The image operations of drone warfare oscillate between a disappearance of the human figure and its obstinate re-appearance. While drone crews fly their missions from bases in the US and hence put their bodies out of harm’s reach, people in the target regions are subject to the kind of warfare that targets individuals and reduces kill boxes to the size of the human body. However, if one takes operators’ testimonies and the number of civilian casualties into account, the drone’s optics regularly fail their task. What the drone is meant to detect are individual bodies; yet, what it actually transmits are abstract landscapes with human figures reduced to mere shadows. A number of artists have picked up on this dynamic between landscape and body that, according to art historical terminology, can be described as a tension between figure and ground. In order to trace that tension, the chapter will, for the first time, juxtapose works by Noor Behram and Seth Price.
In October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her home. At a US Congressional hearing held in Washington in October 2013, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of lawmakers. ‘I no longer love blue skies’, said Rehman, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack. ‘In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.’ According to strike reports compiled by investigative journalists, Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert US drone strikes since 2004. Although we live in the most media-connected age in history, the public has scant visual record of the drone war and its casualties. In response, artist Tomas van Houtryve decided to attach his camera to a small drone and travel across America to photograph the very sorts of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes – weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising. He also flew his camera over settings in which drones are used over America to less lethal effect, such as prisons, oil fields, and the US–Mexico border. By creating these images, van Houtryve aims to draw attention to the changing nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare.