“Underpinning my work is a belief that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy.”

Tomas van Houtryve won a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography in 2013 for his proposal ‘In Drones We Trust,’ a study of the United States drone program. In the past year he completed the project at various sites around the US. Here, he reflects on the work and its larger philosophical meaning.

Blue Sky Days drone project by Tomas van Houtryve

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.”

Zubair Rehman’s grandmother is one of several thousand people killed by covert U.S. drone strikes since 2004. Although we live in the most media-connected age in human history, the public has scant visual record of the drone war and its casualties.

Blue Sky Days drone project by Tomas van Houtryve

Tomas van Houtryve:

“I decided to attach my camera to a small drone and travel 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. I read through hundreds of strike reports compiled by human rights groups and investigative journalists in order to make my own list of “targets” to observe from the sky.

Blue Sky Days drone project by Tomas van Houtryve

Midway through my research, the Electronic Frontier Foundation won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit forcing the FAA to release it’s records of domestic drone flight authorizations. A map displayed drone flight zones spread all across America. Some records revealed specific drone activity, such as “to support critical law enforcement operations.” Other records were marked “unknown.” I expanded my own list of flights guided by these FAA records, sending my camera to buzz over prisons, oil fields, and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Blue Sky Days drone project by Tomas van Houtryve

Underpinning my work is a belief that human activity becomes increasingly absurd and dangerous when it loses empathy. I agree with Albert Camus when he said, “By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.””

Blue Sky Days drone project by Tomas van Houtryve

The project has been realized with the support of the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography and Harper’s Magazine.

Find out more on the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography website 


About Tomas van Houtryve

Initially a student in philosophy, Tomas van Houtryve discovered his interest for photography while enrolled in an overseas program in Nepal. Upon graduation in 1999 he was hired by the Associated Press and posted to Latin America. Tomas left AP in 2003 to concentrate on large-scale projects, starting with the Maoist rebellion in Nepal. The resulting photos of the rebels’ rise to power earned wide recognition including the Visa pour l’Image-Perpignan Young Photographer Award and the Bayeux Prize for War Correspondents.

In 2006 Tomas was named one of PDN’s 30 Emerging Photographers. He was awarded an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 2008, and in 2010 he was named the POYi Photographer of the Year. Tomas’ first monograph book Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism was published in spring 2012. The seven-year-long project documents life in the last countries where the Communist Party remains in power: North Korea, Cuba, China, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos and Moldova. The series won the 2012 POYi World Understanding Award.

Solo exhibitions of Tomas’ work have been shown in Paris, New York, Spain and Italy. Many of his photographs of intense political actions are, paradoxically, distinguished by their intimacy. Tomas’ pictures and writing appear regularly in publications worldwide, including TIME, The New York Times, Newsweek, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, The Independent Magazine, GEO, Stern, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and National Geographic. Tomas is a member of the VII Photo Agency.