Q&A: Matt Takaichi’s Sardonic Tech Work Photography
Takaichi spent over five years photographing tech conferences to make a strange, sad, and funny book called ‘Developers’.
In an interview from 2014, East Bay artist Matt Takaichi shied away from claiming he had a special eye for taking photos and instead said his ability to capture compelling images stems from “the extent” he takes to “position” himself for them. At that point, Takaichi was taking photos mostly on the street, but he soon started using this approach for a project that would become Developers, his recently published first photography book of work from 2015–2020. To make the book, he went to over 50 Bay Area tech conferences, often by sneaking in, and took well over ten thousand photos that captured tech work in sad and funny ways.
While working on the project, Takaichi became obsessed and had trouble fathoming how it could end. But shelter-in-place hit in March of 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered these in-person events which made it impossible for him to continue photographing them. He then began a year long editing process, and collaborated with Oakland based book designer Kate Robinson to organize and self-publish Developers, which culled together about 120 of these photos, most of which appear in black and white. Readers can purchase the book using this link. Takaichi discusses his book in the following interview, which edited for brevity and clarity.
Zack Haber: Why did you make a book about tech conferences? The book starts out showing protests. Was there anything political you wanted to explore?
Matt Takaichi: I’d been doing street photography for a while before I had the idea for this book. I was on the streets taking photos of people out and about. As I tried to put those photos together and figure out some intuitive way they made sense, I started to feel I needed to do a project that was a little more grounded and had some point to it.
I had the idea to do this project when I was thinking about how my mom was a meeting planner for a tech company. Her job was to organize tech conferences. When I was living at home with her, there was one event where she hired me to photograph people as they were receiving awards. I remember thinking at a time ‘this is really stupid, this isn’t the type of photography I want to do.’ I was being kind of bratty. Then I thought about that later and I was like, ‘oh, that could have been really interesting if I had approached it a little bit differently.’
Around this time too, while living in the Bay Area, I was constantly confronted with tech’s dominance of the region, its spillover effects to all other types of work, and the increased inability to afford living here. I liked the directness of doing something centered around tech. It felt like a straight shot in documenting a powerful industry, but I also wanted to bring an improvisational style of street photography into it, and I couldn’t just walk into Google and start taking photos of people.
Then I thought about going into tech conferences. I had a sense of them growing up and walked past them a lot in San Francisco. That’s really the only place tech congregates in a somewhat visible public way. It seemed like the only option where you could do a documentary style street photo type of a tech project and be around people to get their natural reactions. I thought ‘here’s the biggest target and here’s the only way I can conceive of doing it.’ When I started I don’t think I had a real idea of what I was doing. It was just that concept and wanting to do it in a way that could be critical and funny.
I think especially around 2015, there was a lot of antagonism towards tech. Actions were popping up like people blocking Google buses and connecting their displacement to the industry. I wanted to do some photos about how people perceived tech, the power centered around it, and the wealth. When I was making the photos, I started realizing there was a lot of resentment among the workers too. People didn’t always want to be there. There was a lot of fatigue. As the project progressed, things started to get interesting in Bay Area organizing circles. I got into the work Tech Workers Coalition was doing, a group aiming to build worker power in the tech industry. I thought a lot of their ideas for organizing were really interesting. My friend involved with TWC mentioned on a podcast that tech labor organizing should encompass everyone in the industry, not just engineers and other highly paid positions. There’s people servicing the tech industry, like cooks, and people in all sorts of lower paid positions. To me they all qualify as tech workers. At these events that service work was everywhere. And those workers made it into my book.
Unionizing in tech work was also entering into the popular consciousness more in the Bay Area. It was something I hadn’t really seen before. Now there’s the Alphabet Workers Union at Google and Kickstarter United. In 2018, there were 14 engineers at Lanetix who were fired in retaliation for organizing and tech workers in the area rallied outside their office in solidarity. At the same time, being someone who was newly employed in the industry, I noticed the possibility of collectively improving our workplaces seemed farfetched. Disgruntled workers seemed resigned, or I suppose incentivized, to continually test out the market for less hostile workplaces and higher wages.
The photos I have of labor protests took place right outside the tech conventions. I have one that’s the Marriott strikers and they made flyers that were specific to people attending a tech conference. You see from the images there’s not a whole lot of interest from tech workers to engage with that. That’s what I’ve seen in the tech industry. You have workers who are pretty unhappy and are working long hours. At the same time there’s not really an infrastructure that could agitate towards collective bargaining, reduced working hours, or contesting what the company does with their labor.
I counted about 15 photos in Developers where people appear to stare directly at you or into the camera. Most, but not all, of these people look perturbed, annoyed, and perhaps suspicious of what you’re doing. I love these photos. They make me feel both unsettled and fascinated. There’s a taboo being broken here. As a child I remember being told not to stare at strangers. Why break that taboo? What did it feel like taking these photos?
To me these questions get at a lot of larger questions around street photography — taking photos of people on the street who may not always know I’m doing that. I really struggled with how I felt about that for a while. I’ve been really into a lot of classic Magnum photographers, people like Josef Koudelka. What I really like about their photos is you’re just getting this slice of reality from 50 or 60 years ago. Everything feels really genuine, like it wasn’t posed.
It’s really hard to do that if someone knows you’re about to take their photo. I think to some extent, it’s not cool to take those photos. At the same time, street photography has become part of the art canon. People like Henri Cartier-Bresson are seen as great artists. It’s kind of validated doing this type of photography, maybe in a way that could give a license that we’re allowed to take photos of people in public whenever we’d like because this is art and it’s legal. I try to do what I can to read the room and not upset people who would certainly have reason to be.
All this is to say I never really figured out a way to navigate doing it. But what I will say about this project, and why I don’t feel as weird about doing it as I did about other street photography, is that there’s something about entering into the space of a tech conference that makes people assume you belong there. It’s different from taking photos on the street. Once you’re in a tech conference, there’s an assumption that everyone there is in a segment of professionals, where maybe you’re all coming from a university background. And there’s security making sure everyone who goes in fits a profile. Due to that I think people drop their guard down pretty significantly.
Also in tech conferences, tons of people are running around with cameras. There’s this tacit agreement that people at booths or stages are being presenters speaking on behalf of a company. They’re there to advertise. On the one hand it’s a private space, but people are really putting themselves out there.
Honestly in photos I have where someone has a weird facial expression, I wasn’t too sure they were even looking at me. These places were so dense with people that it could even be someone nearby me. I use a pretty wide angle lens and have a pretty discrete setup, so a lot of times my camera wouldn’t be too obviously pointed towards the main subject. When people looked a little frustrated sometimes I would quickly snap my photo, especially because people’s facial expressions change so quickly.
I felt a little bit free from having to be super conscious of how I was being perceived all the time. A huge part of street photography is knowing how you appear to other people, because that’s going to inform how they react to you, which will change how they appear. You can smile at someone in the street and sometimes you’ll get this nice reception from them for a photo. But with this project I felt like I could really just be a fly on the wall. People weren’t paying much attention to me.
Can you talk a little bit about sneaking into these conferences, and what that felt like?
Takaichi: When I started doing this I’d had the idea for a while but wasn’t sure how I’d execute it. Then one day I was walking around downtown San Francisco and saw the Moscone Center was having a tech conference. On a whim I was just like, let’s go for it. I walked into the building, went up the escalator, entered with a group of people and the security guard didn’t really register that I was without a badge.
That was the first event I snuck into. The guard came up to me once and was like, ‘oh, hey, where’s your badge?’ Then I mumbled something incoherent and acted like I knew what I was doing and he was like ‘oh ok, you’re good.’
Based on that first experience, I realized it wasn’t hard and I could just keep doing that. Soon I stopped impulsively going to tech conferences. Instead, I learned about how they were scheduled and that, for at least half of them, I could register and enter in for free. Most of the photos from the book though are from ones I snuck into. Sometimes I could have paid to go to those events but it would have been like 400 bucks.
Subconsciously I always felt like I shouldn’t be there. I worried a little bit that people would find out I was working on this project. Before long though, I realized it was pretty low stakes. The worst thing that could happen is that I’d have been asked to leave.
Of course I preferred not to get caught. But that never really happened. A lot of people just thought I was an event photographer. That was something I had to learn to navigate at first. Sometimes someone I wasn’t interacting with would be like ‘oh cool, take my photo.’
Eventually I just started telling people exactly what my project was when they asked, that I was working on a documentary series of images you might not normally see at a tech conference that showed how it wasn’t always fun. Almost all of them thought it was a good idea and they were often really cordial. One time I saw one of these people at a bar months later and he started going on this long rant about different ways he thought I could make a lot of money since I had demonstrated a crush-it mindset that showed I had what it took to make millions by executing an elaborate pyramid scheme. I couldn’t really comprehend it.
Your photos show an absurdity that’s often comical but also has a deep sadness. There’s lots of photos of people clearly stressed and/or exhausted while others show a strange carnivalesque showmanship and excitement. It makes me wonder: What was it like being in that space? What did you learn about these people and what tech work does to them?
When I saw people at the booths kind of doing their whole song and dance, it showed how when they’re employed in these jobs, they have to try to convince people the company they work for is great. I wondered if they felt the need to keep inside whatever feeling they had working there and just put their best face forward. I think there’s just something inherently conflictual about doing that. Needing to give this really positive facing image of a company must really wear them down. I feel like some people’s presentations weren’t reflective of how they really felt and what it’s actually like to do their work. Then they see coworkers doing the same thing and seeming like they’re happy doing it.
I don’t think people are happy working upwards of 80 hour weeks, which isn’t uncommon in the tech industry. I think a lot of people are exhausted, but are forced to contort to the workload their management demands. I thought I could get this across by showing photos of how tech presents itself, and then images where you kind of take a step back after people are done presenting and the fatigue shows up. People are sitting on the ground looking exhausted, or calling their family and wishing they were there instead. I felt this project would be best to push against the images of jubilant workers enjoying their perks that tech companies advertise.
I think there’s a point in a lot of people’s adult life where you realize ‘I’m going to have to work and do these things I don’t like to do.’ Especially in this context of where the US is at right now, there’s not a whole lot of ways for most people to have any say as to what their company produces and how they’re managed.
Being in these tech conferences, it really was just like a show of force. You feel like you’re coming into something that’s powerful and disciplining to workers. It’s a little overwhelming realizing what people are up against.
Note: A similar version of this story will be published soon by the Post News Group.