When thinking of drone photography, aerial visages of major metropolises or rare footage of hard-to-access sites are some of the images that may come to mind. But the other kind of drone, the one that causes emotionally detached destruction and violence from afar, are not generally thought of when considering the marriage of art and drones. Belgian documentary photographer Tomas van Houtryve has brought together the highly controversial US drone war with the art of drone photography for series Blue Sky Days, currently on view at gallery Anastasia Photo.
The exhibition presents a series of aerial images of familiar quotidian scenes; a wedding ceremony, a school playground during recess, and a yoga outing in a park, among others. But there is a hidden sense of malice and danger lurking behind these images. Van Houtryve has photographed the types of gatherings and locales that are targeted by drone strikes abroad, with the twist being that all of these images were taken in the US. The photographer is attempting to reconcile the lack of empathy toward drone strikes that is fostered by sheer distance, lack of familiarity, and in some cases total unawareness, by reframing what happens abroad onto American soil.
The series started in 2013, after the artist overheard the words of Zubair Rehman, a Pakistani child whose grandmother was killed by a drone strike while picking okra outside of her house. At a congressional hearing in Washington, the boy stated that “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.” Deeply moved and distraught by this boy’s loss of humanity, van Houtryve began Blue Sky Days shortly after, producing material for the project throughout the US over the next few years.
“As an avid news reader, I found it troubling that there are extremely few reportage images of drone strikes abroad. What I find strange is that we live in a time in history with more cameras than ever before, yet the visual record of the drone war is very thin,” van Houtryve tells The Creators Project. “My hope is that my images help fill this void in the visual record, and that they help people immediately and viscerally understand what is otherwise a very abstract concept—namely remote control warfare.”