It is no surprise that the evolution of warfare has developed to being fitted behind a screen. As you’re reading this now, you’re looking at one. The screen has become so well integrated into our day to day lives, its has allowed us to check train times on the move, message friends, check the football results. But the screen has also allowed companies to develop a new kind of warfare, one that just needs a click here and a click there, and hours of people watching screens, looking out for ‘terrorist’ activity. So it is no surprise, that photography has responded to this sudden advance in technology and how the world biggest powers conduct their suppression of other counties and communities.
This response comes in the form of Lisa Barnard’s gripping and powerful body of work and photobook printed by GOST, Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden. The work addresses drone warfare, the effect it has on both pilots of drones and those who are living in fear under the drones shadow. We are also allowed an overwhelming study into the business side of war, exploring the financial side of running and upkeep of drones. Since Obama became president, he has dropped more missiles than in Vietnam. With the ‘success rate’ of the drones questionable, conferences to the media by Obama’s administration have proven that the people killed under drone fire, cannot be proven to be either terrorists or innocent (subjects are targeted on how they act rather than concrete information), often resulting in the latter. Barnard’s work shines a torch into the dark shadows of invisible murder conducted by an even more shady military and secretive government. The work has a strong political agenda, how long can world powers keep murdering innocent people without us knowing? Barnard’s work is a full proof document, it acts as a force for good, casting light on the scale and magnitude of the controversy for using drones in territories which are currently not at war with other countries. Whilst many stones have been left unturned, due to undisclosed information by the American government, Barnard’s work is a step in the right direction both in attitude to drone warfare and how photography can be used in an efficient and engrossing way. Drawing attention to the causal mass murders committed every day by an invisible terror which waits patiently, like a hawk hovering over its prey.
Yet these mechanised birds of prey have left citizens from innocent communities terrified of the skies above. Drones don’t operate in cloudy conditions, with Obama’s administration successfully taking what should be a universal sign of happiness, blue skies, into a state or terror and fear of what is waiting out of sight. This sense of the invisible plays out within Barnard’s work, landscape shots of Las Vegas where 40 miles away, lays a building which houses the operation of drone flights. Within the landscape photographs, a green fog occupies the sky. Due to damage done to the film via an X-Ray machine passing through airport control, these happy accidents allow us to study and observe the blue skies in a different light. One which may not be comparable to those living in the east, but a way in which we can understand the invisible mark and threat which occupies the skies above.
The use of drones is becoming more and more part of our day-to-day existence in the west. Christmas sales for toy drones rocketed as it was the must have present for kids. Which, when we address the other language Barnard has put forward to us, is a troubling thing. More and more drones are being integrated into our day to day society, white washing how we are meant to feel about them. To extend how arrogant the western powers are with these weapons, last year President Obama made causal jokes about the use of “predator drones” in relation to the Jonas Brothers flirting with his daughters. This is just another reason why you need to spend time with the work of Barnard, what it does most effectively is draw our attention to information we are not even aware of despite it being within the public domain.
This type of photographic project doesn’t just happen; Barnard has spent years researching information. Keeping her ears to the ground on news stories regarding drones, and speaking to those actively affected by these weapons. One pull out page within the book helps add to the scale and money involved with drone technology is a blue print to a drone fair. With exclusive access and being the only photography present at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International annual event, Barnard presents images taken on a drone camera, showing herself interact with business men and buyers alike. This role reversal of who is being watched is a humorous yet serious one; these are dangerous men with plenty of money at their disposal.
In late 2014 I was lucky enough to listen to Lisa Barnard talk as part of the Brighton Photo Fringe, I was hooked on the feeling that I should already know about the information and horrific situations people had been subjected too. What was made apparent from listening to Barnard was her frustration with photography as a medium, and this frustration has been played out to great effect within her work. A clear and intelligent conversation has undergone here, between artist and the image. We are shown a fine balance between photomontages, still life, landscape, portraiture, computer simulator graphics, video screen shots and text. All of these variant of photography come together perfectly, with such a difficult subject matter to articulate in a way Barnard has, it would be almost impossible to put forth the ideas and information within Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden without the seamless merging of each aesthetic.
Unlike the system in question, which makes money from war and death, Barnard has removed herself from photography’s habit of exploiting the wounded within an image. The shocks for shock sake images are missing, which is so refreshing to see. In stead a higher road is taken, we hear about a young boy featured within a video recording who lost his life 3 days after the footage was taken, the need to see the effects of what drones missiles do to the human body is never delivered, neither should we wish to see such images. Like the drones above, the evidence of slaughter is invisible but ever present within Barnard’s work. Instead we are given examples of scrap pieces of ‘Hellfire Missiles” which the drones have left behind after a strike. Whilst looking at these sculptural and beautiful photographs, it’s easy for the mind to wonder what these weapons can do to the human body. Collected by local families for Barnard to photograph, we cannot but question how many of these pieces of scrap missile occupy the landscape, a constant reminder of the loss and on going danger above.
What Barnard’s book does so well, is give across the scale of the situation from using drones. The rehabilitation of soldiers is presented through shots of a programme designed by the military, to get them back to normal life. The scenes seen within this computer simulator have been taken from reality, and moulded into this strange virtual world, a world that attempts to bring mentally wounded people back to the reality. Yet the realties of the situation, as you will find within Barnard’s work is a complicated one. Offering up more questions than it does answers. By the time you have read the insightful and haunting information within Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden and lapped up the intricate photographs fuelled with meaning and guts, you will undoubtedly want to know more. Which is one of the biggest compliments I feel you can pay to a body of work that aims to shed light on a hazy and secretive part of our modern world.
Hyenas of the Battlefield, Machines in the Garden can be purchased here.
Harry Rose is a recent graduate from University of South Wales, where he studied Photographic Art. With a focus on writing about photography more than taking his own photographs, Harry writes for Darwin Magazine which he co-founded and where this review was first featured.