Photojournalist Brings Spam to Life, but is it Lifelike?

gracesmith.jpg.CROP.original-originalSpam is many things: irritating, dangerous, and potentially devastating. It’s sleazy and unsavory. It’s deceptive. Designed to make your life miserable, it’s pervasive. In a world where everyone has a computer, tablet, or smartphone, even ‘legitimate’ spam – messages sent by known organizations – gives network administrators headaches. Spam is just plain nasty, and the world would be a much better place without it (I challenge anyone to convince me that the sheer lunatic amount of spam being sent today has any redeeming qualities). It would be a happier place. A safer place, and in the modern world, we all need that comfort more than ever. Yes, spam is many things, but what it isn’t is artistic expression.

So when someone tried to express spam in an artistic medium, I for one was quite enthusiastic to see what the results would look like. Sorry for the spoiler, but after seeing the output, I have to admit that I feel tremendously let-down.

Before you protest, I’m fully aware that art appreciation is in the eye of the beholder, and that the artistic statement resides with the artist. But there’s true art and there’s schlock art, and there’s a broad spectrum between the two. And when photojournalist Cristina de Middle decided to capture spam in a way that visualizes the technological world equivalent of the Black Death, she missed an opportunity to make a social statement rather than an artistic quip.

“After 12 years working as a photojournalist, Cristina de Middle, tired of inauthentic images, felt it was time to move on from her work in the mainstream media,” writes David Rosenberg in his blog post, Email Spam Come to Life. “Too often, [deMiddle] felt, photographers were given little time to capture and portray events and locations around the world, delivering for the most part what editors wanted to see: cliché images that rarely told a new version of a story. Instead of adding her work to the infinite amount that had been done before her, de Middle decided to mess around with the truth and to tell her own version of a story—part fine art photography, part photojournalism drawn from both the news and her imagination.” Up to this point, the crusade seems not only legitimate, but noble. Show the world for what it is.

But as I already stated, deMiddle’s missed the opportunity to show spam for what it really is. Instead, she crafted a number of photographs, which while beautiful and disturbing in their stark imagery, avoid telling the real tale. Rather than putting the context squarely in the face of the dark rooms of the world which rape and pillage people for a buck or two; rather than focus on the villains who gladly pilfer the life savings of little old ladies, the less fortunate, and the dim-witted individuals who simply cannot process what’s happening to them, deMiddle has chosen to draw from some of the well-known, cliché spam campaigns and visualize them in a literal, sometimes bleak, sometimes comical, and frankly, in a cartoonish manner.

Rather than reveal scenarios where the criminals plot their schemes and steal hope from their victims, the images portray scammers as widows living in decrepit mansions with empty tuna cans; sad, beautiful women living in squalor and seemingly without hope; businessmen posing amidst an eerily empty office environment; and even a barrister decked out in his robes and standing in a tiny office, a mild smirk on his face.

They are impressive pictures, in terms of their artistry, but they are not representative of spam. Spam is far greater than the sum of a few campaigns, old as the Internet itself. Spam is desperately evil. It’s hackers who wish to expand their botnets or obfuscate and gain backdoor access to your computer. It’s often controlled by criminal organizations. It’s Nigerian 419ers, young men who use the backs of others to adorn themselves with bling and leapfrog into pimped-up rides. It’s the sleazy con-men who simply cannot imagine getting a real job. It’s kids who think their cause it the only cause worth fighting for. And sometimes, it’s even real people fed up with the neverending barrage.

Spam is many things. What it is not is cute. There’s a whole other side to spam, than the one represented by this photographer, and that’s the real world of spam.