~ Posted by Simon Willis, November 13th 2012
An artist and blogger called James Bridle has recently started a new feed on Instagram and Twitter called Dronestagram. So far, its six tweets have attracted more than 1,200 followers. Bridle is collecting satellite photographs from Google maps of places like Buland Khil in Pakistan and Maarib in Yemen, which have allegedly been the targets of drone strikes. The images show small settlements—villages, the outskirts of towns. We can make out buildings, roads and dirt tracks. In some you can even see cars and lorries. Under each picture is a caption, giving a location and a short account of what is supposed to have happened there. Under the picture of Maarib, we are told that there was an "evening strike on a car" which "killed 'at least four' alleged al Qaeda members". Bridle has said that he gathers his information from reputable news agencies like Reuters and Associated Press. He claims to check his sources' sources too.
The aim, he says, is to make these places, which are normally clouded in secrecy, visible. He chose Instagram and Twitter because it puts the site of a drone attack "in the same place people go to look for images of their friends’ daily realities". But as well as the information they provide and because of the context they are given, they work on us as photographs too.
When I started looking at Dronestagram, I thought at first of another set of aerial photographs, taken in 1991 by the artist Sophie Ristelhueber. After the first Gulf war, she flew by helicopter over the desert in Kuwait, capturing the war-damaged landscape beneath her. She collected many of them in her book "Fait" (Fact), leaving the images in the book without captions, so they were anonymous places bearing mysterious marks. In an essay about the photographs, Marc Mayer, a Canadian curator, writes that Ristelhueber's photographs of war are "coldly abstracted from the anecdote of its casualties".
That is also true of the Dronestagram images, but more because of their differences from Ristelhueber's pictures than their similarities. First, they were not shot, as Ristelhueber's were, by a human eye, but by indiscriminate cameras. Secondly, unlike in Ristelhueber's pictures, you don't see any marks of war on Dronestagram. We are told that attacks took place, but we can't see the evidence. The pictures on Dronestagram are informative partly because they remind us of what we don't know. We are looking at warzones, but we are viewers twice-removed.