Two years ago, in February 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which called on the Federal Aviation Administration to “provide for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace” by 2015. The United States had for years been deploying drones (usually referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) to collect intelligence and carry out strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and their use in domestic government surveillance was becoming increasingly common. Congress now wanted a set of regulations that would allow for commercial drone development. As Michael Huerta, the FAA’s acting administrator, put it in a speech to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in August 2012, “We are going to allow new ideas to soar to their potential.”
Tomas van Houtryve bought his drone, a small quadcopter, on Amazon.com, modifying it to accommodate a still camera and a system for transmitting video back to the ground, a greatly simplified version of the satellite uplink that connects Predator and Reaper UAVs overseas to their pilots in the American Southwest. Van Houtryve flew his drone over the very sorts of gatherings that have become habitual targets for foreign air strikes — weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising. He also used it to photograph settings in which UAVs are used to less lethal effect, such as prisons, oil fields, industrial feedlots, and stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border. As unmanned aircraft become ever more pervasive, van Houtryve’s images engage with the changing nature of war, of privacy, and of government transparency.
Nine months after Congress delivered its mandate to the FAA, a strike in northeast Pakistan — one of more than 300 ordered in the country since Obama took office — killed a sixty-seven-year-old woman picking okra outside her house. At a briefing held last year on Capitol Hill, the woman’s thirteen-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.”