Dirty wars and dispersed geographies of aerial violence

Several years ago we were in Dubrovnik and visited War Photo‘s mesmerising exhibition space in the old town; part of it was devoted to a permanent exhibition documenting the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but part of it was given over to a visiting exhibition by Maria Turchenokova.  One image has haunted me ever since: two or three desperately young Yemeni children, standing in a narrow, shallow crevice in the ground, half-covered by a sheet of rusted corrugated iron: this was their ‘air raid shelter’.  I’ve since searched for the image many times, without success; this isn’t it, but the photograph (of a man peering out of a “shelter” on the outskirts of Saada in 2015)  conveys something of the vulnerability of ordinary Yemenis:

I’ve written on the war in Yemen many times [use the search box to find those commentaries], though almost certainly not often enough, but a sobering report from the excellent Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project in conjunction with the Yemen Data Project has prompted me to return:

ACLED notes: ‘Around 67% [over 8,000] of all reported civilian fatalities in Yemen since 2015, resulting from direct targeting, have been caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, making the Saudi-led coalition the actor most responsible for civilian deaths…. Air and drone strikes were especially deadly for civilians in 2015 and during the Hodeidah offensive in 2018.’

The Yemen Data Project provides this timeline of air strikes (there’s also an interactive map by governorate on the same page):

You can find a summary version of the report from Rod Austin at the Guardian here, which concludes with this prescient observation:

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a member of the committee on arms export controls, said: “These statistics simply underline the fact that our government has enabled Saudi Arabia to destroy the social fabric of an entire country for money. I shudder to think of the consequences of our dirty war in Yemen. A generation of Yemenis now hate Britain as much as they hate the Saudi royal air force that is dropping our bombs on them.”

If you are puzzled by those sentiments, then you should read Arron Merrat‘s in-depth report from the previous week, ‘The Saudis couldn’t do it without us’: the UK’s true role in Yemen’s deadly war’, here:

For more than four years, a brutal Saudi air campaign has bombarded Yemen, killing tens of thousands, injuring hundreds of thousands and displacing millions – creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And British weapons are doing much of the killing. Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors.

The Saudi-led military coalition, which includes the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, has “targeted civilians … in a widespread and systematic manner”, according to the UN – dropping bombs on hospitals, schools, weddings, funerals and even camps for displaced people fleeing the bombing.

Saudi Arabia has in effect contracted out vital parts of its war against Yemen’s Houthi movement to the US and the UK. Britain does not merely supply weapons for this war: it provides the personnel and expertise required to keep the war going. The British government has deployed RAF personnel to work as engineers, and to train Saudi pilots and targeteers – while an even larger role is played by BAE Systems, Britain’s biggest arms company, which the government has subcontracted to provide weapons, maintenance and engineers inside Saudi Arabia.

Arron documents the dispersed geography of contracted-out aerial violence in forensic detail:

The British bombs that rain down on Yemen are produced in three towns: Glenrothes in Scotland, and Harlow and Stevenage in south-east England. Bombs roll off production lines owned by Raytheon UK and BAE Systems, firms contracted by the government to manufacture Paveway bombs (£22,000 apiece), Brimstone bombs (£105,000 apiece), and Storm Shadow cruise missiles (£790,000 apiece) for the Saudi Royal Air Force. BAE, under government contract, also assembles the jets that drop these bombs in hangars just outside the village of Warton, Lancashire.

Once these weapons arrive in Saudi Arabia, Britain’s involvement is far from over. The Saudi military lacks the expertise to use these weapons to fight a sustained air war – so BAE, under another contract to the UK government, provides what are known as “in-country” services. In practice, this means that around 6,300 British contractors are stationed at forward operating bases in Saudi Arabia. There, they train Saudi pilots and conduct essential maintenance night and day on planes worn out from flying thousands of miles across the Saudi desert to their targets in Yemen. They also supervise Saudi soldiers to load bombs on to planes and set their fuses for their intended targets.

Around 80 serving RAF personnel work inside Saudi Arabia. Sometimes they work for BAE to assist in maintaining and preparing aircraft. At other times they work as auditors to ensure that BAE is fulfilling its Ministry of Defence contracts. Additional RAF “liaison officers” work inside the command-and-control centre, from where targets in Yemen are selected.

[For more on this dispersed geography of aerial violence, see the report by Mike Lewis and Katherine Templar, UK Personnel supporting the Saudi Armed Forces – Risk, knowledge and accountability (2018); for more on Mike, see here].

The image below shows crews from Britain’s Royal Air Force and the Saudi Royal Air Force involved in a joint training exercise, ‘Saudi British Green Flag 2018’.  According to a report in Arab News:

The exercise aims to improve the overall combat readiness of the Saudi Air Force and increase the capacities of crews and personnel through a series of training flights of varying complexity. It allows both forces to share technical knowledge and learn about how the other operates.

Maj. Gen. Haidar bin Rafie Al-Omari, commander of the air base and the exercise, said it is a critical part of this year’s training plan for the armed forces.
“The Green Flag Exercise involves all our air force combat systems supporting Operation Decisive Storm and Operation Restoring Hope (in Yemen),” he added.
“The British Royal Air Force aims to integrate all combat systems, including air combat, air support and electronic warfare, and especially how to use them against the enemy’s land defense systems for maximum operational efficiency.”

‘Restoring Hope’; ‘operational efficiency’: the absurdist language is truly rebarbative.

Arron notes the pariah status of the UK and the US in these joint air wars, even if he doesn’t call it that:

The UK government’s argument that it does not pick the targets in Yemen resembles nothing so much as the logic of the American gun lobby, with its infamous claim that it’s not guns that kill people, but the people who use them. Since 2016, many countries have revoked or suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia – including Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. But Britain and the US, whose planes constitute the backbone of Saudi Arabia’s combat fleet, are still holding out.

There’s more – much more – in the full report.

There is a welcome sting in the tail: on 20 June the UK Court of Appeal ruled that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were illegal – albeit in one respect (but none the less a vital one).

British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been ruled unlawful by the court of appeal in a critical judgment that also accused ministers of ignoring whether airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.

Three judges said that a decision made in secret in 2016 had led them to decide that Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox and other key ministers had illegally signed off on arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.

Sir Terence Etherton, the master of the rolls, said on Tuesday that ministers had “made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.

As part of its case the government had argued that RAF training (those ‘Green Flag’ exercises captured above, and those ‘in-country services’ described in Arron’s analysis) had made Saudi compliance with international humanitarian law more likely, but their case was shredded.  Mark Townsend reported:

‘[C]ourt documents from the case show that indiscriminate bombing of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen took place after British training – sometimes almost immediately after. Three days after Britain provided training – between 27 July and 14 August 2015 – up to 70 people were killed by airstrikes and shelling at the port at Hodeidah.

The following month airstrikes on a wedding in the village of Wahijah, near the Red Sea port of al-Mokha, killed at least 135 people.

In October 2015 repeated airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Haidan occurred, despite the hospital’s GPS coordinates being shared with the coalition. The episode prompted the UK to provide further training to the Saudi air force between October and January, including targeting training.

However, in March 2016 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on a crowded village market in Hajjah province killed 106 people. Days later deadly attacks struck a civilian building in the city of Taiz.

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against ArmsTrade, which brought the case, said: “We are always being told how positive the UK’s influence supposedly is on Saudi forces, but nothing could be further from the truth. The atrocities and abuses have continued unabated, regardless of UK training and engagement.

“The training and rhetoric has only served to provide a figleaf of legitimacy to a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

***

Not incidentally: if you’re wondering about US involvement – not something that Donald Trump wonders about – then I recommend the President’s favourite newspaper, the New York Times, and its interactive report ‘Saudi Strikes, American Bombs, Yemeni Sufferinghere (which also draws on the Yemen Data Project), together with Declan Walsh‘s report, ‘Saudi Warplanes, mostly made in America, still bomb Yemeni civilianshere. These should be read in conjunction with geographer (yes!) Samuel Oakford‘s report on the inability of the US to track its fuel supply for the Saudi military mission in Yemen and his subsequent report for the Atlantic (which includes characteristically sharp and well-informed commentary from Larry Lewis).  

Earlier this year Congress sought to end US military involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen – something which certainly didn’t start with Trump, even though he has clearly ramped up support for the Saudi regime –  only to have the motion vetoed by the President:

‘This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.’

You can tell from the order which of the two objections carried most weight.  And not surprisingly (either) the danger to the lives of Yemenis was conspicuous by its absence.

Killing for Show

News from Verso of a forthcoming book (originally announced for Aprl, but now not due until next year) by the multi-talented Julian Stallabrass,  Killing for Show:

A history of war photography – from Vietnam to Iraq and the War of Terror – and how photography has changed war.

Today we watch wars from afar, swayed by the images that fill our newsfeeds, social media and screens. Since the Vietnam War the way we see conflict through film, photographs, and pixels, has had a powerful impact on the political fortunes of the campaign, and the way that war has been conducted. In this fully-illustrated and passionately argued account of war imagery, Julian Stallabrass tells the story of post-war conflict, how it was recorded, and remembered through its iconic photography.

The relationship between war and photograph is constantly in transition, forming new perspectives, provoking new challenges: what is allowed to be seen? How are photographs remembered? Does an image has the power to change political opinion? What influence market economics has upon the way we consume visual media, especially images of war. How new forms of distribution change the image’s potency. Stallabrass shows how photographs have become a vital weapon in the modern war: as propaganda – from close quarter fighting to the drone’s electronic vision – as well as a witness to the barbarity of events such as the My Lai massacre, the violent suppression of insurgent Fallujah or the atrocities in Abu Ghraib. Changes in technology – from shutter speed, use of colour stock, and methods of digital distribution – have also transformed the way photography is used in depicting and even waging accelerated warfare.

Through these accounts Stallabrass maps a comprehensive theoretical re-evaluation of the relationship between war, politics and visual culture. Killing for Show is an essential volume in the history of photography.

A mammoth 688 pages, packed with images – and, since it’s Verso, astonishingly reasonable priced.

 

Silent Witnesses

I’m still working on the mass murder in slow motion that is Ghouta; there’s so much to see, say and do that my promised post has been delayed.  Most readers will know of the stark declaration issued by UNICEF last month:

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.  Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?

 

One of Allan Pred‘s favourite quotations from Walter Benjamin was this: ‘I have nothing to say.  Only to show.’  And perhaps the broken, mangled shards of montage are the most appropriate way to convey the collision of medieval and later modern violence that is sowing Syria’s killing fields with so many injured, dying and dead bodies.

You might think it’s always been so: in 1924 Ernst Friedrich introduced his collection of war photographs by insisting that ‘in the present and in the future, all the treasure of words is not enough to paint correctly the infamous carnage.’

These are suggestive claims, but two riders are necessary.  First,  images have such an extraordinary, if often insidious, subliminal power – even in our own, image-saturated culture – that they demand careful, critical interrogation and deployment.  They don’t speak for themselves.  And second, Benjamin described his method as ‘literary montage’: as Allan knew very well, words do not beat a silent retreat in the face of the image, and it’s in concert that the two produce some of their most exacting effects.

 In the course of my work on war in Syria and elsewhere I’ve encountered (and drawn upon) the work of many outstanding photographers; in some cases their images seem out-of-time, almost transcendent testimony to the enduring realities of war, while others disclose new horrors erupting in the midst of the all-too-bloody-familiar.  I think, for example, of the work of Narciso Contreras (see above and below, and also here and his collection, Syria’s War: a journal of pain, War Photo, 2014) – and I do know about the controversy over editing/cropping – or Nish Nalbandian (see also here and here and his book, A whole world blind: war and life in northern Syria, Daylight Books, 2016).

 

In my research on other conflicts I’ve also learned a lot from war artists, and in the case of Syria from graphic journalism: see, for example, the discussion by Nathalie Rosa Bucher here and the example of Molly Crabapple here. (Her work was based on cell-phone videos sent to her by a source inside IS-controlled Raqqa: another digital breach of siege warfare in Syria).

 

The point of all of this is to emphasise my debt to multiple (in this case, visual) sources that enable me – sometimes force me –  to see things differently: to turn those broken shards around, to have them catch the light and illuminate the situation anew.  And to see things I’d often rather not see.

 

It’s not a new experience. When I was completing The colonial present I was given access to a major image library, and in the course of three exhilarating days I learned more about Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq than I had learned in three months of reading. The image bank included not only published but also unpublished images, which revealed aspects, dimensions, whole stories that had been left unremarked and unrecorded in the public record produced through editorial selection.

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

The Syrian Archive is a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the conflict in Syria with the goal of creating an evidence-based tool for reporting, advocacy and accountability purposes.

 

Its emphasis on visual documentation and analysis needs to be seen alongside the investigations of Forensic Architecture and bellingcat.

 

The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.

We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. Such documentation can humanise victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.

Visual documentation is also valuable during conflict as it can feed into:

  • Humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contribute to the protection of civilians;
  • Mechanisms that support increased legal compliance by conflict parties and reductions in civilian harm;
  • Strengthening advocacy campaigns and legal accountability through building verified sets of materials documenting human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.

User-generated content is valuable during times of conflict. Verified visual documentation can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contributing to the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, visual documentation allows the Syrian Archive to tell untold stories through amplifying the voices of witnesses, victims and others who risked their lives to capture and document human rights violations in Syria. Not every incident in the Syrian conflict has been reported by journalists. The very challenging conditions have made it extremely difficult for local and especially international media to work in Syria, meaning the many incidents have been missed or under-reported.

Visual documentation aims to strengthen political campaigns of human rights advocates by providing content that supports their campaign. This could include content on the violation of children’s rights; sexual and gender based violence; violations against specifically protected persons and objects, or the use of illegal weapons.

Additionally, visual documentation aims to help human rights activists and Syrian citizens in setting up a memorialisation process and to create dialogues around issues related to peace and justice, to recognise and substantiate the suffering of citizens and provide multiple perspectives on the conflict that acts to prevent revisionist or simplified narratives while raising awareness of the situation in the country and highlighting the futility of violence to next generations. Video and images often compliments official narratives and press accounts of an event or situation, adding both detail and nuance. At other times, they directly rebut certain factual claims and contradict pervasive narratives.

 

Many of the videos on which this visual analysis relies (me too) were uploaded to YouTube.  Armin Rosen reports:

 

Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, knows how significant its platform has been during the war. “The Syrian civil war is in many ways the first YouTube conflict in the same way that Vietnam was the first television conflict,” Justin Kosslyn, the product manager for Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, said during an interview on the sidelines of September’s Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where Kosslyn had just spoken. “You have more hours of footage of the Syrian civil war on YouTube then there actually are hours of the war in real life.” In 2016, Jigsaw developed Montage, a Google Docs-like application that allows for collaborative analysis of online videos. Kosslyn said the project was undertaken with human rights-related investigations in mind.

The value of YouTube’s Syria videos is indisputable, especially since the regime and other armed actors have closed off much of the country to journalists and human rights observers. [Eliot] Higgins and his colleagues [at Bellingcat] proved beyond all doubt that Assad’s forces gassed a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, and a U.N. organization is now in the early stages of assessing YouTube’s Syria footage for its future use in war crimes trials. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in war crimes prosecutions related to Syria. In connection with the IIIM, Hiatt and his team at Benetech are developing software that can search and organize the estimated 4 million videos related to the conflict. The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.

Last summer YouTube started deleting videos that violated its Terms of Service; the platform used algorithms to flag the offending materials and within days some 900 Syria-related channels were removed.

Alarm bells rang; here’s Chris Woods of Airwars talking to the New York Times:

“When the conflict in Syria started, independent media broke down and Syrians themselves have taken to YouTube to post news of the conflict…  What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war.”

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

After the concerted protests many of the videos were restored, but the cull continued and by the end of the year more than 200 channels providing over 400,000 videos had been removed.  Again, some of those were subsequently restored, but the Syrian Archive estimates that more than 200,000 videos are still offline.

 

 

The intervention was the product of an understandable desire to remove ‘propaganda’ videos – part of the fight back against ‘fake news’ – but here’s the rub:

Videos from the conflict could prove critical in cases where they might violate the site’s ToS—even ISIS propaganda videos help identify members of the organization and explain its internal hierarchies. “The difficulty in this type of work is that the information put out there on social media by the perpetrators of the violence can also be used to hold those perpetrators accountable,” Shabnam Mojtahedi [a legal analyst with the Syria Justice and Accountability Center: see also here for its statement on this issue] notes.

And it’s not just YouTube.  In an extended report for The Intercept Avi Asher Schapiro detected

a pattern that’s causing a quiet panic among human rights groups and war crimes investigators. Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court,  where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

As Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst with Amnesty International and a founder of Citizen Evidence Lab put it, these social media platforms are ‘essentially privately-owned evidence lockers’.  And that should worry all of us.

Pictures of war

An interesting CFP for a conference next spring on Pictures of war: the still image in conflict since 1945:

Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester UK
24th & 25th May 2018
(Deadline for CFP: January 12, 2018)

A conference on the intersections of conflict and pictures from the end of WWII until today.

Since the end of World War II, the nature and depiction of geopolitical conflicts have changed in technology, scale and character. The Cold War political landscape saw many struggles for liberation and national identity becoming proxy battlegrounds for the major powers. In the aftermath of anti-colonial conflicts, refugees and migrants who had relocated to the former metropolises joined those already fighting for civil equality in these countries. Wars continue to be waged in the name of democracy and terror, and in the interests of linguistic, theological and racial worldviews. Migration and displacement as a result of conflict are again at the top of the agenda.

As the technologies of war have shifted, so have the technologies of making pictures. This conference seeks to engage with these phenomena through critically engaged approaches to the processes of visualisation, their methodologies and epistemologies that will contribute to our understanding of the ways conflicts are pictured. The intention is to expand the field of enquiry beyond localised, thematic or media-specific approaches and to encourage new perspectives on the material and visual cultures of pictures.

We invite scholars, artists and activists interested in the study of images and pictures in their own right, with their own and admittedly interdependent discourses and visual and material capacities for producing knowledge and meaning (Mitchell, 2005). We are interested in presentations that consider the temporal and physical mobility of pictures and their visual, material, affective, political and economic value from multi and interdisciplinary positions.

Full details of themes, abstracts etc here and here.

Incoming, upcoming

mosse-incoming-still

Richard Mosse‘s Incoming opens at the Barbican Art Centre in London on 17 February and runs until 23 April.  In collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Richard has created an immersive multi-channel video installation (shown across three 26-foot wide screens) that turns military technology against itself – using a camera ‘that sees as a missile sees’ – to show the journeys of refugees (hence the artful title).  He explains :

I am European. I am complicit. I wanted to foreground this perspective in a way, to try to see refugees and illegal immigrants as our governments see them. I wanted to enter into that logic in order to create an image that reveals it. So I chose to represent these stories, really a journey or series of journeys, using an ambivalent and perhaps sinister new European weapons camera technology. The camera is intrusive of individual privacy, yet the imagery that this technology produces is so dehumanized – the person literally glows – that the medium anonymizes the subject in ways that are both insidious and humane. Working against the camera’s intended purpose, my collaborators and I listened carefully to the camera, to understand what it wanted to do — and then tried to reconcile that with these harsh, disparate, unpredictable and frequently tragic narratives of migration and displacement.

If you can’t get to it, there is a book version from Mack:

The major humanitarian and political issue of our time is migration and with his latest video work, Irish artist Richard Mosse has created a searing, haunting and unique artwork. Projected across three 8 meter wide screens, the film is accompanied by a loud dissonant soundtrack to create an overwhelming, immersive experience. Moving from footage of a live battle inside Syria, in which a US aircraft strafes Daesh positions on the ground, to a scene showing pathologists extracting DNA from the bones of unidentified corpses of refugees drowned off the Aegean island of Leros, the film opens a testimonial space of historical document – bearing witness to significant chapters in recent events – mediated through an advanced weapons-grade camera technology. Narratives of the journeys made by refugees and migrants across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, are captured using an extremely powerful thermal camera not generally available to the public. This super-telephoto military camera can perceive the human body beyond 50km day or night, reading the biological trace of human life. The camera translates the world into a heat signature of apparent temperature difference, producing a dazzling monochrome halo-image which alludes literally and metaphorically to hypothermia, climate change, weapons targeting, border surveillance, xenophobia, and the ‘bare life’ of stateless people.

The book version recreates the immersive nature of the film, combining still images from the entire sequence over nearly 600 pages to represent the harsh and compelling narrative in a full bleed layout.

mosse-idomeni-2016

A related exhibition of Richard’s photographs from the same body of work – entitled Heat Maps – has opened at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.  At the New Yorker Max Campbell describes the exhibition like this:

[U]sing a new “weapon of war,” as he describes it, Mosse captured encampment structures, servicemen, border police, boats at full capacity, and migrants of all ages. Mosse would spend time in the refugee camps before photographing, and some of the migrants sheltered there helped him to arrange his shots. But in the images his subjects are always seen at a distance, photographed from an above-eye-level perspective. Each “Heat Map” was constructed from hundreds of frames shot using a telephoto lens; a robotic system was used to scan the landscapes and interiors and meticulously capture every corner…

By adopting a tool of surveillance, Mosse’s photographs consciously play into narratives that count families as statistics and stigmatize refugees as potential threats. He recognizes that operating the infrared camera entails brushing up against the violent intentions with which the device has been put to use. “We weren’t attempting to rescue this apparatus from its sinister purpose,” he said. Instead, his project acts as a challenge. The people in his images appear as inverted silhouettes, sometimes disjointed, torn by the time passing between individual frames. The thermal readouts rub features out of faces and render flesh in washy, anonymous tones. Someone lays back on a cot, looking at a cell phone. Someone else hangs laundry. We can imagine what these people might look like in person, guess at the expressions on their faces or the color of their skin. Yet seeing them in Mosse’s shadowy renderings erases the lines that have been drawn between refugees, immigrants, natives, citizens, and the rest. His camera makes little distinction between the heat that each body emits.

mosse-larissa-2016

Heat Maps was shown in Berlin last year, where the links with the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben were made explicit:

Heat Maps attempts to foreground the biopolitical aspects of the refugee and migration situation that is facing Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The project charts refugee camps and other staging sites using an extreme telephoto military grade thermographic camera that was designed to detect and identify subjects from as far away as fifty kilometers, day or night.

The camera itself is export controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations — it is regarded as a component in advanced weapons systems and embargoed as such — and was designed for border surveillance and regulation. It can be seen as a technology of governance, a key tool in what Foucault and Agamben have described as biopower. It is an apparatus of the military-humanitarian complex.

The camera translates the world into a heat signature of relative temperature difference, literally reading the biological trace of human life – imperceptive of skin colour – as well as proximity to death through exposure or hypothermia, even from a great distance. The living subject literally glows, and heat radiation creates dazzling optical flare.

Instead of individuals, the camera sees the mass — in Foucault’s words: massifying, that is directed not as man-as-body, but as man-as-species. It elicits an alienating and invasive form of imagery, but also occasionally tender and intimate, tending to both dehumanize and then rehumanize the bare life (Agamben) of the human figure of the stateless refugee and illegal economic migrant, which the camera was specifically designed to detect, monitor, and police.

The camera is used against itself to map landscapes of global displacement and more powerfully represent ambivalent and charged narratives of migration. Reading heat as both metaphor and index, these images attempt to reveal the harsh struggle for human survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, seen but overlooked by our governments, and ignored by many.

You can find out more from a helpful interview with Iona Goulder which puts these twin projects in the context of Richard’s previous work in the Congo (see here and here).  En route, Richard says this:

Reading heat as both metaphor and index, I wanted to reveal the harsh struggle for survival lived daily by millions of refugees and migrants, while investigating one of the sinister technologies that our governments are using against them.

By attaching this camera to a robotic motion-control tripod, I scanned refugee camps across Europe from a high eye-level, to create detailed panoramic thermal images. Each artwork has been painstakingly constructed from a grid of almost a thousand smaller frames, each with its own vanishing point.

Seamlessly blended into a single expansive thermal panorama, I was surprised to find that some of the resulting images seem to evoke the spatial description, minute detail, and human narratives of certain kinds of classical painting, such as Breughel or Bosch. Yet they are also documents disclosing the fence architecture, security gates, loudspeakers, food queues, tents and temporary shelters of camp architecture. Very large in scale, these Heat Maps disclose intimate details of fragile human life in squalid, nearly unliveable conditions in the margins and gutters of first world economies.

National Bird

Sonia Kennebeck‘s documentary National Bird is previewed in today’s New York Times:

If we can eliminate enemy threats without placing boots on a battlefield, then why not do so? That’s one of the unspoken questions raised, and largely unanswered, by “National Bird,” Sonia Kennebeck’s elegantly unsettling documentary about the United States’ reliance on aerial combat drones.

The weapons themselves, though, demand less of her attention than their psychological impact on three former operators and current whistle-blowers. Identified only by first names (though one full name is visible in a shot of a 2013 exposé in The Guardian), all three were involved in some form of top-secret data analysis and the tracking of targets. Justifiably nervous, they wear haunted, closed expressions as they relate stories of guilt, PTSD and persecution…’

11nationalbirdsub-master768

The documentary includes a re-enactment (see still above) of what has become a signature drone strike to critics of remote warfare – the attack on a ‘convoy’ of three vehicles in Uruzgan in 2010 that I analysed in Angry Eyes (here and here); the strike was orchestrated by the crew of a Predator but carried out by two attack helicopters.  Kennebeck based her reconstruction on the report from the same US military investigation I used, though I think her reading of it is limited by its focus on the Predator crew in Nevada and its neglect of what was happening (or more accurately not happening) at operations centres on the ground in Afghanistan.  She’s not alone in that – follow the link to the second part of Angry Eyes above to see why –  but what she adds is a series of vital interviews with the survivors:

I found the survivors of the airstrike and was the first person to interview them and get their first-person accounts…  Their stories give a much larger dimension to the incident and reveal that parts of the military investigation had been sugarcoated.

uruzgan-survivor

Winston Cook-Wilson agrees that the cross-cutting between the strike and its victims is immensely affecting:

The most powerful section of Kennebeck’s film, by far, are the interviews with family members and witnesses of a mistaken drone attack which killed 22 men, women and children in Afghanistan. Before meeting the Afghani mother who lost her children, the man who lost his leg in the explosion, and others, Kennebeck shows the attack in re-enactment that utilizes frighteningly blurry drone vision. Slightly overdone, static-ridden voiceovers from a radio transcript are included. The emotional footage in Afghanistan here is undeniably powerful; Kennebeck then unexpectedly cuts in grainy footage, filmed by one of the families of the victims, poring over their maimed remains.

This section of the film induces nausea, grief, and confusion all at the same time.

uruzgan-sweet-target

‘Frighteningly blurry drone vision’ is exactly right, as I’ve argued elsewhere (you can find a discussion of this in the second of my ‘Reach from the Skies’ lectures and in the penultimate section of ‘Dirty Dancing’, DOWNLOADS tab).  Here is Naomi Pitcairn who sharpens the same point:

We can see, clearly, how little they can actually see: tiny dots, like ants walking slowly, in single file. This is the all seeing but lacking feeling, understanding and cultural context, vision of a drone video feed and the drone operators callousness in the transcript seems to reflect that. Their bloodlust combined with the minimalism of the feed is intense in its very … primitivism.

Jeanette Catsoulis also thinks the cross-cutting between the strike and the survivors is highly effective (see also Susan Carruthers, ‘Detached Retina: The new cinema of drone warfare’, in Cineaste, who regards those sequences as providing ‘a more profound, affecting, and sustained reckoning with what drones do than anything else to date’), but she doesn’t think it sufficient:

If “National Bird” wants to persuade us that the emotional and collateral damage of this technology is greater than that caused by conventional weapons, it needs to widen its lens. Interviews with military specialists able to elucidate the complex calculus of risk and reward would have been invaluable in balancing the narrative and perhaps clarifying the ethical fuzziness.

Even so, there’s a sense that some unwritten human compact has been broken. As an ominously beautiful drone’s-eye camera glides above peaceful American streets, we’re uncomfortably reminded that an invisible death could one day hover over us all.

So it could – perhaps especially now.  As a reminder of that dread possibility, one of the phrases that recurs in the transcript from the Uruzgan strike is ‘military-aged males’ (with all that implies), so here is an image from Tomas van Houtryve‘s photographic series Blue Sky Days.  It’s also called ‘Military-Aged Males‘:

"Military-Age Males" (Tomas van Houtryve)

It shows civilian cadets assembling in formation at the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina.

War Stories

The video from our War Stories event in Vancouver last month – including Farah Nosh‘s narration of her wonderful photographs, a superb capsule genealogy of PTSD from Ann Jones, my discussion of casualty evacuation over the last hundred years, a drama staged by veterans from Afghanistan and directed by George Belliveau, Contact! Unload!, and a lively Q&A with the audience moderated by Peter Klein is now available here.

war_stories3b-page-001

My lecture, Precarious journeys, has also been carved out for the Peter Wall Institute website here. The idea behind the event was, in large measure, to think through the multiple ways in which modern war is narrated, which is why we had such a rich and diverse portfolio of performers and why I take the turns I do…  Regular readers will probably recognize that the arc of my presentation draws on my current research on evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War, on evacuation from Afghanistan today, and on my admiration for Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a Soldier (see my ‘Object lessons’ here and the slides available under the DOWNLOADS tab).

More in an interview with Charlie Smith from the Georgia Straight here.