Photographer Antoine Bruy: Pariah at the Hackathon
October 2, 2017
For a recent assignment, Antoine Bruy photographed Goulash Programming Night, a German hackathon. Working there “was like fishing,” he says, “throwing a line somewhere, waiting for something to happen.” Click to see more.
A portrait of two women on a couch is one of the more intimate in the series. “That’s what I’m looking for when I’m making pictures of people,” says Bruy.
While on assignment for Bloomberg Businessweek to photograph a high-profile hackathon in Germany, Antoine Bruy found he was decidedly unwelcome. Most hackers prefer anonymity, and they were blunt about their displeasure at Bruy’s presence.
“A lot of people told me to go away, or to stop making pictures,” Bruy says. “For the first two hours I worked there, I thought: There’s no way I’m going to come back with interesting pictures.”
But Bruy stuck with it for two days, and came back with a series of lively, colorful pictures that Businessweek executive producer Diana Suryakusuma says the magazine made extra space for. The story, called “The Hackers Russia-Proofing Germany’s Elections,” appeared in Businessweek’s Global Tech issue, which hit newsstands in late June.
“He’s a very quiet observer. He managed to find interesting moments,” Suryakusuma says. “What really comes through in his work is he’s genuinely interested in people and their relationships…and how these individuals inhabit the space. [He photographs it] in a smart, curious way.”
The story focuses on the Hamburg-based Chaos Computer Club (CCC), a loose collective of hundreds of activist hackers and tech watchdogs from all over Europe. They were gathering at a former munitions factory in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe to probe the German voting system for weaknesses. The goal was to help immunize the system from Russian meddling during elections this fall. Bruy, who specializes in photographing sub-cultures around the world, had only about two days to prepare for the assignment.
“Businessweek wanted something fun and playful that gave a sense of place, and a feel for what was going on—who these people are, and why they were gathered,” Bruy explains. Suryakusuma says she also asked him to look for details that were unexpected for a hackathon.
Bruy says he didn’t know much about the CCC or its culture going into the assignment. “Most of what I know [about hackers] is through media or TV shows,” he says.
His research consisted of reading what he could find online about CCC, which has embarrassed governments and corporations with hacking stunts that expose and ridicule their IT vulnerabilities. Bruy had hoped to use his research to come up with ideas of things he might photograph at the event. But he was unable to glean much, and he says it was difficult to imagine the setting. When he walked in, he encountered 800 or so people sitting at tables and staring at their computers.
“People sitting behind tables at computers isn’t easy to photograph, but it was even harder because of people’s reactions,” Bruy says.
He and writer Vernon Silver met with the CCC spokesperson (and information security consultant) Linus Neumann, who was quite open to press coverage. Neumann told Bruy he was free to roam around and photograph, with two caveats: He had to get permission first from anyone he wanted to photograph, and was not allowed to photograph any computer screens, for the protection of the hackers and the secrecy of their work.
Bruy had anticipated that some people would decline to be photographed. But he wasn’t prepared for the level resistance. “It was frustrating at times, and most of the assignment I felt kind of uncomfortable,” he says. At one point, when he was photographing someone with their permission, another hacker walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said: “What are you doing? Do you have permission?”
Most of Bruy’s other projects involving sub-cultures are personal work, so he has time to get to know his subjects, and earn trust by returning multiple times and showing pictures to subjects so they can see what he’s doing. But because it was a short in-and-out assignment for Businessweek, he had no time to develop relationships and rapport with the CCC members. “And I don’t speak German,” he adds. “If I spoke German, it would have been easier, honestly.”
At the CCC meeting, Bruy had to be deferential and persistent, and he never pointed his camera without permission. “I was just walking around, looking at people. When I felt that someone was open to being photographed, I would just ask. It was like fishing, honestly: throwing a line somewhere, waiting for something to happen.”
Bruy shot with a Nikon D810 equipped with a 24-70 lens and an on-camera flash that he pointed directly at his subjects, for a bright, “poppy” look. He captured the club’s nerdy, whimsical, caffeine-infused culture in the details: hackers at work, surrounded by soda bottles and coffee mugs, chaotic piles of cables and tech gear, and hackers reclining in lounge chairs or letting off steam in kiddie pools.
“There were a lot of fun moments, and he spotted all of them,” Suryakusuma says.
Among Bruy’s favorite images was a portrait of two women snuggling on a sofa. “It’s the only one where you can feel any intimacy, and that’s what I’m looking for when I’m making pictures of people,” he says. He also favors the image Businessweek chose for the opener, showing a roomful of hackers at work on sofas and armchairs, shot from a balcony high above them. That image, Bruy says, “is very graphic, and the color is very present, but at the same time you can see all these details…people are sitting, and we have no idea what they’re doing. There’s something mysterious behind it.”
Bruy provided Businessweek with 40 or 50 pictures, and didn’t participate in the final edit. “I like to give the photo editor enough to make his or her own story,” he says.
Bruy says the lesson he learned from the project “is to be really patient, even if you have this feeling it will be a quite complicated assignment. Keep looking, and never give up or get discouraged. Even though so many people say no, no, no, there will always be someone who says yes, so just keep trying.”