“Talking to people in Gaza, you realise how much the drones are burrowed into their daily lives,” says Daniel Tepper, an American photographer who has been researching and documenting the production and militarisation of drones in Israel since the 2014 conflict in Gaza.
In Arabic, unmanned aircrafts are referred to as ‘zenana’, local slang for the buzzing of a mosquito; in English ‘drones’ take their name from the male honeybee, and the monotonous hum it makes in flight. The Israeli military pioneered the use of drones in combat, employing the technology during the 1982 Lebanon War, and since then people in Gaza have become accustomed to the insidious noise of drones, sounding so close “they could reside beside us”, as Dr. Atef Abu Saif writes in his first-hand account of the 2014 conflict, The Drone Eats With Me. “It’s like it wants to join us for the evening and has pulled up an invisible chair,” he adds.
Despite this familiarity, what’s most scary about the drones is the fact it’s always unclear why they’re out – if they’re doing surveillance, if they’re armed, or if they’re about to strike. During the summer of 2014 the people of Gaza lived under constant surveillance, so much so you couldn’t distinguish a star or a satellite from a drone at night, says Vittoria Mentasti, an Italian photographer who experienced the conflict while reporting on it. According to Hamushim, a human rights group based in Gaza, drone warfare was responsible for almost a third of the 1543 civilian casualties in the 2014 war.
“The use of drones ensures a state of fear that perpetuates war,” says Mentasti, who has been working with Tepper to document drones and their use in Gaza. “All people in Gaza now suffer from the traumatic experience of war and the lack of any illusion of safety makes it impossible to heal from trauma.”
Keen to find out more, Mentasti and Tepper joined forces in 2015 to photograph Israeli weapons conventions, and through this work gained access to the factories that manufacture drones. Israeli companies are a top global exporter of UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles], accounting for over 60% of all international sales since 1985. The industry reportedly made $4.62 billion between 2005 to 2012, mostly from foreign sales.
Mentasti and Tepper found that, paradoxically, the fully-automated drones are put together piece-by-piece by hand by skilled technicians. “It’s like putting together a model aeroplane,” says Tepper, who adds that the factories they work in are there to sell as much as they are to produce, with the drones displayed next to promotional videos.
Visiting the factories, Tepper and Mentasti also found that many of the people and businesses associated with manufacturing UAVs believes they are humanitarian weapons, as they help reduce military and civilian casualties. “They certainly believe they’re doing the right thing,” says Tepper.
In 2016, the duo decided to travel to Gaza and photograph the survivors of Israeli drone strikes. Travelling from Italy, Tepper came across a small infrared camera in an Apple store in Torino, made by a manufacturer that sells similar cameras for use on UAVs. He and Mentasti decided to use this camera on the project, to give an idea of what UAV operators see from their bases while remotely manning the machines.
“With infrared images, people on the ground look like insects, like little white spots running along the ground,” he says. “We don’t really feel anything from that. It’s graphic and removed like a video game. There’s no emotional pull when you see that kind of imagery.”
“We always envisioned this project to be multifaceted,” he adds. “Whatever situation we found ourselves in, we thought about what best way to express what we wanted to say.”
And what they wanted to say encompasses much more than Israel and its use of drones alone, he adds. “It was about looking at the technology, and saying that what’s happening in Gaza is what’s happening when nations like the US, France, the UK, all these first-world nations, are using their drones all over the world.”