Tomas van Houtryve: A Sky Full of Cameras

Proof: van Houtryve Drones

Tomas van Houtryve: A Sky Full of Cameras

Proof: van Houtryve Drones

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.

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Baseball practice in Montgomery County, Maryland. The FAA issued 1,428 domestic drone permits between 2007 and early 2013. According to records obtained from the agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Navy have applied for drone authorization in Montgomery County.

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.

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Residential homes surrounding a circular park are seen from above in Montgomery County, Maryland.

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?

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A wedding in central Philadelphia. In December 2013, a U.S. drone reportedly struck a wedding in Radda, in central Yemen, killing twelve people and injuring fifteen.

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.”

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A playground seen from above in Sacramento County, California. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that over 200 children were killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia between 2004 and 2013.

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.

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“Tent City” jail in Maricopa County, Arizona. Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced in 2013 that he planned to purchase two surveillance drones for the facility, which is already outfitted with perimeter stun fences, four watchtowers, and a facial-recognition system.

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.

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A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle in San Diego County, California. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been using Predator drones since 2005. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2012 revealed that the Customs and Border Protection lent its fleet of drones to other government entities—including the DEA, the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and local sheriff’s departments—nearly 700 times between 2010 and 2012.

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.

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A national war cemetery is seen from above in Philadelphia. In the nearby suburbs, the Horsham Air Guard Base is a drone command center for foreign strikes and surveillance.

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.

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A fire truck and crew respond to a car fire in the Gila River Indian Community in Maricopa County, Arizona. U.S. drone operators are known to engage in “double-tap” strikes, in which consecutive rounds of missiles are fired on the same target, with the second round intended to kill those who respond to the first. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented at least five such strikes in Pakistan in 2012.

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.

The article “Blue Sky Days” was published in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine. This project was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center. View more of Tomas van Houtryve’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.