For years now, the image of the tech startup world has revolved around young, upstarting programmers with new, shiny innovations. While many native San Franciscans demonize this image (not least for hiking up all the rent prices in the Bay Area), the companies themselves seem to embrace it, parading their young, sexy coders and graphic designers around as a sort of mascot for their business.
That's not the image of the tech world that photographer Matt Takaichi wants to portray. Matt grew up in San Jose, and has been living in Oakland for five years. Last year, the Bay Area native started a photo project titled Developers based on sneaking into tech conferences. What his photos show are the antithesis of what the Bay Area tech industry strives to be: It's not sexy, young, or hip as much as it is mundane, tiresome, and really, just like any other day-job.
VICE**: First off, I want to ask what inspired Developers. Was there a specific incident or event?** Matt Takaichi: My mom actually organized tech sales conferences in the South Bay. About five years ago, I helped her take event photos for a tech conference. I just remember oscillating between being bored and put off by the network-y vibe the entire time. I mostly decided I never wanted to try commercial event photography again. I thought about that day and it hit me that I had a chance to take some totally weird photos if I wasn't being so whiny.
Interesting. So this world isn't new to you.
No, and Martin Parr's approach in documenting tourism gave me some ideas about how I could revisit tech conferences with an interesting angle.
Parr was able to blend in with large tourists groups to photograph the tourists photographing overrun monuments and themselves in front of them. I imagined it wouldn't be too difficult to easily look part of the crowd, either as another programmer or an event photographer. I normally do a type of street photography where my presence feels more conspicuous. Being perceived as a fellow attendee was a way to gain proximity to the crowd and would arouse hardly any suspicions. I also thought the exaggerated gestures and facial expressions at corporate events would be fun subject matter.
Sneaking into tech events seems tricky, though. Where were they mostly?
The conferences were in either downtown San Francisco or Santa Clara. There's seriously at least two or three of them going on every day in SF, so if I didn't get into one there would be another one nearby I could take a crack at. I tried a few in San Jose, but their security was much better for some reason. It was kind of a bummer to drive to San Jose from Oakland only to get turned away at the door. I tried to keep in mind it was part of the process.
How would you try to get in?
I'd say I successfully snuck into 60ish percent of the ones I attempted. I tried to either find a back door or just walk straight into the front. I'd often find a group of other attendees and I'd just try to walk in the middle of their circle. I could also use nametags and lanyards from other events that looked similar to try to blend in. Sometimes I was able to find discarded badges in the trash. I mostly just got turned away at the front door while trying to walk in with a badge. Once I was inside, I rarely got asked any questions.
What was the demographic of people at these events?
It might be the most telling example of the demographic that, as a half-Japanese and half-white male, people assumed I belonged there—whether I had a badge or not.
Because you're half-Asian, half-white, and a dude?
Right. It should come as no surprise to know men vastly outnumber women at these. The gap should immediately stand out in the images I have. The more surprising aspect was how many older people I saw, from middle age to baby boomer and beyond, were at these.
Yeah, your photos were the first to really make me think about that.
Maybe it's the young corporate image these companies project, or the youthful actors from shows like Silicon Valley, suggesting this is a 20-something game now. Old dudes ride on, in case there was any worry.
What kind of conferences did you attend?
I cast a broad net over any sales conference or networking event with a connection to the tech industry, from startups to large corporations. The goal of the project was to make portraits of the people who attend these events, so I didn't place too much of an emphasis on finding a consistent type of event. Some of the events, like the ones put on by Twilio and Microsoft, aimed to court software developers to use their platforms. Some were gatherings of niches like home automation or virtual reality. Others were startups that were vying to secure venture capital, or mixers for companies to hire programmers—these were often free to attend.
I'm curious about how you personally view the tech industry. I knew you grew up in the Bay Area, but I didn't know your mom tangentially worked in the industry. Do you sympathize at all with these people?
Working on this project probably shaped my sentiments of people in the industry. It cut both ways, like the spread in almost any social situation. Some people were sweet and others were assholes. I've been surrounded by the tech industry my entire life.
So you grew up with the tech industry always being there. Does this mean you haven't noticed much of a change then? At least, not the way others have?
The dialogue surrounding tech-driven gentrification can often suggest places like San Francisco were suddenly overtaken in the last five to ten years. It's true the stakes are higher, but it's also important to recognize the gears driving this economy have been in motion for a long time.
Right. Rome wasn't built in a day...
That said, the housing crisis and related Ellis Act evictions brought by the new tech boom is at a boiling point. What's changed is how consistently the dialog comes up—it's nearly impossible to avoid. It has huge implications on anyone trying to hold down their fort in the Bay Area. The emphasis on tech, rather than housing developers, as the underlying cause driving displacement seems to have gained traction. Or, at least, images of Google bus protests might stick with us more. It says something about how tech culture, or the image we have of a tech worker, has gone mainstream.
So what's the overall intent with these photos?
My initial intent was to make photos visualizing the opportunist aspect of tech, the attitude that drove the immense influx of wealth and the eventual displacement of an existing population. These can best be seen in the images with aggressive networking attempts, brand promotion, and handshakes. I personally encountered the attitude, too. When asked what I do, I just told everyone I was an event photographer—which wasn't a lie. It was funny to see how, often, I could just see the calculation running in someone's head of how I was immediately devalued since I wasn't a programmer they could poach. They would leave the conversation shortly after. Though, some were more interested to speak to me because I was a break from whatever industry related conversation they were having all day.
Is that what are you trying to portray from this world?
Not exactly. You see, then I started noticing people at all of these often seemed really bored. It makes sense. Many of the people flew across the country to San Francisco on red-eye flights and they're not doing anything there besides attending the conference. I walked by stressed parents on phone calls to their families at home. It was common to see people passed out throughout the halls. At the same time, there's people at company booths doing poor imitations of a hype man to mildly amused attendees. Everything trying to counter the fatigue came off as trying too hard. I wanted to expand my initial intent with images showing how the tech industry can be shitty and alienating for lots of people. It's not hard to have empathy with someone bored at their job.
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