It won't be long before drones become a regular fixture of life, buzzing around above our heads like creepy steampunk pigeons. Police are already using them, surveyors are already using them and hobbyists are already splashing out hundreds of pounds so they can take them to the park and fly them around for half an hour. So once they become more affordable, there's every reason to believe the private sector will get involved, using them for commercial jobs, like delivering you pizza and shit DVDs off Amazon.
Photographer Henry Wilkins agrees. Aware that drones are probably going to lose much of their novelty in the next decade or so, he flew one around London and captured people's reactions. In the photos, you can see a sense of wonderment on the faces of people who, if the forecasts are correct, will probably grow to despise drones over the next couple of decades. I talked to him about the project, which you can read below, and VICE columnist Martin Robbins wrote a short story inspired by it, which you can read here.
VICE: Hi Henry. What was it about drones that initially caught your interest?
Henry Wilkins: Like everyone else, I'd seen them used for military purposes in the Middle East, and the news story last year, when Amazon said they'd use drones to deliver their packages. I think that may have been a publicity stunt leading up to Christmas, but it did make me think that civilian drones were becoming a bit more available. It got me thinking, 'What would it be like to have them as a regular feature of the environment?' That was why I started looking into this project. I wanted to do it before it actually happened.
What do you think about this increasing surveillance culture?
Obviously I have my own opinions, but, as a photographer, I hoped the images would kind of stand for themselves. I think there are two ways you can look at drones: whether they're going to be a good thing, or if they'll cause problems for people in the future. I think the images probably show both sides of the coin. As for what I think, I don't know if that's important. I'd like people looking at the photos to make their own minds up.
Fair enough. How did you capture the photos? Were you piloting the drone and taking the pictures?
No, there was me and my assistant, Tara. I was flying the drone. I'd wanted to get the perspective of people from the drone, but when I actually got the drone and realised the limitations of the on-board camera, I realised I wasn't going to be able to capture people at any sort of reasonable distance. From that problem came the idea of going out as a pair and having somebody on the ground with a DSLR while I flew the drone.
Were you able to see people's expressions from the height you were flying at?
Not really, because the way the drone works is you have a separate controller for it - like you would a remote control car, or something - and view what the camera sees through an app on your phone. So there wasn't really a lot for me to see in terms of people's expressions.
When you looked back over the photos, were you surprised by people's reactions to the drone?
Yes, actually. I was expecting people to be more apprehensive towards it, I guess. Mostly people were quite curious and quite positive about the whole idea. We had people come up and speak to us about it, and then Tara and I were going over and speaking to people. Either way, it was a good way to instigate conversation, which is what I'd intended.
Was anyone scared?
Yes, there was plenty of that. We recorded some of the conversations we had with people. I've got the sound files and transcripts of what they said. What we found was that people didn't actually express concern about it unless we asked probing questions. At first, people were curious and quite eager to accept it, but when you asked them about it, it did start to elicit more concerned responses. Quite a lot of people were asking how much it cost and whether they could get one themselves.
Did you have anyone complain that you were invading their personal space?
No, because the way we did it was that there were certain rules surrounding it, which were set out by the aviation authority. So what we did was fly it up high so it would attract people's attention and wait for them to come a bit closer and ask questions. We weren't actually flying so close to people as to be dangerous.
Okay. What were your motivations for starting the project?
I just think it's a fascinating subject, because I think they're going to be seen much more widely within a civilian context. We've only really seen them from a distance in their military usage, so I just wanted to provoke a conversation about it, really. See what people said about it when confronted, literally, with a new technology.
So it was important to do now, as, in a year or so, we might be seeing a lot more of them?
Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the aims of it. Surely it's better to have a conversation about these things before that happens rather than afterwards.
What are you going to do with your drone now?
That's a good question. I just don't know. With the laws that are in place at the moment, it'd be difficult to use it for anything other than aerial photography. But as a photographer, there are better ways to take photos, and I don't really see that as a way forward. It's also illegal to deliver anything at the moment. I'll possibly pass it on somewhere else.
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