Melissa Smyth

Coming of age after postmodernism often seems like living a parody of our forebears’ concerns; it feels like we are testing the Society of the Spectacle reductio ad ridiculum.

Recently, the Guardian posted a photo set by photographer Amos Chapple, featuring 13 aerial photographs of various European locations taken from a drone. The photographs themselves show us nothing we haven’t already seen in National Geographic; the novelty lies in the means by which they were made. Shelving the conversation around this displacement of artistic production and whether it still warrants Chapple the title "photographer," we should not take this appropriation of drone technology lightly, despite the seemingly innocuous subject matter of the images.

It is precisely the banality of the content of these photographs that makes them so problematic. They may inspire a muted wonder, reminding us that beautiful Europe is full of the monuments that mark our Western "civilized" heritage, and that only 100 years after the first commercial air flight, this "civilization" has developed the sophisticated technology to "man" flying objects from the ground. And in this uninspired moment of looking, the word "drone" dulls and domesticates itself in our minds.

Nicholas Mirzoeff argues in Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture that the US military machine has made the image into a weapon in the media war at home—not one that violently coerces, but one that lulls and diverts. While the US wages incredible destruction upon faraway populations, Mirzoeff says, the military vocabulary infused into our everyday visual culture serves to damper the violent nature of military technologies and to keep us occupied with spectacular images that insist, “there’s nothing to see here.” As the US begins a new round of operations in the Middle East, it has completed the transaction; the weapon is now a camera.

The integration of military technology into our cultural fields of distraction is a continuous process, exemplified in the domestic market for Hummers and flyovers at professional sports games. Many sports teams have begun using drones to make analytic films and promotional videos, enhancing the eerie sense of simulated battlegrounds. Hollywood, another site of American quasi-warfare, has also obtained permission to fly drones on set.

Our seemingly insatiable appetite for new ways to see, watch, and surveil has pushed drone technology into more and more applications, from nature exploration to festival coverage. Drones are being brought home in more ways than one: while DHL has begun making drone deliveries, individuals can also purchase a personal Phantom 2 drone, the “Future of Possible,” for under $1,000. Some are using drone photography at their weddings, flaunting an unabashed irony in the wake of the strike that killed 12 Yemeni civilians at a wedding celebration last December.

In conjunction with the US policy of secrecy and silence about its drone program, the domestication of drone technology serves to divert attention from the deaths and social and infrastructural devastation that this weapon has wreaked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Our increased comfort with the concept of a drone as a benign and even fun technology shrouds the purpose of its invention (to kill) and distracts us from the extraordinary terror it has achieved.

When we look at photographs taken by a drone flying above Europe, we are privileged with the rare view of the world as seen from an unmanned military aircraft. How many viewers wonder what the usual visual experience of a drone feels like when seen from below? Perhaps this elevated view is appropriate for us. For as we look, we assume the position of invisible passengers on the drone. We don’t control their trajectories, but we enjoy the view.

The only image from Israel’s most recent round of attacks on Gaza that made me cry was the video, shot from above, of a drone blowing up a car that allegedly carried Ahmed Jibril. Though the video shows no intimate carnage, it reminds me what it really looks like to be on the dispatching side of drone warfare. This is the real import of drone technology, and I will not watch an instant replay or admire the innovation of wedding photography without remembering the swift precision of a 12-second assassination.

Instead of marveling at how drones are changing the world of photography, let’s first process how drones are changing the world.

Melissa Smyth is an Associate Editor for Warscapes magazine. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, concentrating in visual culture and photographic representation. She holds degrees in Middle East Studies and Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her photography work can be seen here:

Image via Der Spiegel.