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December 13, 2011

Drones, and Civilians, in the Light

Just as powerful as Iran trumpeting the image of a captured American drone this week is the fact that Noor Behram’s photo-documentation of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, the subject of a current exhibition in London, appears in Wired nearly in the same news cycle.

So much for invisibility — and disconnect.

In the second and third photos, we see a rare look at the consequences of a drone strike, the number and ratio of civilian casualties drastically underplayed by the U.S. military. In these shots, we see a resident of the tribal town, Dande Darpa Khel, holding wreckage of a drone from an attack in ‘09. The photo of the children offer them holding up pieces of rubble from a neighbor’s before they discover that their parents and a sister were killed in the attack.

In this post from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they document twenty-five lethal strikes between August 23 2010 and June 29 2011, a stretch in which Obama’s senior adviser on counter-terrorism asserted that no civilians had been killed. Although difficult to prove conclusively, the research on most of these attacks was further substantiated by Behram’s photo-research. (The White House failed to respond to the presentation of this data, by the way.)

story about the exhibition in the Independent cites The New American Foundation, which monitors drone strikes,  estimates that an average 15 – 20 civilians have been killed for every military target in the 118 drone strikes authorized by the Obama administration in Pakistan just in the year previous to this past July. (That’s in comparision to the 45 strikes that got a green light over the eight years  Bush was in office.)

One more point from the London exhibition. I believe art and documentary photographer’s have a key role to play in visualizing the lethality and collateral damage from drones. Complementing Behram’s imagery from the scene, notice the power of the wreckage portrait by photographer Ed Clark. In objectifying the missile fragments from these almost mythical aircraft in such a refined and almost anthropomorphic way, it starts to close the gap between the Iran photo, with its editorial glaze, and Behram’s heart-wrenching aftermath images, rendering the payload of these sleek and elegant birds into elements more discernable to the folks at home, as bullet-like pieces of shrapnel.

(photos: EPA, Noor Behram, Ed Clark)

  • psychohistorian

    This is good journalism.  

    It shows the ongoing killing in the name of American imperialism that has been hidden from the public for the past 60 years and is supported by all those of “faith” that refuse to demand that it stop.

  • Books Alive

    The April-May 2001 issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian article on Predators states that “its mission [is] not yet fully defined.” Although testing of 100-pound Hellfire anti-tank missiles had begun at bombing ranges, “The tests had been delayed to give Pentagon lawyers time to review the requirements of the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which prohibits the deployment of unmanned weapons platform with a range equal to the Predator’s.” Obviously, treaties were met and plans proceeded. And the gamble of losing a drone by sending it into “threats” was deemed acceptable.

    My soon-to-be three -ear-old grandson saw the cover picture and remarked on the pilot-less design; what we didn’t do was extrapolate on how they would be used when equipped with various weapons.

    • Books Alive


      (lost my signin and edit option)

  • Thomas Gokey

    I wonder how much longer the US can keep up these drone massacres (let’s be honest about what they are) without each one being documented and publicized widely. At the moment the availability of omnipresent cameras and the networks that connect the average Pakistani and the average American are still at a point where a lot of this just doesn’t break through to American consciousness. But that will change pretty quickly over the coming years. The US can “get away with it” in Pakistan or Iran, but they wouldn’t be able to if they tried the same thing in Egypt or in the US itself.

    The other thing that will change soon is that the US military currently enjoys a near monopoly on drone use. Soon many different kinds of drones will be available for many different uses by many different groups. Anonymous will fly drones that track US drones and report back on their activity. Activists will fly drones with night vision cameras do document midnight raids by the cops which lock the press out. The press will have it’s own drones, TMZ will hover over celebs on the beach on some tropical island. Greenpeace will have drones which monitor oil spills. Drones will start being equipped to shoot other drones out of the sky. We’ll see drone dogfights over cities and towns around the world. Terrorists will successfully use drones to carry out attacks they otherwise wouldn’t be able to (and perhaps maintain a certain amount of anonymity or untrackablity in the process). Psychologically sick high school kids will shoot up their schools with homemade drones and feel like their playing their favorite video game. No doubt the US military and police (what’s the difference anymore anyway) will maintain an overwhelming dominance of drone airpower for a long time to come, but they will no longer be alone, and the damage they do will become more and more obvious as time goes on.

  • Anonymous

    Do you have any more details on the London exhibition of Noor Behram’s photographs? I wonder how different the effect would be in a gallery setting as opposed to magazine journalism…

    The “‘B’ Week” conference seems to have been in Lahore in the fall. It would be interesting to see some of the outcome of that, too. Youtube has a few videos of the “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project” (, which seems to have been part of the exhibition, but the videos are from earlier in the year, and they look pretty much like what you’d expect from a surveillance camera on a remote-controlled airplane flying over rural Pakistan. Granted, there are similarities to what one might see if one were controlling a drone over the area, which makes it a little disturbing when watching the videos, particularly when the little plane comes in for a landing and the young pilots come into view.

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