Photographer Interviews

Picture Story: Patrick Cavan Brown Digs for Bitcoin on Assignment for Politico

June 11, 2018

By David Walker

Beyond all the hype about the cryptocurrency Bitcoin is a lot of confusion about how it works and what its social, economic and political implications might be. Politico magazine recently gave its readers a look at some of Bitcoin’s real-world impact with a story titled “This Is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town.”

Written by Paul Roberts and photographed by Patrick Cavan Brown, the story describes a modern-day gold rush in the Wenatchee Valley of Washington State. Bitcoin doesn’t exist in any physical sense. Instead, complex computer algorithms create and secure the currency, and keep track of all Bitcoin transactions. That requires a decentralized network of powerful computers that consume huge amounts of electricity.

With a surplus of cheap hydroelectric power, the Wenatchee Valley is attracting high-tech speculators—“Bitcoin miners”—who are rushing to set up their computer operations in the area to churn through the Bitcoin algorithms. They get paid (in Bitcoin, of course) when their computers are first to confirm a Bitcoin transaction. The high price of Bitcoin adds to their sense of urgency.

Politico photo editor Katie Ellsworth told PDN via email that she assigned Brown to photograph the story because he’s “equally great at photographing people and environments, a balance that can be hard to find and was important to the success of our Bitcoin story.” Politico has worked with Brown on other stories—mostly portrait assignments—and Ellsworth says he contributes creative ideas, solves problems on the ground and “goes that extra mile for you.”

The assignment brief was “very detailed,” Brown says. Politico provided him with a shot list of people, places and scenes they wanted him to photograph, including power lines, electric plants, landscapes, abandoned buildings and concepts such as “old versus new,” he explains. Before he traveled to Washington for the three-day assignment, he had a conversation with Ellsworth and Politico creative director Janet Michaud “to discuss tone and narrative” of the story, Ellsworth says. She adds, “Patrick’s really good at exploring things on his own—he doesn’t just do the shoot list and call it a day. He’ll return to a location multiple times to get the most flattering light.”

© Patrick Cavan Brown

A makeshift mining operation in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley. © Patrick Cavan Brown

One challenge for Brown was gaining a basic understanding how Bitcoin mining works. Roberts, the writer, helped explain it, and offered his ideas about what facilities to photograph and where. “I was telling a story that I knew nothing about,” Brown says. “Luckily all I [was] trying to do is take pretty pictures that include portraits of miners, and show the [work] spaces.”

He read a summary of the story and talked to Roberts before he left for the three-day assignment in January. “I picked his brain about the subjects prior to meeting them.” Brown asked about the spaces they lived and worked in, to help him pre-visualize the portraits. But he adds, “Half the time, you throw out everything preconceived, once you get there.”

The portrait schedule, pre-arranged by Ellsworth, was Brown’s first problem on the ground. Too busy trying to stay ahead of other Bitcoin miners, several subjects canceled the photo shoots Ellsworth had scheduled. Brown scrambled to re-schedule them, and ended up with a rush of appointments during his final two days of the assignment.

Some of the miners he ended up photographing had workplaces that weren’t ideal for portraits. The locations were cavernous spaces, with a lot of computers, under fluorescent lights. So Brown had to be creative. In one “mine,” for instance, the colored indicator lights glowing on the computers caught Brown’s eye.

“I used to shoot computers for the Dell catalogue. One thing we did was turn off the lights, and expose for a number of minutes” to dramatize the indicator lights, he explains. He adapted that technique for a portrait of a Bitcoin mine and its owner, Malachi Salcido. “I turned off the lights and dragged the shutter for a couple of seconds” while moving his camera to smear the computer indicator lights around Salcido, Brown explains. He kept Salcido in sharp focus by bouncing a strobe light in front of him with an umbrella.

© Patrick Cavan Brown

Inside one of the computer operations that help track Bitcoin. © Patrick Cavan Brown

Another subject named Benny, a 20-something computer whiz working from home, wanted to remain incognito in order to avoid government scrutiny, assuming Bitcoin mining is likely to be regulated soon. So Brown obscured Benny’s face, and gave the portraits context and some drama by showing Benny’s wife and daughter bustling around him as he worked.

Between the portrait appointments, and during the hours around dawn and sunset, Brown drove up and down the Wenatchee Valley photographing the scenery, the electrical infrastructure and exterior views of Bitcoin mining operations. “There’s one valley, 50 miles up and down between all the dams, so there was a geographical area I was limited to,” he says. “As far as exterior [locations] go, you just keep visiting them over and over at different times of the day, looking at them in different light and different weather scenarios.”

The opening image for the story shows Salcido’s mining operation: a row of shipping containers lined up on a concrete pad, fitted with giant cooling fans, against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. It has a temporary, slapdash appearance. “You just need to get into the game quickly. You don’t care what your mine looks like,” Brown explains. “That’s one of the things that made this story interesting: the fact that all these guys have jerry-rigged things together. Shipping containers were something that Katie definitely wanted me to focus on.”

Brown shot the assignment with a Fuji X-T2 camera equipped with a 16-55 mm lens, and four Flashpoint strobes that he used on and off-camera. “I usually had at least three [strobes] going per [portrait],” he says.

He sent a rough edit of 200 images to Ellsworth. She says she worked with Michaud “to identify the most important ‘buckets’ of information we wanted to use as the visual drivers of the story—the beauty of this place, the power that it takes to mine one Bitcoin, the people mining and the vast range of their mining operations.” They selected four different miners—one large-scale, one small-scale, and two in between—to serve as visual “case studies,” Ellsworth says. “Once we had the final story and developed a general outline, it was easier to narrow down the selection.”

The story appeared in the March/April print edition of Politico. The story and complete photo edit are also available on the magazine’s website.

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