Art review: Drone attack

A new exhibition raises uncomfortable questions about the modern way of waging war.

On the door of the gallery is the following warning: "You are likely to find some of the documentary images of bomb victims very distressing. Not suitable for children."

I sit down in front of a large projector screen. A video of low quality footage composed of photographs and amateur film plays. Running on a continuous loop, the only sound comes from the images featuring drones buzzing in the sky and the projector whirring behind me.
Part of Gaming in Waziristan, these images are by journalist Noor Behram. They form one part of the three-piece exhibition currently on display at the Beaconsfield gallery - its aim to draw attention to the unreported consequences of growing drone strikes in Pakistan and the Middle East by American forces.

Little is known about such military attacks waged by the U S in remote areas. They utilise the latest technology and are reported upon only sporadically. Often they are just a footnote in articles reporting military successes, for instance when a member of Al-Qaeda is killed. Flown by the U S military out of bases in America, they allow allied forces to attack barren areas where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are believed to take refuge. Keeping home casualties to a minimum, they use information from a network of CIA-employed spies in the area to find their targets.

On the screen: a still image of a child appears. He lies buried amongst rubble, killed after an American drone attack. At first you don't notice, you think it is a trick of the light, but the top of his head is missing. Looking again you see also his face is partially crumpled like a deflated basketball.
Of the 60 strikes Behram has managed to document in North and South Waziristan, 27 feature in the looped reel at the exhibit. His work goes beyond the official narrative on such attacks to show the horrific and hidden consequences of what is a new way of waging war.

Whereas traditionally one would see first hand the outcomes of one's actions whilst fighting, drones create a mode of combat in which the outcomes of deadly acts are dehumanised. Placing physical and emotional distance between actions and consequences, between the act of killing and the killed, they alter the nature of conflict. No longer does an American soldier need to be present on the battlefield, to look physically at their targets or see with their own eyes the outcomes of their deadly behaviour.

On the screen: A child, killed in a drone attack, lying in state. He is adorned with flowers.

Drones are, proponents argue, highly accurate and relatively safe ways of fighting a war, however information from reporters such as Behram contradict this. Civilians, not terrorists, are by far the heaviest casualties of drone attacks (Reprieve states that of the 2,490 people killed in Pakistan by U S drones since 2004, as many as 2,046 have been wholly innocent).

On the screen: a severed hand is held up before a group of people.

Even if one were to question the veracity of Behram's work (his pictures, the curator at Beaconsfield tells me, have not been authenticated) I would argue their truth is not essential to the impact of this exhibit. For what we should take from it is not necessarily a collection of facts, but rather a set of questions that need to be raised and ultimately answered; questions about how we should understand this new and even more inhuman way of warfare. A way of war that makes it possible to sit in a control room in the U S and kill a group of people in Waziristan one moment and go on your lunch break in a pleasant park the next.

Gaming In Waziristan runs at the Beaconsfield Gallery, London SE11 until 2nd September

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle