Interview with Tomas Van Houtryve

Internationally recognized as one of the leading photographers of his generation, Tomas Van Houtryve documents critical contemporary issues around the world.

Solo exhibitions of Tomas’s work have been shown in Paris, New York City, Spain, and Italy. His pictures and writing appear regularly in publications worldwide, including Harper’s, TIME, The New York Times, Newsweek, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, The Independent Magazine, GEO, Stern, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and National Geographic. His recent work on drones as weapons and as tools of surveillance appeared in the April issue of Harper’s magazine, in a photo essay titled “Blue Sky Days.”

Artist Tomas Van Houtryve will present his renowned “Blue Sky Days” project, including the “In Drones We Trust” video piece, at the Media Center during our Surveillance.01-USA event on April 4th at 7:00 PM

In this piece, Tomas Van Houtryve attached his camera to a small drone and travelled 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 to less lethal effect, such as prisons, oil fields, industrial feedlots, and stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border. The images captured from the drone’s perspective engage with the changing nature of war, privacy, and government transparency.


I am curious, on both an emotional and compositional level, do you have a favorite / or most personally affecting, image you’ve taken?

The image that I keep coming back to is of a wedding. The bride and groom and other guests of honor seem oblivious to the sky, but the flower girl has noticed the sound of the drone and it looking straight back at it with a shocked expression.

How do you choose your locations?  

I poured over the records of hundreds of foreign drone strikes and looked for details that could create a sense of empathy in the average person. I made a list of the most powerful situations, and then went out looking for similar situations in the United States. I also obtained a map which shows where drones operated by government agencies—such as the FBI, DEA, Customs and Border Protection—are flown in domestic airspace. I decided to use my own drone to see what the government could see of us from above.

Have you ever regretted a flyover? (ever ruined a wedding shot, for instance?) 

In the most sensitive places, like a cemetery, I would ask permission before flying. Safety was all kept in mind for each flight. Thankfully everything went according to my planning, so I had no regretful flyovers.

Have you been tempted to take / present video work? 

My setup allowed me to capture video and still photos simultaneously on each flight. I’m presenting both media.

I understand it’s not easy to fly a drone, much less focus on taking photographs in the process, have you ever crashed? 

I spent months flying cheap and unstable drones before I allowed myself to pilot an expensive model with a camera. I never had a catastrophic crash, but I have had a couple rough landings due to high wind.

You’ve shot images over Native American reservations. Can you discuss this choice? (i.e. is it more aesthetically, or politically motivated?)  

Often when we are informed of foreign drone strikes, operations are said to take place in “tribal areas.” The association drones and tribal lands appears so often in the news, that it has started to trouble me. I wanted to highlight this with my images. 

How is your work evolving? Where will you shoot next?  

Authorities are in the process of debating and drafting new regulations for drones. Rather than shooting more, I’m trying to use my existing material to contribute to the timely debate.

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