Phracktography: Hacker Portraits For The Surveillance Age

Photographer Melissa Castro uses VJ software to create experimental photographs of hackers.

For the uninitiated, Phrack is a widely circulated ezine written by and for the hacker community. It’s been around for the better part of three decades and when it doesn’t have its finger on the pulse of hacker culture and all that comes with it, it has it on the shutter button.

The finger in this instance belongs to photographer Melissa Castro. As someone who is concerned with issues of surveillance, she decided to create imagery influenced by its themes. “Surveillance and [the] invasion of privacy have been issues that concern me (I don't care that I've been called paranoid because I taped shut the front camera on my phone and also haven't yet signed up for Facebook)." she says, "And given the current NSA leaks, I felt that I needed to create imagery that conveyed that idea somehow.”

So, for this year’s DEF CON hacking conference, which was especially focused on the above topics, Castro gave birth to phracktography—which looks like some distant cousin to RGBD visuals.

Influenced by the collaborative process behind the ezine that spurred its name, her photography project, too, was part of a team effort.

Vicente Montelongo, along with other Codame members, provided Castro with the space and adequate software to arrive at the images. Using software that is usually implemented for VJing, Castro manipulated a live video feed of participants before she used a DSLR camera to photograph the wall-projected portraits. Because the software is sensitive to sound, people were free to add their own acoustic fingerprint.

With her back to the photographed, Castro wanted to instill a sense of “anonymity” to anyone willing to participate. Some took that option further by refusing to provide their name for cataloguing purposes while others wanted their images distorted to the point of not being recognizable.

And that varied in extremity.

Also aided by artist Angat, Castro simply wanted to use her artistic license to wrap her head around the implications of a world overrun by über connectivity and complicit spying. Don’t we all want to be famous for 15 minutes anyway? Isn’t that what got us to this point in the first place: the social media-fed obsession with having the world watch our every move?

Castro adds, “To me the whole experience [behind phracktography] is a metaphor for the way we live today and the things we do and do not control. Of all the surveillance we experience, a whole lot happens due to a lack of information and understanding. In most cases, people just volunteer information for free—social media anyone? If we care enough to get informed, we can still control where it stops (well, most of it) and we can also choose to not feed the beast for free.”

Too bad doing it seems so fun.