Tomas van Houtryve takes on the proliferation of drones as weapons and as tools of surveillance in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine, in a photo essay titled “Blue Sky Days.” At 16 pages, it’s the largest picture story ever published by Harper’s.
To create the work, Van Houtryve’s outfit a drone he purchased on Amazon.com for still photography and video, and then piloted it, in areas throughout the United States, over “the very sorts of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes,” the introductory text explains. These included weddings, funerals, and groups of people exercising or praying. The images also depict domestic borders, prisons and other areas where military or police have flown surveillance drones, or have applied for permits to do so.
“His idea was daring, elegant, and perfectly timed,” Harper’s art director Stacey D. Clarkson told PDN via email. “He explained that the technology for drones is way ahead of legislation concerning them, and though drones are part of our contemporary reality, the specific ways they are used (and can be used) are not in the public consciousness. The urgency of the work, the complexity of the ideas, needed space to be properly conveyed. And the images themselves needed to run large in order for the reader to see what Tomas’s drone could see—embroidery on top of a hat, spokes on a bicycle wheel, and home plate at a neighborhood baseball field.”
Captions for the photos make the connection between, for instance, a group of people exercising in a park, and the fact that a gathering of exercising men might, for the CIA, constitute evidence of a terrorist training camp. The effect is chilling. In an image of a wedding in central Philadelphia, a flower girl is the only member of a wedding party looking up at van Houtrve’s drone as he makes his image. A U.S. drone struck a wedding in Yemen in December 2013, killing 12 people, the caption tells us.
The essay’s title refers to the testimony a 13-year-old Pakistani boy named Zubair Rehman gave on Capitol Hill after his grandmother was killed by a drone strike while she was picking vegetables in her yard. The boy told lawmakers he no longer loves blue skies. “The drones do not fly when the skies are gray,” he said.
Van Houtryve will exhibit and speak about “Blue Sky Days” in New York on Friday, April 4, as part of “Surveillance.01-USA,” a symposium on surveillance-based visual arts projects. He will also appear with Clarkson at the University of Colorado, Boulder on April 7 as part of the university’s ATLAS speaker series.
Related: Client Meeting: Harper’s Magazine (accessible to PDN subscribers)
If We Spend $25K On A Photo Essay, Readers Should Pay to See It, Says Harper’s Publisher
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