Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer, artist, and author, who engages with critical contemporary issues around the world. Initially a student in philosophy, Van Houtryve developed a passion for photography while attending an overseas university program in Nepal. Upon graduation, he devoted himself fully to photojournalism, starting out with the Associated Press in Latin America. Van Houtryve left Associated Press in 2003 to concentrate on large-scale personal projects, including documenting the Maoist rebellion in Nepal and a seven-year project on the last countries where the Communist Party remains in power: China, Cuba, Laos, Nepal, North Korea, and Vietnam. His first monograph, Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism, was published in spring 2012. Van Houtryve is a member of VII Photo. When not traveling, he is based in Paris.
Tomas van Houtryve
In October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her home. At a U.S. Congressional hearing on October 29, 2013, held in Washington, D.C., the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five lawmakers. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”
According to strike reports complied by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert U.S. drone strikes since 2004. Although we live in the most media-connected age in history, the public has scant visual record of the drone war and its casualties.
In response, I decided to attach my camera to a small drone and travel across America to photograph the very sorts of gatherings mentioned in strike reports from Pakistan and Yemen —weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising. I made a list of “targets” to observe from the sky by reading hundreds of these reports. I also used a map of drone flights in the United States authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that had recently become public due to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Guided by these FAA records, I sent my camera over places where domestic drone use had been approved, including prisons, oil fields, and the U.S.-Mexico border.
By creating these images, I aim to draw attention to the changing nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare. As Albert Camus said, “By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.” In many ways, drones, particularly those used by the military, are the ultimate representation of delivering a policy without conscience, without empathy. As more drones fill the sky, we should consider how this technology will be used and experienced. Will the sight of drones overhead eventually seem as ordinary as an airplane or bird? Or will people start wishing for gray skies like Zubair Rehman?
—Tomas van Houtryve, November 2014