Interview: Tomas van Houtryve


Tomas van Houtryve is a prolific photojournalist who explores conflict and state-sponsored surveillance. In March, Harpers Magazine published a folio of his photographs titled “Blue Sky Days,” the longest folio in the magazine’s 164 year history. The photos, which van Houtryve took with a small drone over everyday spaces and scenes in the United States, takes aim at American drone strikes abroad. The images propose the possibility of surveillance and even strikes on home soil. For “Blue Sky Days,” van Houtryve captured scenes that resemble the circumstances in which C.I.A. drone strikes are known to have happened in Pakistan and Yemen. With this project, van Houtryve continues to unravel the tools of state power and attempts to make real the far reaches of the targeted killing campaign. van Houtryve has worked primarily in communist states like Cuba, Laos and North Korea. In 2012, he published Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism, a book that included photographs from an undercover trip he made to North Korea.

Tomas is the recipient of the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents and in 2010 he was named the POYi Photographer of the Year.

Interview by Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland Michel

Center for the Study of the Drone First, could you describe to me what it is exactly that you did with the drone?

Tomas van Houtryve I’ve been concerned with the drone war for some time. I’ve covered other conflicts, and I find it troubling that we know so little about what is the top foreign-policy priority of the United States right now. It’s the most relied upon, or most touted, weapon for this foreign-policy objective—the War on Terror—and yet there is no visual narrative in the public mind’s-eye to go along with this war. I found that odd, because we’re living in the most media-connected age that there’s ever been. With previous wars that the U.S. has been involved in, there has been a large part where visual journalists have played a role, whether in the Normandy landings or the Vietnam War, and here there isn’t one, and the mainstream media doesn’t seem to be playing much of a role. There was a huge hole in our understanding and the presence of this war in the public’s eye.

I was thinking of how I could fill in this visual gap, try to bring this war home, using photography. And at the same time, consumer drone technology was getting cheaper and more accessible. I’ve also done some work with drones for National Geographic. One of their other photographers used drones to film lions in the Serengeti.  I did a mining story in Peru last year with National Geographic for which we used some drones to take aerial pictures. The two wires crossed, and I said to myself, “If I can put my camera on the small drones in order to open up a visual narrative or a debate about the big drones, that might be a powerful way to do it.” So that’s how the project came about.

Drone Do you think it was necessary to communicate what you wanted to communicate using a drone, or could you have gotten the aerial shot from some other platform?

van Houtryve Well, it allows me to talk about more. The pictures allow you to talk about U.S. military policy on drones abroad; they allow you to talk about U.S. government drones that are flying over U.S. territory, and those include airplane-sized ones like Predators, or small ones that sheriff departments are using. It allows you to talk about the accessibility of this technology. If somebody like me can use it and hobbyists can use it, then you can talk about that, too. Using a drone rather than a helicopter allows you to talk about the broad spectrum of drones changing our lives. It allows you to talk about something else. It makes it more coherent and cohesive, rather than saying something like, “I’m using tripods to talk about steadicams.”

Though there is some weirdness to it, that the word “drone” encompasses such a wide range of equipment. That’s bizarre, and people who want to sell the small drones wish they had a different name for them than the big drones that are used for surveillance and targeted strikes. But in the popular imagination, any sophisticated remote-control aircraft is a drone, whether it’s five ounces or 5000 pounds.


Drone Where did this interest in drone strikes come from? Was there a catalyzing moment for you?

van Houtryve You know, there was no catalyzing moment in the sense that I’ve been interested in documenting conflict and geopolitics for more than a decade. But a lot of my colleagues who are war photographers focused on hot wars, front-line wars, because those are the things that are the most visual and easiest to get the cameras to. My project before this was to get all countries in the world that are still under communist rule. I’m trying to photograph cold war, so I’m looking for geopolitical trends, modern-day warfare, but I’m looking for things that we don’t have in our mind’s eye yet. How do you photograph an ideological struggle? How do you photograph a clandestine war carried out by high-altitude technology? It just fell into my broader interest, the things that I worry about on a day-to-day basis.

“I feel that the war could go on for much, much longer with much less questioning, and with much less democratic participation than there has been in past wars.”

Drone What would you like to see change?

van Houtryve I do feel it’s very problematic that we’ve got a technology that allows a form of warfare that escapes what would be the normal triggers for debate and questioning of conflict in the United States. And I would consider the two most common triggers—for the wide public getting involved and being interested in government policy and conflict—to be U.S. service men and women dying in conflict, and the horror of war, mostly on civilian populations, being documented by the media and transmitted back. That’s when people begin questioning it and getting involved. I feel that in the drone war, the government has managed to escape these two triggers because no American lives are at risk and because of the covert nature and the very isolated areas where these strikes are taking place.

As a result, I feel that the war could go on for much, much longer with much less questioning, and with much less democratic participation than there has been in past wars. I’m not an anti-war activist, but I do think that when a democratic country goes to war, we have to go to war with the public informed and with the press responding and always looking out for abuse and looking out for the most vulnerable people in wars—that is, civilians. With the drone war, we seem to have short circuited that process. That’s my biggest concern on a foreign front.

On the domestic front, as it stands right now, the government did a very quick implementation of drone use for its own purposes, allowing government agencies to use this incredibly powerful technology. Meanwhile, there has been an very slow implementation for the general public and people who want to exercise their First Amendment rights to use this technology. I find that to be problematic, and I hope it will be corrected in the regulations to come.

It’s leading us toward an Orwellian scenario when the government has powers that it didn’t have in the past. So far with drones, government entities have been given that power faster than anybody else, and that’s troubling to me.

Drone Some of your previous work has been in Communist and post-Communist countries. Is state-sponsored surveillance a subject that motivates you?

van Houtryve That’s a very raw nerve for me. Because I see how surveillance has been abused in other countries and how easy it is for the state to take under its control these capabilities and use them for abusive purposes.  I am very sensitive to surveillance after traveling through these totalitarian countries. People have been surveilled since the beginning of time: neighbors snitching each other, and things like that. You don’t need a drone to do it. I think there’s some people that feel quite comfortable that even with these new technologies, the United States will never go that way. But living in Europe, you go back one generation and everybody has either been in war or under totalitarianism. Anytime an incredibly powerful surveillance tool comes into the government’s hands, you have to react quite quickly and not be complacent about it.

Drone Is the visibility issue also part of the concern for the domestic use of surveillance drones?

van Houtryve Yes. When the country was founded, we put amendments in the Constitution that said that we would like less security and more freedom. Nobody liked having their doors kicked down by British soldiers. The fact that we didn’t even know that we were under surveillance from drones, that we didn’t know that Customs and Border Patrol Predator drones were being used by the FBI and other agencies, means that people’s doors were being kicked down in a virtual manner without them even knowing it. That’s the same with the NSA. We said to the government: “Expand your tools to catch terrorists.” We didn’t say, “Make a copy of all of my correspondence and my activities electronically.”  If they had to kick down doors and open letters and physically photocopy them, it would have stopped much faster. Revealing something about surveillance is a very important part of adding to the debate.

“A kid being scared of the blue sky is a pretty terrifying idea.”

Drone Initially your title for this project was “In Drones We Trust.” Why the title change? Did your thinking change during the process of completing this project?

van Houtryve The title that I eventually stuck with–”Blue Sky Days”–was proposed by Stacey Clarkson, who is the art director at Harper’s Magazine. Originally, my title for it was playing a little with the idea of God because I felt that we may have misplaced our amount of trust in how good drones would be, or that it was maybe a short-term gain that potentially had a long-term disadvantage for our wellbeing.

I shared with Stacey all of these particular drone strikes that I’d come across looking at human rights reports. In one report, a boy mentions that he doesn’t like blue skies anymore. A kid being scared of the blue sky is a pretty terrifying idea. The new title took it from something of an abstract idea to something more personal. I think that was a good call on her part.

Drone You’re photographing everyday spaces. There’s nothing extraordinary there, and yet there is a certain level of abstraction—sometimes it takes a moment to get a sense of what is going on in the frame. Did you try and amplify or play with that concept?

van Houtryve It’s a contradiction in how I normally work as a photographer. Usually I want my photos to bring clarity, and photographs compared to painting or text have this base veracity and truth to them. You believe your eyes. But I think I tried to get my mind in the imagined space of a drone pilot’s point of view; if all somebody knew about my life was the infrared video feed, of my life from 15,000 feet, could there be some confusion? Is that different from knowing somebody on the ground?

One of the pictures is of some people doing yoga, and half the time when I ask people to look at that picture, they say, “Oh, they’re praying,” and the other half  say, “I think they’re doing yoga.” That’s the sort of ambiguity that I wanted to bring up, the sort of ambiguity that I think we should worry about.

The whole war is data driven: it’s based on, you know, signal interception of the cell phones people carry around, and then aerial video-feeds of people’s lives. If that’s all that somebody knew about me, I feel like they wouldn’t have the full picture. And so when we talk about drones being a very precise and surgical tool, it’s only got those two sensory points on it. You know, if I watched my grandmother or somebody else her whole life only through her cell phone information and with a tracking feed filming the top of her head, I don’t think I’d know that much about her.

“The first things I wanted to photograph were echoes between drone strikes and domestic situations, and then later I went to the towns on that EFF map and see what the government could see from the sky. I asked, what was revealed about our lives? What was vulnerable?”

Drone Is part of this a commentary on the specter of the drone’s coming home to the United States?

van Houtryve That changed throughout my project. When I started the research, my impression was that drones were used by the U.S. government abroad and on a very small level in the U.S. I thought they were over the U.S.-Mexican border, specifically, to identify border threats. But while I was doing the research, the Electronic Frontier Foundation released this map that they’d gotten from a Freedom of Information Act showing all these drone flight-zones, and another document showing that the ten Predator drones that Customs and Border Protection owns had been lent out to dozens of federal agencies. My initial impression was that drones could one day come home, but now I know they’ve already been here for quite some time without a public debate, without much transparency. The first things I wanted to photograph were echoes between drone strikes and domestic situations, and then later I went to the towns on that EFF map and see what the government could see from the sky. I asked, what was revealed about our lives? What was vulnerable? What does America look like from a drone’s point of view? So my concerns became more and more domestic the more research I did, and I tried to reflect that in the photography.

Drone In setting up the shots, what else was on your mind? What were you looking to emphasize?

van Houtryve In general, for the shots taken in non-public spaces, people would be alerted that I was taking photos. But in public spaces, the people would be caught unaware when photographed by the drone. I looked through hundreds of documented foreign airstrikes by drones in Pakistan and Yemen—I got that information from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International—and I tried to find particular scenes that looked quite ordinary or had something emotional to hold on to or other things that could be reflected in the kind of activity you find in the U.S., like strikes on weddings, on funerals, or people doing day-to-day activities. And then I went across the United States looking for situations that echoed those and tried to get a picture of that, so there would be a connection drawn between the two.

Drone When looking at the photographs, the experience is divided between, on one hand, the beauty of the composition of the scene—these are visually appealing photographs—and on the other hand the horror of contemplating the deeper message here. Are you looking to play with that tension?

van Houtryve Definitely. The base subject that I’m trying to raise awareness about and get people to think about in less abstract terms is the foreign drone war. If you take the time to read through the particular airstrikes, a lot of them are quite horrifying. But on the other hand, as a photographer, I know that beauty is one of the tools that  we use to get people to look at a picture. Beauty has a lot of power, so there’s a tension between trying to seduce people with the language of photography, which is beautiful composition, and trying to reveal something that might be uncomfortable or difficult to digest, once people fully grasp it.

Drone Were you able to see through the eyes of the drone in real-time?

van Houtryve Yes. I had a video feed transmitted from my camera so I could frame the shots and watch what the drone saw.

“Having the drone cuts off that human relationship. The people just become shadows and graphic images that I see on the screen. Often I would only see them with the drone.”

Drone And how was the experience of inhabiting the aerial perspective?

van Houtryve It’s incredibly powerful. In my work I spend so much time trying to get access. There are not that many interesting photographs that haven’t been taken yet, so those photographs of things that we don’t have in our mind’s eye take incredible investment to access. I’ve photographed in North Korea twice, for example, and you can imagine what that took. The drone can go places that I have a very hard time going as a photographer. It can fly above gated communities, it can see behind factory walls, so there’s an immense feeling of power.

There’s also a troubling feeling of power, because usually when I’m photographing human beings I’m within voice distance of them, and if they have a problem with it they can talk to me. Usually, I have to spend quite a bit of time socializing with people before I can take their photos. Having the drone cuts off that human relationship. The people just become shadows and graphic images that I see on the screen. Often I would only see them with the drone.

Passing everything through the screen is a bit bizarre, just looking down at people through the perspective of the bomb door. For me, it feels like the camera is being weaponized a little bit. It’s on the higher ground, and if people are unhappy with the imagery, there’s not that much that they can do about it.

Drone And yet, at the same time, an image of a person taken from a drone actually contains a lot less information about that person than an image taken on the ground.

van Houtryve Often it’s hard to see their face depending on the angle or the altitude that you’re coming from, and it’s actually quite difficult to capture human emotion. So you can see people’s activity but you can’t see whether they’re smiling or they’re angry or sad. The only way I could try to work around that as a photographer was to work at the times of day when their shadows were about the same size as them, so when they made a gesture, their shadow would make a corresponding gesture. Usually when I’m photographing people–which is 95 percent of the time–I’m looking at their faces, their hands, their gestures.

Drone As a photographer using a drone, what are your next plans? Are you going to go back to just using it as you would a tripod to get the job done, or are there more ideas?

van Houtryve I haven’t even decided if I’ll keep using a drone, actually. It’s very powerful in this particular story because the drone itself allows me not just to take pictures but question the placement and use of a camera. It’s questioning the medium itself by adopting that medium. If I were to do another project with a drone, it might be more straightforward, just using it to get additional access or a new point of view. Or I’ll just go look for some other obscure foreign-policy or conflict that needs to be questioned visually.  I don’t know.

I do think that whether I plan to or not, drones will come back into my life through assignments. There will probably be a National Geographic (or somesuch) assignment for which the aerial image is needed, and the drone will be the easiest method. I’ve taken pictures from hot-air balloons, helicopters, airplanes, all sorts of things, and the drone just adds to the possibilities, I suppose.

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