Publication: The New York Times, Bringing the Drone War Home

The New York Times featured my Blue Sky Days drone project in October, 2014. The article was written by Rena Silverman, who regularly writes about photography for the Times, National Geographic and other publications:


Tomas van Houtryve was reading about the thousands of combatant and civilian deaths from United States military drone strikes when he wondered what the aftermath of these bombings looked like. But when he searched — hoping to find a latter-day equivalent of Nick Ut’s 9-year-old napalm victim — he found little. Instead, he saw photos from the drone manufacturers, showing off their products soaring in clear blue skies.

“What I find odd is that unlike the Vietnam War, there is scant visual record of the drone war,” he said.

He made it his mission to capture, photograph and “bring the drone war home.”

With some financial help from Getty Images and Harper’s Magazine, which also provided legal advice about the ever-shifting state of surveillance and F.A.A. laws, Mr. van Houtryve bought his own drone online. He created a custom mount for his camera, and built a cable to link his camera to a video transmitter, so he could see the view from his camera.

His concept was simple: 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.

Mr. van Houtryve first took up photojournalism 15 years ago as a philosophy student thinking he would follow in the footsteps of Larry Burrows. But that seems almost quaint, given today’s high-tech, impersonal battlefield. “It’s not the good old days of traveling around with your Leica and taking pictures in black and white,” he said. “It’s the automated camera being analyzed for suspicious patterns.”

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.

Then he would stop and repeat.

“Anyone watching must have thought it looked pretty odd or even creepy,” he said.

Mr. van Houtryve said that unlike the military drones, his sounded like a hair dryer or beehive and only flew about six stories high. Some people thought he was doing undercover surveillance. Others engaged him in conversation about their own experiences with drones.

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. 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.

While Mr. van Houtryve was traveling in Arizona, he noticed a car fire on the side of the road. Thinking of the “double-tap strike” reports described by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Pakistan in 2012, a method reportedly used by the C.I.A. where a drone first hits a target, then its rescuers, he flew his drone up and shot the car fire’s first responders.

Mr. van Houtryve said he was surprised at how easy it was to fly his drone above these situations. “The crazy ease of access, the way that I can fly over gated communities, prison walls, factories, go right over them, take a few pictures, and disappear before anybody notices,” he said.

There was one instance, when someone did notice.

blue_sky_days_drones_004It was when Mr. van Houtryve was on the hunt for a wedding in response to a Human Rights Watch report, which detailed a drone strike in Radda, Yemen. His drone, which he flew over Philadelphia, captured a shadowless scene that could be a still from a ballet in a film. But, the flower girl was looking up, her arms up behind her head because she heard the drone.

The whole experience was rather strange for Mr. van Houtryve, who is used to interacting with his subjects.

“As a photographer I spend so much time photographing people with my feet on the ground and looking them in the eyes,” he said. “Here everything is through the screen. I don’t see the people at all. It’s a little like being a drone pilot in that way.”


View the full feature and images on The New York Times Lens Blog.