|Award of Excellence
Tomas van Houtryve
"Blue Sky Days - Surveillance and Targeting in the Drone Age"
In October 2012, a drone strike in northeast Pakistan killed a 67-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held in 2013 in Washington, DC, the woman’s 13-year-old grandson, Zubair Rehman, spoke to a group of five 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 complied by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert U.S. drone strikes since 2004.
In response, I decided to attach my camera to a small drone and travel across America to photograph the very sorts of gatherings mentioned in strike reports from Pakistan and Yemen, including weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising. I also flew my camera over settings in which drones are used to less lethal effect, such as prisons, oil fields, and the U.S.-Mexico border. The images captured from the drone’s perspective engage with the changing nature of surveillance, personal privacy, and war.
People exercising in central Philadelphia. As an unnamed senior U.S. government official said to the New York Times in May 2012, “three guys doing jumping jacks” might for the CIA constitute sufficient evidence of a terrorist training camp—an allusion to policies whereby unidentified persons overseas who exhibit so-called signature behaviors are targeted in “signature strikes.”