My Camera and Me: Mishka Henner and the computer

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“When you see the world from this perspective, it all changes”

Words by Mishka Henner, as told to Isaac Huxtable.

All photography is appropriation. Cameras capture material that already exists in the world and transform that material into something else. I always thought that’s what cameras did, and that’s what photography is for me. For me, that’s the magic of photography. It’s liberating to imagine the computer as a camera; the screen as a viewfinder that’s an interface into another world.

To make my aerial images, I use satellite imaging software and take screenshots before compositing the imagery together to create incredibly detailed pictures that seem infinitely zoomable. After making this work for a decade, it really shifted my mindset. When you see the world from this perspective, you start to feel something akin to the overview effect described by astronauts. Everything is interconnected and incredibly fragile.

'Wrangler Feedyard, Tulia, Texas' from the series Feedlots, © Mishka Henner.

When I was making 51 US Military Outposts, it struck me that instead of lugging expensive camera gear across the world (which I could never afford) or trying to access inaccessible places, the Internet and satellite imagery allowed you to see and capture vast infrastructures and networks of power that were invisible on the ground – and all from your own home. For the first time in history, individual citizens had access to tools only previously at the disposal of intelligence organisations or networks. It was a revelation. 

My early works coincided with the Wikileaks diplomatic cables scandal, and there was this massive cultural change in the perception of data, the internet, and information in general. There’s all this data out there, and if you sit down and interpret it, you can make pretty extraordinary discoveries. I wondered if through these images, you could see more than someone who is actually there on the ground. It’s the distance of the perspective.

'Central Intelligence Agency Predator Drone Launch Site, Pakistan,' from the series 51 Military Outposts, © Mishka Henner.

I’m still looking for those moments, the profound moments of revelation. Looking for the right landscape is a long, patient process. One that stands out to me is that of the One that stands out to me is Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas (2012), and its big red lagoon. I remember seeing that and almost falling off my chair, because it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It didn’t even look like a photograph. The red lagoon was all blood, and I was staring at the heart of a very aggressive, ruthless economic system of meat farming. With these images, you can physically see the workings of our economic and cultural systems. I felt that I had found an image that represented something really horrific at the heart of our way of life. 

As an artist, you want to contribute something original to the conversation. I felt at the time that there was a fetishism for the camera, with people obsessing over it’s technological ability. When the computer is your camera, you bypass that conversation entirely. It is a very restricted way of working, because I’m hostage to whatever is already out there. At the same time, the whole world can become my subject.

'Tascosa Feedyard, Bushland, Texas' from the series Feedlots, © Mishka Henner.

I have always had terrible eyesight. I’ve had terrible eyesight from an early age and have always depended on glasses to see the world better, so photography was a natural field for me to fall into. My latest work uses Artificial Intelligence and Generative Adversarial Networks to produce images, so there’s no camera involved anymore. The imagery is constructed through the algorithmic interpretation of the billions of images already out there. In a sense, these new cameras aren’t pointing at the world anymore, but at our own representations of that world. By destroying the camera, we have created a whole new one.

'Parent Set #1' from the series The Fertile Image, © Mishka Henner.

New work by Mishka Henner in collaboration with Vaseem Bhatti will be revealed at Signal Film and Media’s West Coast Photo Festival 2021 online summer showcase on 3 June.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.