TAMPA — People use Instagram with its many enhancing filters to make images look their best.
“Fake,” Laura Spaulding calls it.
She takes a different approach, using the social media platform to showcase some of the grisliest reality on earth — hoarder homes, bloody crime scenes, and other places she cleans for a living as the founder of Spaulding Decon. That’s short for decontamination.
“Instagram is not just for vanity,” said Spaulding, whose page is called crimescenecleaning. “It is not just for airbrushing and making people look better than they really are. ... We are all human. We all have weaknesses. We don’t always die pretty.”
There’s nothing pretty about Spaulding’s Instagram page. Except that it has 111,000 followers.
She estimates 95 percent of the page’s content comes from the Tampa franchise she runs.
But the most popular image so far was posted in Philadelphia, one of Decon's 24 franchises. It shows a human-shaped floor imprint that emerged slowly, out of anyone’s sight, as a body liquefied.
The metrics on that one: More than 300,000 views, 8,000 likes and 800 comments.
Spaulding launched the Instagram page three years ago and started posting to it on a regular basis in the past year.
"There is a curiosity," said Spaulding, a 45-year-old Tampa native who founded the company in 2005 after working as a detective with the Kansas City Police Department. "People are enamored with true crime and law and order."
The page also serves as a reminder that individuals, not law enforcement, bear the responsibility for cleaning up after a crime. And that Spaulding Decon is available for hire.
"We are educating people," she said.
But is it ethical?
Not to competitor Tina Bao, chief marketing officer for Aftermath Services — a company with locations in Tampa and 33 other cities.
"It violates customer privacy," Bao said. For a family, she said, death — especially suicide — "is a subject that is often emotional.”
Bao also questions using a platform as popular among children as Instagram, exposing them to grisly images.
Spaulding defended her company’s social media approach, saying victims and addresses are never identified and noting that clients sign a contract that includes permission to use images from their property for marketing.
Some visitors to the page also find solace there, she said.
"They are very empathetic, which is odd for social media.”
Under one picture of a bloody room identified as a suicide scene, Instagram user indigitalwaves posted memories of her own father’s death by suicide and the cleanup that followed. “It was horrific but a job very much needed. I have nothing but respect for people who deal in the logistics of death."
The Spaulding Decon page is unusual in the Tampa Bay area, but Henry Manning of A Bion Decon told the Times he might start one soon, too.
Nationally, there are others.
Some, like Xtreme Cleaners in Louisiana, show a few hoarder photos but mostly pictures of employees. Others, like Crime Scene Cleaners in Richmond, Calif., are as revealing as Spaulding Decon.
Still, as shocking as the images are, they fall short of conveying the challenges of the job, Spaulding said.
"I've had someone offer to move here from Russia to work with us," she said. “We probably get 100 applications from Instagram a month.”
Some of them get an interview, and about one in ten gets hired. Locally, Spaulding Decon’s employees in the field — about 12 at any time — typically last just eight to 12 months, Spaulding said.
Potential employees are taken to a job scene before they are hired. Those still interested are trained in Spaulding's warehouse, with its replica bathroom, living room and bedroom. She spills a gallon of pig blood and sets them to work.
It’s not to the gore that usually turns them away, Spaulding said. It’s the physical labor.
Workers wear vinyl protective suits and breath through respirators. Sections of floor that can’t be cleaned are cut out and replaced. They spend a lot of time in tight attics and bathrooms.
"We're like general contractors breathing through a straw while working in confined spaces.”
Next, Spaulding plans to boost her company’s YouTube presence beyond its current audience of 13,000. She has hired a videographer to create a reality series.
The idea has drawn interest from a number of potential partners in Los Angeles, she said. But she isn’t waiting on them.
“We're taking the bull by the horns and going now."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.