reader can be really hard—just as getting the same ideas across in writing can be.

To get a better grasp of what the process is for conjuring up a hacking photo, we spoke to Tom, a photographer who publishes his photos on imagery site Shutterstock. Using the moniker "welcomia," he is behind several hacking photos you may have seen before, including on Motherboard. (Tom's native language is Polish, so these answers have been translated by VICE's Polish office, and some of the exchange has been edited for length and clarity.)

Do you conduct research into different types of hacking? How much do you read about it before creating an image?

I know nothing about hacking and never have paid any attention to the specifics of it either. It's pure imagination at work here, both mine and the viewer's, who realises the image illustrating an article is just a symbolic supplement to the text. Not an educational material showcasing a hacker at work.

To be honest, a photo of some real hacking would be just too boring. That's why you usually create an attractive, exaggerated image—like in cinema. It's like exploding cars in the movies. If you just showed a gas tank catching fire, the movie would lose a lot of its visual appeal. Same with stock photography.

Why are hackers so often portrayed wearing a black hoodie and balaclava while hunched over a keyboard?

Like I said, it's all about symbols and the closest connotations. An intuitive image, nice and easy, casual and often amusing for the final recipient. Nobody expects to see photos of real hackers in a text about hackers. Usually the media can't provide such images for obvious reasons.

"It's like exploding 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 represent hacking?

If a model puts on a mask for a photo shoot, I can't really imagine how they wouldn't know what they're doing. Even if the photographer didn't tell them, which I find impossible in my line of work. Every model is extensively informed about the theme and purpose of the shoot. Masked photos are in a way safer for the model. I'm sure that if a model shows their face, some viewers might associate them with something bad in the 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 this is the case. I think the photographer should also care to protect their models from such possible inconveniences. I always shoot hackers in balaclavas and I believe even their immediate family wouldn't recognise them.

Image: welcomia/Shutterstock

How did you become interested in making hacking imagery in the first place?

A stock photographer's job is to follow trends and demands on the market, because it translates into profit. Such subjects as hacking make the newspaper and blog headlines every day, taking into account the global reach of Shutterstock, who act as my sales agent.

Another argument for creating this kind of images is that hackers and hacking will stay relevant as long as our world is based on computers—more or less secure ones. And because it's obvious that the world is getting more and more computerised, the demand for such photos won't start falling anytime soon—quite the opposite.

When you display computer code on a screen, how do you decide what to show; what to type on the screen?

I think this is the toughest part, so I try not to show what's on the hacker's screen. First of all, I wouldn't really know what to put there. And then, even if I did, it's probably better not to give anyone free tutorials in hacking. One thing is certain: I never put those funny interfaces you know from Hollywood movies. I try to make it look like working in DOS using text-mode commands only. This is what breaking into a system looks like, probably. Simple lines of code sent to the server under attack.

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