Like most people, when Heinrich Holtgreve thought about the Internet, he thought about Google and Facebook and Lil Bub. But after reading a little about how it all works, he realized the Internet is a place you can visit. And he set out on a journey to find it.
The German photographer is three years into an ongoing series, The Internet as a Place, that reveals the often mundane but utterly essential physical infrastructure of the web. He seeks out the places few people know exists, from the massive exchanges in Egypt to the remote beaches where undersea cables come ashore. The project shows just how vast this network is. “A tiny fraction of global Internet traffic is even routed through satellites,” he says. “It’s literally all over the place.”
Holtgreve dove into the subject in 2012 after reading an article in The Atlantic warning about the dangers of centralizing Internet networks in any single building. Books like Andrew Blum’s Tubes, with its tales of visits to unsung data warehouses and exchanges where cables belonging to major Internet service providers come together or divide, fueled his obsession. Holtgreve soon set out to see the Internet IRL.
His first stop was Egypt. The country is a major hub for undersea cables, 11 of which now run through the Suez Canal to connect people as far away as Germany and Malaysia. Holtgreve spent three months trying to visit places like the Cairo Internet Exchange, but no dice. Such places thrive by assuring their members of the utmost security. That means not advertising what’s inside, much less letting a photographer poke around with a Canon 5D Mark III. Even when someone would let him in, he wouldn’t always to take pictures. “I was shown around another data center in Cairo, but I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera,” he says. “They half-jokingly suspected me for being an Israeli spy.”
Still, he caught a few breaks. Holtgreve met a friendly dentist who let him photograph the Cairo exchange building from his balcony. Someone who worked for an undersea cable company gave him the GPS coordinates of a beach manhole in Alexandria where cables like SEA-ME-WE-4 and FLAG meet land. In the desert near Cairo, he photographed a warehouse owned by a major French global telecom equipment company. Hundreds of seemingly ancient antennas sat dusted with sand. “It felt like walking around Mos Eisley,” Holtgreve says.
It felt like walking around Mos Eisley.
Anything Holtgreve couldn’t photograph he poetically interpreted. He couldn’t dive to the bottom of the Suez Canal, of course, so he alluded to the cables along the canal floor by photographing a table piled high with fish. He photographed the colorful strobes that illuminate the Pyramids at night to suggest fiberoptic cables transmitting data.
The photographer then moved on to Germany, where getting access was a little easier. He visited the Competence Center Submarine Cables, where he shot the origin and terminus of cables like SEA-ME-WE-3, an optical telecommunications line that stretches 24,000 miles from Germany, around Spain, through the Mediterranean to the Suez, then hopscotches through the Indian Ocean to Asia and Australia. He also saw the world’s biggest Internet exchange, the Deutscher Commercial Internet Exchange, in Frankfurt. He often had better luck seeking permission in person. “Nobody granted me access through a call or an email alone,” he says. “I usually went to see a representative in person, to have a coffee, to show them some of my previous work, and to talk about my plan to answer the question, ‘What does the Internet look like?’”
Turns out, it looks boring. Oh sure, #PizzaRat and Socality Barbie and all the other cool stuff on the Internet is fun to see, the Internet itself is mostly cables and routers and black boxes hidden behind panels, under manhole covers, or within vast anonymous buildings. No one notices or even thinks about this stuff until something breaks or some scavenger looking for copper takes down an entire country’s Internet. The inherently mundane nature of this vast infrastructure is both a weakness and a strength of Holtgreve’s photos. By deeming these dull things worthy of careful study, Holtgreve draws attention to how online life has become inseparable from the physical world.
These days, Holtgreve sees the Internet everywhere he goes. Roaming around his native Hamburg, he can’t stop noticing the manholes engraved with the names of telecoms like Verizon and Deutsche Telekomas, or the big gray DSLAM boxes that convert the signal in a a fiber optic cables to the signal that flows through the old-school copper wires that lead into homes. You may consider the Internet a place we visit. Holtgreve sees it as where we live. “It’s physically everywhere.”