• August 15, 2014

Tomas van Houtryve: A Sky Full of Cameras

Janna Dotschkal

For the past 15 years I’ve worked as a professional photojournalist, inspired by the camera’s ability to connect human beings, document news, and capture beauty. But there is a darker side to how photography is used in our world today. Cameras are increasingly deployed for surveillance, spying, or targeting. I often wonder whether these uses have already eclipsed traditional ones, such as portraiture and fine art. Are we at a point in the evolution of photography where the medium has become weaponized?

Nothing symbolizes this trend better than the rise of drones, robotic aircraft pioneered by the military which rely on their cameras to link remote operators to their targets.

Picture of people playing baseball
Baseball practice in Montgomery County, Maryland. The FAA issued 1,428 domestic drone permits between 2007 and early 2013. According to records obtained from the agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Navy have applied for drone authorization in Montgomery County.

Last year, I started to explore photography’s dark side, hoping to engage in the debate about how imaging technology is changing the nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare.

I started by buying my own consumer drone, and I was surprised by how easy it was to acquire. Hobby shops and online retailers sell small drones equipped with GPS receivers for a few hundred dollars. With a bit of tinkering, I was able to add a high-resolution camera and a system for transmitting live video back to the ground–a greatly simplified version of the system that American pilots use to guide military drones like Reaper and Predator over foreign airspace.

Picture of suburban neighborhood aerial
Residential homes surrounding a circular park are seen from above in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Drones have been used for air strikes over Pakistan for the past decade, marking a significant shift in how America fights wars. Pilots based in Nevada and New Mexico track and record human activity via an infrared video feed. They never leave the ground or cross over hostile territory. Although a huge amount of footage has been collected, the program is classified, and few people have ever seen images of the drone war and its casualties. This seems like a paradox in our thoroughly media-connected age. How can America be involved in a decade-long war where the sky is buzzing with cameras, and yet the public remains totally in the dark?

Picture of wedding party from the air
A wedding in central Philadelphia. In December 2013, a U.S. drone reportedly struck a wedding in Radda, in central Yemen, killing twelve people and injuring fifteen.

To learn more about the drone war, I looked up reports compiled by investigative journalists and human rights groups. I found the details of many of the strikes startling. A Human Rights Watch report about a drone attack on a wedding in Yemen stated:

“The December 12 attack killed 12 men and wounded at least 15 other people, including the bride.”

But the testimony of one particular Pakistani boy named Zubair Rehman jarred me the most. In October 2012, Rehman’s 67-year-old grandmother was killed by a drone strike while she was picking vegetables outside her home. “I no longer love blue skies,” said Rehman. “In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Picture of playground seen from the sky
A playground seen from above in Sacramento County, California. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that over 200 children were killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia between 2004 and 2013.

In the past few years, drone use has spread from foreign conflicts to America’s domestic airspace. Often, unarmed versions of military aircraft are used, such as the fleet of Predator drones operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Initially, the fleet was meant for border surveillance, but records indicate that drones were lent out hundreds of times to other government entities—including the DEA, the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and local sheriff’s departments. The trend of drones used by government security forces is only likely to increase, and some companies such as Amazon are lobbying to put drones to commercial use too.

Picture of prison from the air
“Tent City” jail in Maricopa County, Arizona. Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced in 2013 that he planned to purchase two surveillance drones for the facility, which is already outfitted with perimeter stun fences, four watchtowers, and a facial-recognition system.

As drones fill the skies above America, how is the public likely to react? Will the sight of them eventually be as ordinary as seeing an airplane or bird, or will people start wishing for gray skies like the traumatized young Zubair Rehman?

I got a full range of reactions when I flew my own drone in public places earlier this year. Often I would purposely fly my camera over the same type of situations listed in those foreign drone strike reports, such as weddings, funerals and people entering or leaving religious schools. At other times, I used my drone to look down from the sky over the same areas where the government does aerial surveillance, like along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Picture of truck on U.S. Mexico border
A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle in San Diego County, California. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been using Predator drones since 2005. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2012 revealed that the Customs and Border Protection lent its fleet of drones to other government entities—including the DEA, the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and local sheriff’s departments—nearly 700 times between 2010 and 2012.

While flying in a park in Maryland, a small girl saw my drone hovering in the sky and asked her mother what it was. I heard the mother answer, “It’s a drone, and if you don’t do your homework, it’s going to go after you!”

On another occasion flying in rural Northern California, a man watched my drone for a long while before approaching me to ask for a look at the control screen. He told me he’d worked as an engineer for a military contractor during the Iraq war, assigned to a team flying the Global Hawk, a large high-altitude surveillance drone. He told me that he worried the technology he had seen as a contractor was moving in a spooky direction, and that the newest weapons systems could decide when to fire or not based on algorithms and lightning-fast calculations, eliminating human will—and judgment—from the battlefield.

Picture of cemetery from the sky
A national war cemetery is seen from above in Philadelphia. In the nearby suburbs, the Horsham Air Guard Base is a drone command center for foreign strikes and surveillance.

And I recently read that graduate students at MIT are experimenting with drones which automatically adapt studio lighting for portraits.

Not everyone I met spoke about the sinister capabilities of drones. Flying near Silicon Valley, a man offered me his business card after I landed in a grassy clearing. He said he was working on a startup company which would manufacture drones to take selfies.

Picture of fire truck and crew
A fire truck and crew respond to a car fire in the Gila River Indian Community in Maricopa County, Arizona. U.S. drone operators are known to engage in “double-tap” strikes, in which consecutive rounds of missiles are fired on the same target, with the second round intended to kill those who respond to the first. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented at least five such strikes in Pakistan in 2012.

It seems clear that when the next chapter in the evolution of photography is written, drones will have a very prominent role. As more and more cameras take to the skies, my sincere hope is that drones which use photography to celebrate and inspire the best of human values outnumber those designed for darker aims.

The article “Blue Sky Days” was published in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine. This project was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center. View more of Tomas van Houtryve’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Sam Kephart
    February 13, 2015

    News Anchor Shad Olson’s piece: The Great Drone Debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssoOASanKao

  2. Name Witheld
    February 12, 2015

    Nice chicken advert before the video. Unfortunately I am a vegetarian so it was utterly repulsive.

  3. Dylan Holt
    February 12, 2015

    I recently read an article on algorithms like those used by drones. That as algorithmic systems grow more tangible, concern is mounting that they are getting too powerful. These systems don’t even have to malfunction to provoke unease:their decisions can run counter to our ideas of fairness. Algorithms don’t see humans the way humans do. And as far as privacy goes isn’t it worth feeling secure from threats in your own home? I think that’s what makes it one of the most taboo of issues as we let things like ‘clickwrap’ agreements allow creators of algorithmic systems license to make free with our data. Much of this issue on privacy in our technological age goes unremarked by those it affects. But when people become aware of it , the reaction is apt to be hostile- as it was last year when news broke out that Facebook had experimented with manipulating its users emotions through minor changes to their news feeds.

    • larry rubin
      February 13, 2015

      I may be wrong but algorithms are meant to run as they are written and independently so once put in motion unless deliberately altered by an either predetermined intervention site(s) or some other way which may be unintended. I think this applies to all algorithms no matter how complex although the frequency and availability of unintended interventions may thus increase. My point is that this not only applies to the use of drones, but even to such things as high frequency trading on the stock market which I believe has been around in some form or other since 2008. In any case our complete dependence on computers is getting frightening especially since some people are talking about computers billions of times more intelligent than humans fairly soon after around 2030.Does any human in the world expect to win against a chess algorithm anymore? I must be too old but my experience at a cashier at the grocery even scared me. In my day we were taught to estimate by rounding in our heads. The cashier rang up my order and said I owed so much. I said something must be wrong but she persisted three times to say “but that is what the cash register says”. I asked for the manager who was not much older and she to said the same. I finally insisted that the groceries be tallied again, and the bill did turn out to be more than ten dollars high and the total was well under 100 dollars. The only other unbelievable thing, even to me WAS that the total was under 100 dollars considering how fast prices have risen. Next time they might very well be right. I think I feel senility coming which may be a blessing in the sense this will not bother me anymore, but my poor wife will then have to deal with me, if she wants.

  4. Lynn
    February 12, 2015

    OMG Big Brother is real

  5. larry rubin
    September 22, 2014

    how many people have opined over the years that “any technology is only as good or responsible as the person in control of it”. I would have liked to ask that to the group of enthusiasts who buzzed me with their drone from halfway down a local park’s broadwalk. Or the lighted drone that confused the hell out of me at night when I saw it doing ariel acrobatics from a distance. I bet the best use for drones will prove to scare the hell out of future scientists to be, little kids on Halloween with a ghost costume attached to it with a loud radio speaker. I’ve read so many uses for small private drones from candid picture takers to actually dropping real small but powerful bombs. We must still be children with or toys that our play with is only limited by our imagination…… or gall.

  6. Mary Davison
    September 3, 2014

    The whole issue gives me the creeps. I’m particularly unnerved by all the surveillance right here in North America and wonder if I’m the only person to whom it’s occurred that if Amazon takes to the skies delivering packages and the geeks somehow go ahead with their drams of flying cars that there will a lot of innocent people injured, even killed by what falls out of the sky as glitches occur/ Am I certainly don’t like all of us being lumped with criminals and terrorists. Is anyone thinking ahead? There must be a more intelligent way to gather the necessary information.

    • Rich Persoff
      September 4, 2014

      Mary, you are looking at this rationally. (no sarcasm intended)
      “There must be a more intelligent way to gather the necessary information.”
      1. The information is being gathered not to control Muslim extremists, but only to enable the corporate state and its geeks to know as much as possible what any and all of us are doing.
      2. Like it or not, the present power structure defines anybody who opposes it or wants it changed as “criminals and terrorists”. Remember the tapes of Mr. Nixon and his advisers. The rhetoric on the talk shows shows how far once-normal people will go in demonizing those who disagree with them.
      3. In spite of their professed concern about Constitutional government, very few Republicans value individual freedom, independence, and liberty (except economically), and few Democrats oppose the expansion of the state and its powers so that everybody functionally has the same rights.
      4. If you haven’t, read Orwell’s ‘1984’.
      “And a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

  7. erbPIX™
    September 1, 2014

    Law enforcement in the USA isn’t a service, it’s a business, not The Andy Griffith Show. That said, America is a combat zone. “We, the people” rightfully expect law enforcement to protect us from a very virulent criminal element at large among us. In addition to blowing up ‘bad guys’ overseas without having to put ‘boots on the ground,’ the extent to which drones enable the law enforcement mission is hard to argue with by comparing what might happen with what already is. What concerns me somewhat is the probability that lack of fuel or some other technical malfunction will bring one down on someone’s head without warning.

  8. Christian Hartleben
    September 1, 2014

    The American Police State is already worse than this author is aware. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/08/forget-drones-how-about-tethered-blimps-to-spy-on-cities-below/

  9. John Howison
    September 1, 2014

    Advances is weaponry have always been accompanied by advances in defense,. Apparently the Obamas sleep soundly in the White House.

  10. ccrider27
    September 1, 2014

    I remember when abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph used the ‘double-tap’ tactic numerous times. And we all remember that same tactic used by the Boston Marathon bombers.

    We all considered waiting for first responders to arrive and then murdering them as particularly gut-less and dastardly.

    And yet that is exactly what our government is doing in all of names overseas.

    Bombing weddings, funerals and grandmothers in their own gardens, then waiting for help to arrive for the wounded and murdering them is psychopathic and sub-human.

    There are so many lies that our government uses to make them seem different than they are. They are not ‘surgical.’ They are not ‘accurate’ in the sense that most of the time the remote pilots have no idea who they are killing. And contrary to government statements, many of the known targets could have been apprehended and brought to justice according to our Constitution.

    Drones provide too many temptations for a government that is intent on stealing natural resources from other countries and subjugating its own population.

    They should be banned until we can get some sort of civilized control over their use.

  11. Rich Persoff
    August 31, 2014

    Thank you, Mr. van Houtryve and The Geographic. Our government — we — have indeed killed many thousands of innocents.
    I can readily imagine a future with a Presidency as paranoid as Mr. Nixon’s & his advisers’, as controlling as Mr. Obama’s, as inept as Mr. Bush’s, and a country as panicked as after 9/11 — say, by reports that specially trained “suicide Ebola infectors” are crossing our borders.
    Now imagine that some citizens — e.g., remnants of the Democratic Party and the ACLU — are openly rallying to put that government out of office.
    Media commentators and careerist agency heads would find no difficulty in labeling any one who wanted to change the country’s leadership as anti-government conspirators — and therefore terrorists.
    Then it would be no trouble at all to call a ‘Yes-Sir’ colonel and have a drone strike target this group’s meeting.
    The handwriting is on the wall. Black helicopters or midnight knocks on the door aren’t necessary, and no amount of assault rifles or survival supplies will protect any of us.
    “There’s a hard rain a-gonna fall.”

  12. Lu
    August 31, 2014

    why are we not reading about drones bringing food supplies to starving people in Africa?

  13. Sue Ann Martinson
    August 31, 2014

    I have been working on drone issues for several years, following the progress of drones, drone warfare (collateral damage), Obama’s kill list, and drone warfare in general. This excellent piece brings it home in a way that even the photos of people killed in foreign lands cannot. Done surveillance is spooky. Drone warfare is frightening. A well-kept secret is that some of the operators commit suicide when they realize what they have done in killing civilians. Others just resign. In spike of govt. claims to the contrary, drones are not accurate. These photos raise the issues well. How can you tell what you are looking at? And that has resulted in many unnecessary deaths. I am not resigned to war as Jamsur is. There are alternatives. End the endless wars.

  14. Jamsur
    August 31, 2014

    I believe Mr. van Houtryve is having a lot of fun with his drone photography, and has chosen to address its more controversial side in order to get his pictures published. All those tombs at the cemetery he photographed attest to the fact that war is (ugly) war, be it fought with swords or atom bombs, double-winged WWI planes or modern drones.

  15. John Crank
    August 31, 2014

    Drones change the face of conflict forever. Presenting a smaller and more mobile target, they can replace reconnaisance patrols and deployed infantry. There is no longer a need to establish a front line since drones can drop back and go after leadership well behind in so called protected areas. As prices drop, quick and lethal drone grenades can be used to protect perimeters or to launch assaults against suspected targets. It is increasingly the assassination modus of choice. Drone aircraft, with canopy vision and blended human and semiautomated weapon threat response capabilities will be much more effective than human pilots alone. Drone technology is being developed extremely rapidly, Russia is in the forefront of some technologies though the US has dominance. It is increasingly weaponized as a visual, intelligenc tool or to carry explosives, but there is no reason it could not be used to carry cutting edges for stealth attacks. In democratic settings, it can latch onto a suspect through a bed of audio tracking devices and perhaps even follow him or her into her home, if probable cause is developed. As it becomes less expensive it will replace the need for monitoring by Parole and Probation officers. Soon, drones will be able to monitor the behaviors of individuals associated with particular computer addresses. When drone communications are directly tied to internet webs we are in deep doodoo. In sum, there is an enormous need to rapidly develop drone counter technologies, to protect us both from our enemies and from ourselves, and do design ways to protect from (or launch) hostile systems takeovers.
    It is not so much that cameras are being weaponized but that all communicative forms have weaponization capability; the digital camera is only one, though a very important one.

  16. Fil
    August 31, 2014

    As with all else ever conceived in human history, whatever can be used to control and possibly bring even more misery upon people instead of progress for all, will inevitably thus be applied. Gunpowder, nuclear energy, communication, and of course photography, are only the most prominent reminders of the fact that just about anything can be used for dark purposes.
    It makes me sad that such percentage of high-end, complex technology so often serves the most primitive of intentions. In that aspect, nothing really has changed in the human soul since the Dawn of Man. Must be a curse of sorts… 🙁

  17. Dipanjan Mitra
    August 31, 2014

    Pretty scary

  18. Sirajul Islam
    August 31, 2014

    We have transitioned into a world where law enforcement scythes peoples’ privacy and we have never had a public debate. Not only that, there’s the practice out there at different agencies that they’re going to have to use these types of tools more and more. There should be public demand that the works of the governments ensure that all law enforcement and intelligence efforts (through agencies or through private companies) are rule-bound, transparent, and subject to oversight.

  19. Ed Tomchin
    August 31, 2014

    I don’t understand all the hoopla over drones. We’ve had them with us for decades, except they used to be called remote controlled model airplanes, aka drones. The only new twist is the addition of cameras and other devices.

    As for orbiting satellites that can resolve images to less than a meter, what else did we expect. Now all that’s needed is good policy to protect privacy according to the Constitutiion.

  20. Corolyn Clay
    August 31, 2014

    As an artist and photographer, I am seeing too much potential for this technology to bypass the privacy of the individual in this country. And not just the surveillance. For one who is not technologically informed it scares me especially the capability of the drones to act without human guidance. Where will the world be when the machine takes over? Already I see the potential for world disaster because of our dependance on vulnerable power sources. Electricity powers our homes and businesses and computers are replacing paper. What happens when the power source goes down. Think about it while you ponder the possibilities of drones who can without the aid of human control do what we don’t want to happen.

  21. Jayshree
    August 31, 2014

    Helpful article.Thnx for sharing

  22. Bukola Oyaniyi
    August 25, 2014

    A good inichiative because I enjoy watch and viewing nature.

    August 20, 2014

    These photographs show that how vulnerable each one of us has become in the present age of ‘e’, where addition of this seemingly harmless alphabet as a prefix to anything simply changes everything. The world has grown smaller for good with all the electronic surveillance, and yet there is increasing atrocity everywhere! Remember MH-370? A big aircraft went missing and all the e-surveillance never provided an explanation! True, everything has two faces, the good and the ugly, but life becomes ugly when it becomes guided by technology and not the other way round. Maybe, the children who were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia between 2004 and 2013, were serving some ulterior greater good, but having said that, we cannot turn a shameless face to the fact! Even if it’s about one innocent man, it’s certainly a failure of all the good intentions those went behind the arrangement. If e-surveillance is really about enhancing the quality of life, it’s time to consider the limits.

  24. Anna-Rica
    August 20, 2014

    Like everything in life there is good and bad. It would be such a shame if the bad overtook the good. The beauty of photography one would hope would prevail overall, but with human intervention and the way the world is turning I have my doubts. Surveilance is necessary but so is Art!!!!

  25. MPH
    August 18, 2014

    Certainly autonomous drones that decide when to shoot at something is something to be concerned about. But from a legal standpoint, how is a drone different from a police helicopter? If the police can fly in a helicopter to take photos, why should they not use a drone for the same thing?

  26. Kakek Caca
    August 17, 2014


  27. erbPIX™
    August 16, 2014

    Aerial photography is over 150 years old, using it for recon blossomed during WWI, so in and of itself it is not new. What is new is how drones have transitioned rapidly from warfare to civilian applications. It reminds me of the double-edged sword called dynamite invented back in about the same time period. Regardless of how it is applied, this new chapter in civilian surveillance is here to stay.

  28. Name Withheld
    August 15, 2014

    Old news really, I can remember writing a report in college while studying commercial photography back in 1982 that wow’ed the state of optics in spy satellites with ‘bending’ lenses much like a squinting eye that were capable of, even then, resolving a licence plate from 100km in space…
    The biggest difference though, is now ‘local’ authorities have near unbridled access and potential for malfeasance to this sort of technology & equipment – in the past, this was solely the domain of NASA. Do people really believe for a second that were not living in a big brother state today?

Add Your Comments

All fields required.