Why Waziristan Looks Like San Diego
Essay by Tim Davis
“I Can’t Sleep,” Claire Denis’ 1994 film about an immigrant in Paris, opens inside a helicopter. Two pilots in typical bulky headphones are sitting in the throbbing cockpit, absolutely hysterical. They laugh and laugh, doubling over and glancing at each other for what feels like a shockingly long time, and then they are gone. We never see them again, but for the rest of the film—a gorgeous, fractured policier—we are looking over the characters’ shoulders, waiting for the thunder from above. It’s a powerful narrative gesture, an establishing shot for God that feels like utter paranoia.
These military drone images have the same strange, if inverse, relationship to power and terror. The images are utterly banal. All aerial photographs are the same. They are flat, and do something that cameras are reluctant to do: approach abstraction. Aerial images lack that core muscular system that makes photographs stand, the bizarre reanimation of three-dimensional space onto a 2D surface. Looking at even the best aerial photographs, I always feel my face pressed against a plexiglass airline window, anxious that the man in the next seat might be allergic to nuts. The drone images aren’t as sharp as classic satellite images, (you can’t read a billboard, much less a license plate), or the extraordinary large-format film renderings from World War II and Korea, so they feel extra aestheticized, as if the Photo-Secessionists were working for the Pentagon.
Of course, when what you are searching for is death instead of intelligence, you don’t need detail. Instead we peer down onto swaths and sections of the world, geigering the gravity of human settlement in the ways we cluster together; the ways we set ourselves apart. On Instagram, you can scroll through piles of these images, and like all experiences one has on the Internet, it’s essentially like watching TV. Click. Here’s a bit of Ma’rib, which some scholars think is the location of biblical Sheba. Click. Waziristan looks like San Diego. Click. We’re in the helicopter laughing, as the flat, abstract earth passes.
But then we read the captions closely, and the images come to feel like little paradises, perfect little settlements where we can confer with Isaiah: “All they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and frankincense.” The images are antediluvian; their banality a fake, a front. They’re postcards from Bikini Atoll, or the Lorraine Motel, playbills from Ford’s Theater (“Tom Taylor’s Celebrated Eccentric Comedy As originally produced in America by Miss Keene, and performed by her upwards of ONE THOUSAND NIGHTS, entitled OUR AMERICAN COUSIN.”) They make us look at all photographs differently. What horrors might every portrait subject have met? What happens to the people driving the little tiny cars in that Robert Adams landscape? How far can a photograph get from what is right in front of us?