Tomas van Houtryve received the 2015 Infinity Award for Photojournalism for the series Blue Sky Days, a drone’s-eye view of America. With his camera attached to a small drone, he traveled across the United States to photograph the very sort of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes. The images he captured engage with the changing nature of surveillance, personal privacy, and war. Laurence Cornet talked with him about what drone imagery might mean for the future of photojournalism.
L : I would love to hear how your project came about.
T: I was concerned about the drone war and was shocked to see that there wasn’t a good visual record of it. Usually, anytime the US goes to war the media is there; whether it’s distorted or not, it usually makes a lot of noise. The drone war has been going on for over ten years now, but it’s done in secret. The media is not very present, which is strange because we are living in a much more media saturated period now than during the Vietnam war. I wanted to do some portraits of drone strike victims and their families, but I am bad at portraits so that idea didn’t go really far.
L: That’s why you decided to use a drone?
T: I had an assignment from National Geographic to take aerial pictures of a mine. It was too high to use a helicopter so we used a drone. I saw it in action – I would control the camera while an engineer controlled the drone – and I said, “why don’t I use this little drone to talk about the big drones being used by the US military?”
The idea then was to research as much as I could about drone strikes in Pakistan. Even though it’s classified, there are human rights groups and investigative journalists who are piecing together and trying to account for all the strikes that happened. If you read the strike reports, there are some telling details. Many times it’s just “two males driving in a 4-wheel drive truck were hit by a drone;” but sometimes there are really horrifying ones like “wedding convoys were hit by drones.” I made a list of the most detailed ones, and then with my little drone, I went around the US looking for similar situations to photograph, just to flip things around. If the US is looking at Pakistan through a drone, what would it be like to look at the US from the same point of view? I slowly widened from just photographing strike situations to things you can see around America from a new perspective.
L: Do you look for the locations in advance on Google Earth?
T: Yes, often. If it’s something very big, you can see it on a satellite view of Google, but sometimes my drone is flying very low so it wouldn’t help to see it from Google Maps.
L: Your photographs are aesthetically striking – you play with the light, the shadows, the composition, etc. What are the challenges you faced while using the drone?
T: Learning to fly the drone is a question of practice; if you do it enough, then it becomes intuitive and you can focus on the frame and the photograph rather than on where your thumbs are.
The drone has a camera and I see everything that it sees on my screen, on the ground. My favorite altitude is between four and eight stories high because you can see people’s shadows and their gestures. You are allowed to fly up to four hundred feet but it’s only good if I am taking pictures of huge structures.
L: Did you get into trouble working on this project?
T: Before I put my drone in the air there is always a feeling of apprehension: “will someone come and tap me on the shoulder and put me in handcuffs?” It is a new technology and people react to it in many different ways – fear, wonder, curiosity, paranoia. Sometimes I ask for permission from the authorities in advance. On the US/Mexican border, I spoke to the border patrol before I flew it. But in other public places, I just put it in the air and see how people react. In Baltimore, I checked Twitter half an hour after putting the drone in the air, searched “Baltimore drone,” and there were four or five tweets saying “fucking drone is in the air! Fuck the police,” or “our protest even has his own drone now.”
L: Can drones be perceived as a new technology and tool for photojournalism?
T: Certainly. I have mixed feelings about it because I am nostalgic for the pre-drone era, even though I am now using a drone. As a photographer, you are not always photographing happy things, and by the time you take pictures at a funeral or an airstrike, you’ve passed through many channels in order to be there. The drone short-circuits this idea of gaining access by knowing people. It’s a bit terrifying that the human connection is lost – it’s more like playing a video game.
On the upside, you have so many situations where people are trying to hide things from journalists and artists, which then creates public interest to know about such issues. If BP oil spills in the Gulf they will try to keep the journalists away. Boom! The drone will see exactly what’s going on right away. In Nepal, they are using it for aid to show the devastation and destruction.
My main worry is that the first people to gain access to this technology are the military, law enforcement, and spy agencies. To control what the sky can see is very powerful, and I wonder if this is something that artists, journalists or private citizens will also have access to.
L: What does the law say ?
T: The law is being re-written as we speak. If you are a hobbyist or an artist you can pretty much do whatever you want, as long as you stay below five hundred feet and away from airports. There are some city governments and some states starting to enact laws, but the national law has not been finalized. It’s coming; they’ve been talking about bringing it in for the past two years.
L : How critical of an issue is it for you?
T: It makes me think about the power of the media. Photography is often spoken of as a neutral medium; there is this expectation that photography starts with the reality of the world and reflects it through light. There is the assumption of veracity. But there are many different kinds of photography. Surveillance photography has its own aesthetics, its own texture, and its own point of view. I used black and white for the first time in twelve years, and looked for behaviors that could easily be misinterpreted. I also started to think about certain aspects of photography that carry a weight, almost a presumption of guilt. If you are seen through surveillance video for example, people will be judging you in a different way than if you are seen through a vacation video, even if you are doing the exact same thing.
L: At the same time, you are breaking these codes of surveillance photography.
T: Right. It’s this weird intersection or collision between two different styles.
I’m more aware of that now and I might integrate in my photography all the codes and aesthetics that go with different ways of looking at things. In the past, I would switch subjects but I am now more likely to switch subjects as well as aesthetics.
For this project for example, I could not really see people’s faces and hands, so I really had to work with shadows and lines. The pictures became much more graphic than what I was used to. Sitting in a creepy location, kind of spying on people, is not so fun; but playing with lines and shadows is quite creative. That’s the joy I get out of it.
L: That also gives a lot of possibilities in terms of dissemination…
T: I am working as fast as I can before the law changes. Also, for every flight I shoot both videos and still photos. That gives some possibilities for installations. Everybody talks about multimedia, but a drone war is a war via multimedia. All the soldier sees is multimedia. It seems appropriate to do commentary through multimedia too. Different mediums have different characteristics, and I would like to explore them all.
Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer, artist and author who engages critical contemporary issues around the world. In 2013 Tomas began working on Blue Sky Days, a drone’s-eye view of America. Images from the project were first published in Harper’s as the largest photo portfolio in the magazine’s 164-year history. The series was awarded the 2015 ICP Infinity Award and honors from POYi, World Press Photo, and the White House News Photographer’s Association. Tomas has had solo exhibitions of his work in Paris, New York City, Spain and Italy. Many of his photographs of intense political actions are distinguished by their intimacy.
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.