I’ll be in Berlin in December for a conversation with James Bridle about drone wars and related issues, and I’m already looking forward to it since I’m a great admirer of his work. I particularly admire the way in which he challenges so many of our assumptions about ‘looking’ through his presentations about militarised vision and violence, and I’ve noted before the filiations between his various projects and Josh Begley‘s.
So I was interested to read about photographer Tomas van Houtryve‘s (right) project Blue Sky Days. He begins with an arresting observation with which both James and Josh would be only too familiar:
‘Although a huge amount of [full motion video] footage has been collected [by US drones], the program is classified, and few people have ever seen images of the drone war and its casualties. This seems like a paradox in our thoroughly media-connected age. How can America be involved in a decade-long war where the sky is buzzing with cameras, and yet the public remains totally in the dark?’
But his response to the question is distinctly different: he repatriates the drone wars from Pakistan to the United States (here the most appropriate comparison is with Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is the Best).
To do so, Tomas travelled across America with a small quadcopter drone bought from Amazon.com attached to his camera. His concept was simple, Rena Silverman explains in the New York Times:
Take the idea of foreign drone strikes and instead target similar domestic situations, putting them under surveillance using his drone in public spaces. He made a list of hundreds of different strike reports, gleaning as many details about the circumstances…
He rented a black car with tinted windows and placed himself, his drones, his batteries and lists in the car. He spent six weeks in late 2013 averaging between seven and 10 drone flights daily, sleeping in a different town every night. He would pull the car into an empty lot, get out, launch the drone for about five to 10 minutes — about as long as its power lasted — take footage, land the drone, drive away and recharge the batteries while en route to the next location…
He followed his list carefully, trying to imitate “signature strikes,” referring to a May 2012 New York Times article in which some State Department officials complained about the lax criteria for identifying a terrorist “signature.” The joke was that “three guys doing jumping jacks” could be enough suspicious activity for the C.I.A. to conclude it could be a terrorist training camp. In other words, targeting people based on behavior rather than identity.
He photographed people exercising in Philadelphia, their shadows long and pinned against the grid of a park. He noticed more “signature” behavior while driving through San Francisco, where he encountered a group doing yoga [above]. When Mr. van Houtryve recently printed the image, he asked viewers if they thought the subjects were praying or exercising. It was a toss-up.
Although these images are not quite ‘what drone attacks in America would look like’, as Pete Brook suggested in WIRED – Tomas’s drone was flying much lower (‘only about six stories high’) and these images are pin-point sharp: there’s none of the ambiguity of infra-red heat signatures here – none the less that last sentence really says it all. Images do not speak for themselves and interpretation counts for everything – which is why, as I’ve repeatedly argued, it matters so much what pilots, sensor operators and image analysts are pre-disposed to see.
It turns out that a particular incident provoked Tomas’s project – the murder of Mamana Bibi at Ghunda Kala in North Waziristan on 24 October 2012, which I described here – and also gives it its title.
In October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held in 2013 in Washington, DC, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”
There’s more from Tomas at Harper’s here, which originally co-sponsored the project with the Pulitzer Center, and you can see more of his drone’s eye view images at the National Geographic here.
There’s also a revealing interview conducted by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone here; it contains all sorts of interesting observations, but one in particular resonated. Asked about the tension between the beauty of his photographic compositions and the horror of what he is seeking to convey, Tomas says this:
‘The base subject that I’m trying to raise awareness about and get people to think about in less abstract terms is the foreign drone war. If you take the time to read through the particular airstrikes, a lot of them are quite horrifying. But on the other hand, as a photographer, I know that beauty is one of the tools that we use to get people to look at a picture. Beauty has a lot of power, so there’s a tension between trying to seduce people with the language of photography, which is beautiful composition, and trying to reveal something that might be uncomfortable or difficult to digest, once people fully grasp it.’
Another of my art icons, elin o’Hara slavick, says something very similar about her mesmerising sequence of aerial images of places bombed by the US, Bomb after bomb (see also Brian Howe‘s discussion here and my own in ‘Doors in to Nowhere’ [DOWNLOADS tab], from which I’ve taken this passage):
‘She adopts an aerial view—the position of the bombers—in order to stage and to subvert the power of aerial mastery. The drawings are made beautiful “to seduce the viewer,” she says, to draw them into the deadly embrace of the image only to have their pleasure disrupted when they take a closer look. “Like an Impressionist or Pointillist painting,” slavick explains, “I wish for the viewer to be captured by the colors and lost in the patterns and then to have their optical pleasure interrupted by the very real dots or bombs that make up the painting.”’
A tart reminder that there are multiple ways of ‘just looking‘.