Aerial Perception and the Social Construction of Targets
Design by Raegan Kelly
This snapshot is presented by the Operation Iraqi Freedom website as the bombsight record of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, alleged (former) leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq. As with many digital bombsight images, the most recognizable object in this image is formed by the perpendicular intersecting lines in its center. Once one apprehends that figure, everything 'beyond' it is understood as being (or having been) target.
According to www.mnf-iraq.com, the image above was recorded just after F-16 fighter jets dropped two 500-pound bombs on or near al-Zarqawi's concurrent location (a house). I spent some time looking at other images associated with this air strike. An oblique aerial shot of the aftermath helped me to perceive the repeating pattern in the bombsight image as comprised of the tops of palm trees, and the relatively dark bisecting diagonal line as a road. The soft edged, continuous tone area (read 'clouds') in the lower right quadrant is presumably the airborne post-detonation remains of hard (and soft) targets.
The focus of my statement, however, will be the two images included in the article describing the circumstances of al-Zarqawi's death. They are the bombsight snapshot I include above, and another aerial shot, a portrait shot of the corpse of al-Zarqawi. (I captured a screenshot. The contents are upsetting, more so because they are so representative.)
I was deep into early development of Dead Reckoning the first time I noticed such a juxtaposition in the New York Times online edition. An article on the U.S. bombing campaign in Baghdad presented an aerial bombsight image of a target zone alongside a portrait of a deceased male Iraqi photographed from an angle so oblique that the man's body filled the frame. Certainly the image of death, so breathtakingly close up, and so distressing, from my point of view, for myriad political and human reasons, was initially what riveted my attention. After forcing myself to look at it awhile, though, I wondered at the jump cut it represented. Baghdad recon, dead Iraqi. Or, we shoot, the enemy dies...Wait, no, we LOOK, the enemy dies. (The caption was specific as to the man's identity as 'enemy'”"one of Saddam's guards.)
I saw the same affirmation, or summation, of the promise of asymmetrical warfare and bio-technological dominance from the air many times during Israel's war on Lebanon last summer. This time, the bombsight photograph was generally but not always supplanted by its logical forebear, the map, or more specifically, the map with arrows on it, pinpointing targets of the daily bombing raids. (Further narrative compression: we PLAN, they die). The pairing I can't erase from my mind's eye is a simple map of Beirut with an arrow on it atop the same size portrait shot of a Lebanese child, again male, also dead. (The expression of ambivalence in relation to this war waged by that country is clear here”"though the New York Times borrowed from themselves the same tropes they use to assert our technological supremacy (i.e., military success) in times of war and/or occupation, they seemed less convicted about Israel's cause (or, afraid of seeming too convicted about it, I don't know), and frequently exhibited images of dead Lebanese civilians).
What is specifically relevant to the project of Dead Reckoning are some visual characteristics common to both types of extreme image making. Viewed in the aforementioned contexts”"war reporting to the citizen consumer”"both are employed as evidence meant to be conclusive. Both delimit their subjects mechanically, stripping each of context and specific content, using framing/proximity to reduce their subjects to abstraction. Without the superimposition of what is presumably 'real-time' targeting information (rendered official by the censor's hand), the bombsight image could be an image of berber carpet. The death's head image, as colorful and 'detailed' as the bombsight abstraction is not, acts as a register of the most superficial of characteristics: gender, approximate age, possibly 'race', state of decay. Blood is always in evidence in these photographs (fresh kill), and functions again as inscription. Both are images taken from above, one presumably from a plane in the sky looking down, one standing over the body. Following this, neither contains a horizon. Following that, neither can easily be located in space or placed in physical context. Thus decontextualized, these images are ripe for recontextualization. (Cropping is key here - relatively speaking, the camera is located so that significant areas of the 'subject' fall out of frame or view.) Both are taken after the facts they attest to.
Finally, there is a difference between the two images that has to do with agency. The bombsight image (and the map) reproduce what Caren calls a disembodied 'machinic vision'. The corpse poses are embodied images, meaning, the recording mechanism's physical relationship to the subject retains human dimension. We instinctively infer the body of the photographer crouching or stooping over the body of the other. The bombsight image, parallel to and thousands of feet above the earth's surface, must be captured with the aid of machines. And we know these machines can be controlled remotely. So, not to oversimplify (though over-simplification is the name of the game), the heroic narrative opens with our machines making perfect war on imperfect bodies, and closes with our personnel-intact!!-gathering the evidence.
The bombsight image and the corpse portrait are supposed to be read as images of prone subjects. Their juxtaposition works to establish a causal link from one to the other. (We assume the image of targeting produces the image of targeted). Our imagination, primed by exposure to film, television, Pentagon press conferences and other such images, joins the bomb, exits the bomber's belly, plummets through the atmosphere, crashes through palm trees, the roof, and into the room where al-Zarqawi is sitting, unaware. He dies. Mission accomplished. Having done our part, we meet the ultimate target (subject?) of this kind of visual manipulation: ourselves.