Screenshot from “The Drone Queen”, episode 1, season 4 of the TV-series Homeland, created by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, Courtesy of Showtime/Fox 21, 2015
The U.S. government’s drone warfare is notably lacking in images. As during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, photographs from official sources primarily show the flying objects themselves – then it was fighter jets, now it is drones. Anyone wishing to see more than the sharp outlines of a flying machine set against the blue sky must turn to fictional attempts to illustrate the war.
In “The Drone Queen”, the first episode in season four of the U.S. television series Homeland, one day after the bombing of a wedding party, the battlefield is inspected by a drone. We see one of the surviving Pakistanis on the ground, in the midst of the bodies of his relatives. Defenceless and unable to ward off the distant gazes of his invisible observers, he looks into the eye of the seeing machine above him. Behind this device, somewhere at a protected location removed from the site of the attack, the drone pilot and the commanding officer, who had given the order for the strike the day before, stare back. Of course these images are far from documentary. However, thanks to their thought-provoking and fictional added value and their striking visual metaphor, they enable alternate insights and questions: on the regimes of images and the gaze, power, ethnic differences, and of course on the remote-controlled “war on terror”.
At issue is also the status of screenshots. These snapshots, taken out of context, often say more or something different than the films themselves. But are these still photographs? And is the screenshot function of a device also a kind of seeing machine? Who is the author of a screenshot and who has the rights to these digital images?