After spending seven years photographing life in countries under communist rule, Tomas van Houtryve has turned his attention to America’s drone war. With the $10,000 awarded to him through the Getty Editorial Grant, he intends to use a drone-mounted camera in his work, reports Rachel Segal Hamilton
BJP: Why did you decide to do a project on drones?
Tomas van Houtryve: The drone war has been going on for about 10 years now and I feel like there isn’t any good visual translation of it. This is somewhere photojournalism has failed because we can’t get to sites where drone strikes are happening. Drone technology is developing quickly; it’s being relied on more and more by politicians in America and photojournalists aren’t participating in the debate.
Because I couldn’t go to these Pakistani tribal zones or difficult areas of Somalia and wait for a drone strike, I decided a photographer’s job is also to bring the conflict home. One way to do that is to bring the perspective, the technology and the point of view of drones to the American public and have people feel what it’s like to have drones hovering over them, whether for surveillance or targeting.
BJP: How will you render that feeling photographically?
Tomas van Houtryve: My methodology is to look at statistics and reports of drone strikes and use that to inspire specific locations in the United States to photograph. I don’t want to give everything away, because some things I’ll try and fail, but one thing I’m probably going to photograph is Indian reservations to show that “tribal zones” exist all over the world, including in the US. It’s not like suddenly people don’t have schools and mothers and fathers if they’re in a tribal zone. If I can photograph tribal zones in a way that reminds people of the American landscape or their old high school that will help bridge the gap between the drone war and the general public.
Although it was the military aspect that drew me in, drone technology is getting cheaper and it’s going to spread into other areas of life: policing, border control, firefighting, news coverage. We don’t know yet, maybe Google will put drones over every city that are constantly videotaping everything in real time and putting it on the web. There’s a surveillance and privacy issue we’re right on the cusp of. As a photographer I want to be on the cutting edge of that, to push those images and that feeling on people before it happens so they have time to talk and think about it.
BJP: How important is the Getty Editorial Grant money in helping you carry out In Drones We Trust?
Tomas van Houtryve: Buying a drone capable of carrying a camera, and then testing it, is incredibly time-consuming and expensive so without a grant it wouldn’t be possible. No magazine that I know of would buy you a drone for an assignment. Also, I have to take time off normal shooting and assignments to learn how to pilot the drone so the money’s going to help in that slow process of building up my skills to a point where I can actually take the kind of pictures that I imagine.
BJP: Are there many legal issues with taking photographs using a drone?
Tomas van Houtryve: I’ve been speaking with lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Unit, the people that deal with freedom of the press and privacy concerns. I ran my project by them to see how far I could push it without getting into legal trouble.
There are pure safety concerns: if you’re flying this kind of machine in the United States you have to keep it within view. There is technology now where you could add GPS, send it out, not look at it, and it would go to a GPS point, take pictures and come back, but that’s not legal for the moment. Then there’s altitude limit and limits of staying away from airports so you don’t disturb traffic safety.
Then you have the same rules that have always applied about public space. The United States is one of the easiest places to photograph. If you’re walking and you see something happen on somebody’s front porch, which may be private property but you can see it from the street, it’s perfectly legal to take pictures and publish them. But if something’s happening in their back yard and you need a ladder and a telephoto lens to see it, so you’re using “extraordinary means”, you can get into trouble. A drone would be considered extraordinary means because people aren’t expecting them in their back yards. That’s one of the challenges.
BJP: Prior to this you did a seven-year project on 21st century communism. How does this project follow on from that?
Tomas van Houtryve: There are two kinds of war photography and I’m more into the cold war kind of photography, not what’s happening at the front lines but taking a step back from the war and looking at the bigger picture. In the case of the cold war it was a clash of ideologies – an ideology we stopped talking about before it had disappeared off the face of the earth. I also went last year to a site where US nuclear bombs were tested in the Pacific, and now the drones.
All of these are major war themes, but ones that have not really made it onto the radar of photojournalism because there’s a tradition of getting close to people. If we’re talking about the superpowers, the way they do war is no longer something where you can run around with your camera right next to it. So the thing is to try to think: how can we take those themes and translate them into photography?