Looking Down

The pandemic has divided society into those who have become targets and those who can safely watch. Enter drone photography’s socially distanced view

The picture plane is filled with cars, columns of cars. Patterns swim into focus — a zigzag of red cars slashed across the right side of the frame, a clump of black minivans in a squat quadrant at back left. Oh wait — yes, that’s a person, a yellow-clad arm leaning out from a drivers’ side window, gesturing in greeting or frustration. The geometric columns of color gain a human valence, and you (me, the viewer, the eye) realize what we’re looking at: hundreds of cars parked in line, waiting for a food bank to open so their drivers can hopefully receive a parcel of groceries. Looking down from 100 feet, it takes a minute for shapes to become story.

A drive-thru food pantry in Grand Rapids, Michigan on April 1. (Neil Blake/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Aerial photography, most commonly shot by drone-mounted cameras, has become one of the major visual modes of the pandemic. “Two iconic photos taken today” says Scott Gilmore on Twitter, sharing the shot of cars lined up at the food bank along with an unsettling aerial image of white-clad prisoners unloading simple pine coffins from a forklift into a huge grave ditch in Hart Island Park, New York. In an era of invisible contagion, drone photography is an on-the-nose perfect method for responsible image-making: socially distanced photography. The photographer remains at a remove, safe from the contamination of the street or the gravesite. But distanced photography also produces a viewpoint, a set of aesthetics, and a mode for looking at (and thinking about) our shared cities and landscapes.

This is a time when most people are staying in their houses — that is, people who can afford it and who have the resources to do so. Others are forced to stay out, working in vital support roles or exploited delivery roles, or left homeless and unable to retreat from the outside world and its terrifying virality. Those of us inside are relying more than ever on photographs and shared media to help us interpret the meaning of the outside, of the pandemic and its social impacts. Drone photography gives us a god’s eye view of this world made strange. It’s a powerful vantage point: it’s also an uneasy one, steeped in histories of surveillance and built in a way that favors certain kinds of use. This aerial perspective offers a sense that we can perhaps understand the “whole picture,” finding pattern and order while removing ourselves from the individuals on the ground, obscuring or erasing their suffering and personhood. The drone allows — compels — the comfort of distance, and its militarizing gaze functions to turn those below into abstractions or targets.

Close-up photography has a frisson of danger. War photographers are celebrated for their bravery and derring-do, embedding with troops and civilian forces to document the visual landscape of combat zones. Today, street-level news photographers are lauded for their willingness to get up close and photograph scenes of stricken hospitals and emptied supermarket shelves. The already-iconic photograph of angry anti-quarantine protesters pressed up against the doors of the Ohio statehouse conveys a double sense of threat, with the photographer (and thus the viewer) only a few feet and a pane of glass away from both the incendiary anger of the crowd and the invisible threat of the virus. Zoom lenses allow photographers to shoot from a safer remove, with the effect, purposeful or not, of compressing distance, smashing far-off objects into closer ones, making safely distanced pedestrians look like they’re crowded together, or far-flung sunbathers look like they’re breathing down each others’ necks. Compared with ground level photography, both proximate and zoom, drone images offer a sense of safe distancing and broad perspective at a time when it feels confusing and dangerous to be out on the street, up close and personal with people and objects.

Aerial photography has become one of the major visual modes of the pandemic. Those inside are relying more on shared media to help interpret the outside

Drone photography does more than create safe distance. It also offers a kind of visual mastery, giving us a top-down view that lets viewers imagine they can grasp and make sense of complex systems. This is extremely appealing during a moment when uncertainty and confusion are widespread, and where an invisible contagion wreaks havoc through communities and institutions. In contrast, the drone photographs that have circulated widely in the past two months tell a story of order and insight. A depot full of unused school busses in Freeport, New York, when shot from above, appears as an orderly pattern of yellow and white lozenges. An aerial shot of one of Los Angeles’ massive freeway interchanges shows a built landscape almost entirely depopulated, highlighting the sculptural quality of the intersecting roads in the absence of the usual gridlock. Video after video offers up the eerie sight of once-vibrant cities seemingly stripped of inhabitants, as a drone floats along through the empty streets and tourist traps, often accompanied by a maudlin or sinister music track. From a distance, patterns emerge: grid, line, repetition.

The pattern-forming and sense-making attributes of the drone photograph serve a similar function to the omnipresent stock imagery used by telcos and tech companies. Aerial images of cities are superimposed with swooping glowing lines representing “wi-fi” and “connectivity.” Incandescent networks of nodes and connections fluoresce against dark backgrounds, visual touchpoints for impossible-to-visualize concepts like “cloud computing” and “AI.” These images, like drone photographs, lean heavy on the idea that “we’re all connected,” exposing patterns and imposing visual order on systems that are complex and even invisible. The top-down drone view and the network illustration put the viewer in the privileged position of being able to “understand” that which is almost incomprehensible.

The ordering, aerial view has a long history. In his essay “The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War,” artist and writer Allan Sekula describes how the development of aerial photography brought together two historically important technologies during World War I. “With airplane photography… two globalizing mediums, one of transportation and the other of communication, were united,” he writes, adding: “I use ‘globalizing’ not in the affirmative, communal sense of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, but in the sense of hegemony. While the airplane lent itself to material penetration and control, the camera served mainly in a cultural and ideological campaign.” The ideological function of the aerial image is to offer a sense of agency, omniscience, and power to the viewer. This year, as a virus disrupts so many of our ideas about how the world is made and how power is constructed and enforced, the perspectival authority of the aerial view provides reassurance and a sense of control.

The other thing about contemporary aerial photography is that it looks so good. Seeing a city from above, streets laid out in an orderly grid and hundred-year-old trees reduced to small green puffs, is supremely satisfying. Even when the ostensible subject of the photograph is the uncanny horror of the city emptied of people, or the food-insecurity of thousands of people made manifest, the aesthetics of the aerial imbue the image with visual pleasure. Infrastructure nerds the world over know the joy inherent in seeing massive networks of pipes, or shipping containers, or warehouses laid out within a single view. Critic and theorist Alberto Toscano describes how the qualities we attach to logistical systems — modularity, abstraction, standardization — “fascinate the artistic gaze, drawing into a risky mimesis or replication of the very design and function of the abstract spaces of logistics.” He cites, as an example of this “risky mimesis,” the photography of Edward Burtynsky, whose epic aerial vistas (shot from helicopters and more recently from drones) of shipbreaking in Bangladesh and sawmills in Lagos purposely conjure a kind of toxic sublime even as they purport to document the destruction and chaos of what Burtynsky and others would call “the anthropocene.” “The technical revolution has turned us into a virus consuming all living organisms, diminishing biodiversity,” Burtynsky said in a 2018 interview. His photography makes sublime order from global systems of logistics and cruelty, turning the “virus” of extractive capitalism into a richly textured 60 x 80-inch image. The sense-making, shape-making eye of the aerial camera offers us distanced mastery of a complex and chaotic outside world.

The history of drone photography is the history of surveillance, specifically surveillance coupled with militaristic force. “Their history is that of an eye turned into a weapon,” writes Gregoire Chamayou in A Theory of the Drone. Chamayou discusses the weaponization of sight specifically in the context of military drones, which have been the dominant technology of U.S. aggression in the disastrous and ongoing “War on Terror.” The drone, as a weapon of modern warfare and producer of a certain kind of perspectival aggression, was foregrounded in public consciousness during the Obama years, during which time a spate of news stories and document leaks revealed the massive “collateral damage” from drone killings, and the dissociation required of drone operators in order to do their jobs from thousands of miles away. “Ever step on ants and never give it another thought? That’s what you are made to think of the targets — as just black blobs on a screen,” said one young drone pilot to the Guardian.

The aerial gaze is not a position we can inhabit permanently without risking identification with the surveillor

The weaponized aerial eye precedes the military drone. As long as planes and helicopters have been used in warfare, the perspective of the bomber or gunner has been that of the god-like surveilling eye that picks out targets and aims to kill. Travis Wilkerson’s 2001 film National Archive V.1 gives form to the aesthetic sensibility of the aerial military eye, stitching together archival military footage depicting a series of aerial attacks on target sites during the Vietnam war. Contemplative but chilling, the film (along with Bruce Connor’s 1976 Crossroads, which consists of slow-motion replays of the explosions from the underwater nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, shot from cameras mounted on unmanned planes and distant aircraft) emphasizes the militarized, abstracting perspective produced by aerial photography in wartime.

Throughout the development of drone photography and aerial surveillance, the perspective of the surveilled is scarcely considered. The surveilled — the person on the ground, the “target” — is transformed into an abstracted other. Muslim, terrorist, protester, criminal: the weaponized eye turns those in view into inscrutable enemies, whose movements can be analyzed but whose psychology remains opaque. Even as drone photography and aerial surveillance have pushed far beyond purely military uses, the weaponization of drone sight remains. While today’s police and consumer quadcopters are generally unarmed, these tools of surveillance and image-making continue to turn people into targets, and normal human activity into datasets and patterns. With its robotic, jolting movement and top-down view, the drone embodies the implicit hierarchy of vision where to be powerful is to be above looking down, and to be on the ground looking up is to be disempowered, attacked, suspicious.

The surveilled subject of today’s pandemic drone photography is also an abstracted other. The homeless, the laborer, the server, the hungry, the suspect: these are the people on the streets, or in their cars, refusing or unable to “shelter in place” and thus captured by the hovering eye of the camera drone. The prisoners digging mass graves have no option to avoid the drone’s eye — their presence in the landscape is enforced by the carceral system that keeps them locked up, laboring, and vulnerable to both constant surveillance and Covid-19. For decades now, aerial surveillance in public spaces (by CCTV cameras, and now by drones) has been a major tool in the criminalizing of poor people and people of color. To be on the ground looking up is to be under attack.

Of course, there are arguments to be made that aerial photography can be repurposed or detourned for subversive uses by those usually subject to its gaze. Citizen science group Public Lab deploys aerial photography (often via camera-mounted balloons) to monitor and photograph the environmental impacts of oil spills or to track police behavior during protests. Filmmaker/architect Liam Young and writer Tim Maughan’s 2016 drone-shot short film In the Robot Skies tells a near-future speculative story in which teenagers under state-enforced lockdown use hacked consumer drones to deliver notes and build a relationship as they evade the state’s own omnipresent surveillance drones.  The aerial images from Public Lab and drones of In the Robot Skies are compelling. However, even in these cases, insurgent drones and activist aerial photography remain under constant threat from official government powers of surveillance.

The drone shot gives us a chance to leap above the fray, rising up and away from the sticky streets and aerosolized droplets till we see pattern and make order

In a pandemic, we’re told that looking from a distance is the safest thing to do. What’s innately wrong with looking down from above? But scrolling through these images, I realize I’ve been identifying with the drone. As a viewer, I imagine my eyes are the drone’s eyes, my perspective aligned with that of the camera which is that of the photographer, distanced as they may be. This is how I’ve been trained to look, as a contemporary consumer of images. I know how to look down, at a graphic rendering of a glowing globe crisscrossed with simulated internet connections, at a cluster of pixellated shapes that are humans viewed from a military drone. I know how to make sense of a top-down view, and I crave the sense of control it offers.

Drone photography makes it easy for those of us inside to feel even more distanced from those kept outside. The technology here is not neutral. The drone and the surveillance camera, developed as they were as tools of military power and civic force, materialize certain interests and disavow others. By identifying with the drone as a proxy for our own limited vision, we play a part in a classed and racialized history that puts us at odds with those on the street, those doing the dirty work, people for whom the god’s eye view is not available. Allan Sekula, in “Photography Between Labour and Capital,” writes that “the category of the awed spectator does not apply to those who live with the violence of machines and recalcitrant matter.” For those of us who consume drone photography as news and as entertainment, the aerial image pushes us to aestheticize landscapes and dissociate from the street level.

“This is the time. And this is the record of the time.” Laurie Anderson’s “From the Air” states what we know to be true: we’re living in a big moment — an exceptional moment — at the same time as we’re creating the record of the moment. These manifold recordings (the experience of making and viewing them) become part of the moment, shaping the way we perceive and react to it. What recordings are we making now that will change the way we see, and act, now and in the future? What story does the drone photograph create? Centrally, it tells the story that “We are all connected.” This connectedness is not a material connection or embodied imbrication. It’s the abstracted globalized connection of the wireless network or the Koyaanisqatsi timelapse — connection from a distance, in fast motion, abstracted, as a graphic display. This sense of cosmic meaning-making is appealing, letting us imagine that the more we look from above, the more we might understand about the shape of the world and its global functioning. Of course, this is not the whole picture.

The coronavirus is a global, networked, hyperobject of a situation. While the infection is harshly physical — wracked lungs struggle to breathe and bodies lie rotting in trucks — the virus confounds our understanding. While we decipher the pandemic’s impacts in graphs and heat maps and models showing the dispersion of microdroplets from one part of a grid to another, the virus rips through the world our bodies live in, spreading through spattered phlegm and grubby fingers. This whiplash duality, exponential curves and global networks but also dirt and snot and poverty, is confounding. My own lived experience these past eight weeks — meager and constrained neighborhood walks, but also an endless glut of global news streaming in through my screens — reflects this psychic whiplash. It’s hard to make sense of things. The drone shot gives us a chance to leap above the fray, rising up and away from the sticky streets and aerosolized droplets till we see pattern and make order. To see beauty and aesthetic grandeur in a line of hungry people trying to access food.

From up high looking down, it starts to make sense that some of us will be spared the worst of the pandemic, while others die, perhaps while fetching our groceries. From up here, it’s clear that the mile-long queue of cars won’t all make it to the food bank before the doors close. So, while our global connectedness has never been more clear, neither have the rifts that divide us along class and race and geographic lines. The aerial view allow us to fixate on the abstract sense of connectivity while ignoring the material differences in risk and circumstance. By privileging the totalizing eye in the sky over the horizontal gaze of one street-level person to another, the drone view allows the more devastating, acute effects of the virus to be made palatable and even “interesting.”

Compelling and comforting as it is, the aerial gaze is not a position we can inhabit permanently without risking identification with the surveillor, the military, the state. As far up and out as our perspective can be thrown, the drone view is insufficient for understanding each other or our shared predicament. In some hopeful future, perhaps the drone could be reconfigured as the collective viewpoint of the commons, working for our mutual benefit. In the meantime, our eyes are down here, looking at each other, looking at the dirt, looking for solidarity even as we keep our distance.

Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and curator based in San Francisco. She works with ANTISTATIC on technology and environmental justice, and she writes about natures, visual culture, and laboring bodies.