One thing we never forget at IEEE Spectrum is that technology doesn’t automatically condense out of the laws of physics, like dew on leaves. Every bit of tech that exists, exists because someone worked to make it so. But it’s a harsh irony of engineering that the better designed something is, the more inconspicuous its creator becomes. This is especially true for software “down the stack”—the protocols, servers, operating systems, and other infrastructure upon which every app depends.
Peter Adams is trying make some of those creators more visible—literally—with his online Faces of Open Source project. Adams takes striking photographs of contributors to the open source movement, from Unix designer Ken Thompson to more recent players such as information-security expert Yan Zhu.
Adams embarked on his photographic mission in 2014. “Consumers don’t have much awareness that underneath the shiny wrappers that the commercial companies like Apple and Google are making is a foundation of open source software. I felt it was an incredible story that trillions of dollars of economic value could be created on the work of a relatively small group of people who essentially gave their intellectual property away for free. I started to really get interested in that, and meeting these people, and seeing who they really were,” says Adams.
Capturing a good portrait is very different from taking a simple snap: The objective is not simply to record a likeness, but to evoke something of the spirit that animates the subject’s features. A good connection between the photographer and subject is more important than the quality of the camera gear. This is where Adams’s background gives him the edge: He was in on the ground floor of the commercial Internet at a number of companies in the 1990s and 2000s, before jumping careers into professional photography about 10 years ago.
“Because I’m fairly technically literate, I find ways to get people comfortable with the fact that I understand what they’ve done and its importance. I think that puts people in the right zone,” says Adams.
Adams typically invites subjects to his Silicon Valley studio, but he’s traveled around the United States to conferences and other events in his efforts to fill his roster. Is there a common strand in the wide range of personalities he has photographed? “This isn’t a mercenary group of people, meaning they’re not developing software for money. There’s a much larger force that’s driving these people to do what they do. Obviously, some people are employed by companies to work on the software, but others are not. Others are independent consultants that choose to make a living, working and developing open source software that the world can use. I think that says something about somebody who’s willing to devote, in some cases, their entire professional life to, say, a network. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”
This article appears in the March 2019 print issue as “The Faces of Open Source.”