By Tomas van Houtryve
(Text originally published by National Geographic on Aug. 15, 2014)
For the past 15 years I’ve worked as a professional photojournalist, inspired by the camera’s ability to connect human beings, document news, and capture beauty. But there is a darker side to how photography is used in our world today. Cameras are increasingly deployed for surveillance, spying, or targeting. I often wonder whether these uses have already eclipsed traditional ones, such as portraiture and fine art. Are we at a point in the evolution of photography where the medium has become weaponized?
Nothing symbolizes this trend better than the rise of drones, robotic aircraft pioneered by the military which rely on their cameras to link remote operators to their targets.
Last year, I started to explore photography’s dark side, hoping to engage in the debate about how imaging technology is changing the nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare.
I started by buying my own consumer drone, and I was surprised by how easy it was to acquire. Hobby shops and online retailers sell small drones equipped with GPS receivers for a few hundred dollars. With a bit of tinkering, I was able to add a high-resolution camera and a system for transmitting live video back to the ground—a greatly simplified version of the system that American pilots use to guide military drones like Reaper and Predator over foreign airspace.
Drones have been used for air strikes over Pakistan for the past decade, marking a significant shift in how America fights wars. Pilots based in Nevada and New Mexico track and record human activity via an infrared video feed. They never leave the ground or cross over hostile territory. Although a huge amount of footage has been collected, 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?
To learn more about the drone war, I looked up reports compiled by investigative journalists and human rights groups. I found the details of many of the strikes startling. A Human Rights Watch report about a drone attack on a wedding in Yemen stated:
“The December 12 attack killed 12 men and wounded at least 15 other people, including the bride.”
But the testimony of one particular Pakistani boy named Zubair Rehman jarred me the most. In October 2012, Rehman’s 67-year-old grandmother was killed by a drone strike while she was picking vegetables outside her home. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”
In the past few years, drone use has spread from foreign conflicts to America’s domestic airspace. Often, unarmed versions of military aircraft are used, such as the fleet of Predator drones operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Initially, the fleet was meant for border surveillance, but records indicate that drones were lent out hundreds of times to other government entities—including the DEA, the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and local sheriff’s departments. The trend of drones used by government security forces is only likely to increase, and some companies such as Amazon are lobbying to put drones to commercial use too.
As drones fill the skies above America, how is the public likely to react? Will the sight of them eventually be as ordinary as seeing an airplane or bird, or will people start wishing for gray skies like the traumatized young Zubair Rehman?
I got a full range of reactions when I flew my own drone in public places earlier this year. Often I would purposely fly my camera over the same type of situations listed in those foreign drone strike reports, such as weddings, funerals and people entering or leaving religious schools. At other times, I used my drone to look down from the sky over the same areas where the government does aerial surveillance, like along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While flying in a park in Maryland, a small girl saw my drone hovering in the sky and asked her mother what it was. I heard the mother answer, “It’s a drone, and if you don’t do your homework, it’s going to go after you!”
On another occasion flying in rural Northern California, a man watched my drone for a long while before approaching me to ask for a look at the control screen. He told me he’d worked as an engineer for a military contractor during the Iraq war, assigned to a team flying the Global Hawk, a large high-altitude surveillance drone. He told me that he worried the technology he had seen as a contractor was moving in a spooky direction, and that the newest weapons systems could decide when to fire or not based on algorithms and lightning-fast calculations, eliminating human will—and judgment—from the battlefield.
And I recently read that graduate students at MIT are experimenting with drones which automatically adapt studio lighting for portraits.
Not everyone I met spoke about the sinister capabilities of drones. Flying near Silicon Valley, a man offered me his business card after I landed in a grassy clearing. He said he was working on a startup company which would manufacture drones to take selfies.
It seems clear that when the next chapter in the evolution of photography is written, drones will have a very prominent role. As more and more cameras take to the skies, my sincere hope is that drones which use photography to celebrate and inspire the best of human values outnumber those designed for darker aims.
View video from this project edited by Janna Dotschkal on National Geographic’s PROOF. The photographs of the Blue Sky Days drone project were first published in the April 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This project was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center.