Nicholas Constant

University: Royal College of Art

Graduation: 2018

Genre: Documentary, Conceptual Art

Website: www.nicholasconstant.com

Artist Statement: Exploring the evolution of the battlefield and various forms of distance, Predator/Protector contemplates particular developments that may change the future of warfare (UAV/drone warfare) and what this means not just for the victim but the perpetrators as well. Using Sontag’s ideas of how war imagery on TV and internet distance us further from the actual happenings as we relate these scenes to the cinematic, Predator/Protector attempts to combat this by showing that these issues materialise and take action from our space and in our time. Adopting a similar aesthetic to that of British landscape painters then directing the camera towards the romanticised landscape and the all too common industrial estates, the project aims to contrast these idealistic and unintrusive views with the reality of what is taking place in these locations to show that they are part of the ever-expanding ‘battlespace’ in the information age. These images are combined with representations of aspects I cannot photograph (the drones themselves and the operating rooms) that show interesting parallels that would not be achievable photographing the subjects under investigation. 

Predator/Protector is the name of the new British drone where the name is being changed from Predator to Protector. 

RAF Menwith Hill can be seen as the NSA’s British base. According to files released by Edward Snowden, the base has 2 main spying capabilities, FORNSAT (uses radars contained in these white golf ball-like domes to eavesdrop on communications being beamed between foreign satellites) and OVERHEAD (uses US satellites to locate and monitor wireless communications on the ground, such as phone calls and Wi-Fi traffic). The location is used for intelligence gathering that directly corresponds to the U.S’s highly controversial targeted killing program, selecting targets to be put on a ‘kill list’ to be taken out by drones. This is disputed against, as there have been cases where people are being falsely put on this kill list as the program only operates on the data it collects.

RAF Menwith Hill can be seen as the NSA’s British base. According to files released by Edward Snowden, the base has 2 main spying capabilities, FORNSAT (uses radars contained in these white golf ball-like domes to eavesdrop on communications being beamed between foreign satellites) and OVERHEAD (uses US satellites to locate and monitor wireless communications on the ground, such as phone calls and Wi-Fi traffic). The location is used for intelligence gathering that directly corresponds to the U.S’s highly controversial targeted killing program, selecting targets to be put on a ‘kill list’ to be taken out by drones. This is disputed against, as there have been cases where people are being falsely put on this kill list as the program only operates on the data it collects.

Where did you attend university and what year did you graduate? I have recently finished my Masters degree at the RCA, graduating in summer 2018. I have previously attained my BA from UCA Rochester where I graduated in 2015. 

What are some standout moments from your time at university? Definitely the chance to be able to work alongside other photographers and artists in an environment where you have time to dedicate those couple of years solely to making work. Working closely with people like Max Watson, one of the most honest image makers I know, as well as Stewart Hardie, Harry Gammer-Flitcroft and Emily Elkins proved to be a highlight as even though the practices may be different, sometimes that other view is what you need to see your own work clearer. Other clear standout moments were being able to be in an intimate environment with various visiting lectures such as Edmund Clark and Willie Doherty. Also to have lecturers such as Peter Kennard, Jason Evans, Sarah Jones and especially Felicity Hammond.

(Government Communications Headquarters) is the UK’s equivalent of the US’s NSA (National Security Agency) which is an intelligence and security organisation that provides signals intelligence and information to the government and military. Since the invention of the computer, which is where the inception of GCHQ stems from the activities at Bletchley Park, information gathering and assessing has been a crucial aspect to any military program. In files that Snowden had released it shows that GCHQ and the NSA had been involved in hacking Israeli drone feeds operating in Syria and Lebanon. This shows us that the information aspect of warfare has rapidly evolved and has brought us further away from the front-line where the locating, tracking and killing of a target can be done thousands of miles away, begging the question whether we are living in a ‘battlespace’.

(Government Communications Headquarters) is the UK’s equivalent of the US’s NSA (National Security Agency) which is an intelligence and security organisation that provides signals intelligence and information to the government and military. Since the invention of the computer, which is where the inception of GCHQ stems from the activities at Bletchley Park, information gathering and assessing has been a crucial aspect to any military program. In files that Snowden had released it shows that GCHQ and the NSA had been involved in hacking Israeli drone feeds operating in Syria and Lebanon. This shows us that the information aspect of warfare has rapidly evolved and has brought us further away from the front-line where the locating, tracking and killing of a target can be done thousands of miles away, begging the question whether we are living in a ‘battlespace’.

Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I struggle with this myself as I don’t feel as if I quite fall into the documentary category which I normally put myself in. I don’t think my images can stand as much of a document. They are proof the places exist, but not proof of what i am trying to question about the happenings of the locations in question. I think that my work would be in between this and the more conceptual side of art, as what I am trying to get the viewer to do is to think about what is outside what is seen in each photograph. 

What themes do you find yourself exploring? I am interested in war and the many ‘indirect effects’ that come from it. I wanted to be a war photographer in my early photographic years but quickly realised that the images we see from these places are the same horrific things over and over again. Not to say that these images aren’t important but that they won’t do what I want my images to do, which is have a conversation about the horrors of war which are relatable to everyone. With reading people like Susan Sontag and Judith Butler, I started to realise that the issue is that these war scenes are so far out of our (western world) perceptions of life that it is hard to relate to these happenings. So I try to make work which attempts to combat this. I am also interested in photography and the invisible, how do you approach a subject which you cannot get access to or is a subject that cannot be seen. 

The Hermes 450 is an Israeli drone produced by Elbit. The Hermes 450 and 900 have both been used predominantly in the Gaza conflict where independent journalists claim the Isreali forces failed to take all feasible precautions to verify the targets were combatants. Elbit has worked with Thales to produce the British drone the ‘Watchkeeper’ which is based off the Hermes drone. Hermes is a Olympian God known for being a traveller and messenger. He is also known for being a trickster and escorting the dead. To name an unmanned aerial vehicle controlled from miles away after a God says a lot about the perception of these weapons.

The Hermes 450 is an Israeli drone produced by Elbit. The Hermes 450 and 900 have both been used predominantly in the Gaza conflict where independent journalists claim the Isreali forces failed to take all feasible precautions to verify the targets were combatants. Elbit has worked with Thales to produce the British drone the ‘Watchkeeper’ which is based off the Hermes drone. Hermes is a Olympian God known for being a traveller and messenger. He is also known for being a trickster and escorting the dead. To name an unmanned aerial vehicle controlled from miles away after a God says a lot about the perception of these weapons.

We caught up with you in 2016 when you were awarded a Magnum Graduate Photographers Award and you told us you'd picked Mark Power as your mentor. Tell us how that experience was for you. What did you learn? The was one of the most useful experiences I have had in my whole photographic career. He was a great guy and could completely understand where I was coming from in terms of previous work and the current work I have. One of my favourite aspects about him is that he is an absolute photobook wizard and gave me a lot of things to look out for in terms of putting together a book as well as a lot of different references that were particularly interesting to me and my own work. 

Ferranti is one of the 4 Elbit factories I have visited in the UK. Elbit is Israel’s largest arms manufacturer that describes its drones as being “the backbone” of the Israeli drone fleet. Ferranti is believed to produce guidance systems for the drones. Their website describes the work they do as being “Suppliers of engineering, manufacturing and product support solutions for Aerospace and Defence markets”.

Ferranti is one of the 4 Elbit factories I have visited in the UK. Elbit is Israel’s largest arms manufacturer that describes its drones as being “the backbone” of the Israeli drone fleet. Ferranti is believed to produce guidance systems for the drones. Their website describes the work they do as being “Suppliers of engineering, manufacturing and product support solutions for Aerospace and Defence markets”.

What encouraged you to study for an MA at the Royal College of Art? I felt that I needed more time to make work before I get out into the real world. I always think about large scale projects so I was basically paying for time to make these works in. I also really wanted to be based in London and after seeing the links and alumni that the RCA has I felt like this would be the right move for my work at the time. 

How did this body of work come to the surface? There has been a lot of different art works around drones and UAV’s in the past 5-10 years but I felt that there wasn’t one that really connects our environment to the conflict zones as directly as this new type of warfare does. I love all the work that has been made around drones and feel they are super important so I want my work to be viewed with all these other approaches kept in mind to add to the same conversation. I also felt I wanted to make work on something which is happening right now, which proved to be a lot more difficult that anticipated as there are so many myths surrounding this.

The MQ-9 Reaper is arguably the most notorious drone around the world. It is produced in the US and is described as a ‘hunter-killer’ drone that can fly at a high altitude and is designed for long endurance missions. The UK has 10 of these drones in their fleet already, and will soon swap these for the new Predator drones which they will be renaming the Protector drone. The name of the Reaper drone hints to how sinister it is with naming it after the personification of death, a being that cannot be affected by those who encounter it but is a harbinger of death.

The MQ-9 Reaper is arguably the most notorious drone around the world. It is produced in the US and is described as a ‘hunter-killer’ drone that can fly at a high altitude and is designed for long endurance missions. The UK has 10 of these drones in their fleet already, and will soon swap these for the new Predator drones which they will be renaming the Protector drone. The name of the Reaper drone hints to how sinister it is with naming it after the personification of death, a being that cannot be affected by those who encounter it but is a harbinger of death.

Tell us about some of the specific locations in this series. How did you find these places and what was your initial approach to photographing them? I basically wanted to find places which had importance to the British UAV program. With this type of warfare a target can be selected, tracked and killed all from thousands of miles away so I wanted to find places where information is gathered which helps select the targets as well as the only place in the UK where UAV’s are flown from, RAF Waddington, to question whether this place, or the containers they are flown from, could be considered part of the battlefield. I also wanted to photograph where some components for UAV’s are being made to show that these parts come from the all-to-common industrial estates which most of us pass every day. I also photographed representations of what I did not have access to, which end up saying more about the objects themselves, such as the statue of Hermes which is what the Israeli company Elbit named one of their drones. The god Hermes is known for being a trickster and a traveller as well as escorting the dead to the river Styx. Also the fact they called a unmanned vehicle after an omnipresent being says a lot about the perception of the weapon.

I went to photograph scenes around this area to highlight the comparison in everyday life here compared to the everyday life people would be experiencing in the places where drone squadrons operate. A 13 year old boy, Zubair Rehman, appeared in front of US congress to talk about his injury and grandmothers death from a drone strike where he goes on to say, ‘I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey. And for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases.’ With this in mind I wanted to show the comparison between the place of cause and the place of affect.

I went to photograph scenes around this area to highlight the comparison in everyday life here compared to the everyday life people would be experiencing in the places where drone squadrons operate. A 13 year old boy, Zubair Rehman, appeared in front of US congress to talk about his injury and grandmothers death from a drone strike where he goes on to say, ‘I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey. And for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases.’ With this in mind I wanted to show the comparison between the place of cause and the place of affect.

What encouraged you to photograph these locations in a similar aesthetic to that of British landscape painters? Why is this important? One reason is that I wanted to use beauty to draw people into the images and then the realisation of what happens in these locations to cause a stark contrast inside the viewer to see the image in a different way. So playing with the viewers preconceptions toward the images and therefore the happenings in our landscapes. The other reason is that Romanticism came around the time of the industrial revolution and artists were looking back to the natural landscape to make a comment on their current political situation, which is exactly what I am trying to do with my work. Instead of the industrial revolution it is what happens in the information age. 

Drones are controlled from storage containers similar to this one with the dimensions being 8x8x20 ft. This puts into question whether these spaces could be considered a battlezone as the pilots operate in those areas. This is made apparent as PTSD is not only achievable in these conditions, but some claim there is a higher percentage of this happening. The distance is important as the operators control the weapons from a risk-free zone, spurring some to call it a type of ‘post-heroic’ warfare.

Drones are controlled from storage containers similar to this one with the dimensions being 8x8x20 ft. This puts into question whether these spaces could be considered a battlezone as the pilots operate in those areas. This is made apparent as PTSD is not only achievable in these conditions, but some claim there is a higher percentage of this happening. The distance is important as the operators control the weapons from a risk-free zone, spurring some to call it a type of ‘post-heroic’ warfare.

What would you like for your viewer to learn from your work? I am attempting to get the viewer to feel familiarity with the places depicted and therefore try to see that what happens in our environment directly impacts the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of innocent people living not only in declared war-zones but in other places around the world as well. I also want people to have their attention brought to this new type of warfare. Technology progresses amazingly fast these days as we know and laws take a long time to be put in action, so with this type of warfare there are still a lot of grey areas within the laws and how they should and can be used in military purposes. I would like it if this work also brings people to question the evolution of the battlefield in the information age and get people to think about these things that happen just outside of our direct line of sight. 

What have you learnt from making this work? Making work on currently situations is extremely difficult and requires extensive research, which is made even harder when you yourself are not a researcher. I learnt that I need to reach out to more people to help with work and pretty much everyone I got in touch with were more than happy to give me their time for free. People such as James Rogers who writes amazing articles and essays on the subject, Chris Cole from ‘Drone Wars UK’ (who features in a conversation with me in my book) and people from Campaign Against the Arms Trade were amongst the people who really helped shape my understanding of this issue. I have also learnt that when tackling big topics such as this, you will never be able to say everything about the topic so it is best to pick a couple of aspects with work together to make a really detailed summary of these points. 

Standing on top of white cliffs between Margate and Ramsgate, looking 118.63° toward Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Standing on top of white cliffs between Margate and Ramsgate, looking 118.63° toward Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Is this work finished? What are your future plans? I don’t feel like it is. I still have more locations I want to go and visit and potentially go and reshoot some of the locations. I would really like to have another researcher to bounce ideas off as well. Also I tried to make a book to go along with this work but I have come to the realisation that I am not a book designer so am contemplating getting in touch with designers as I have a whole but of collected material that I think someone could turn into a really strong body of work, but not me. I have been collecting these UAV brochures which are mad as they depict the drones flying over exotic locations as if they are trying to sell sexy new cars. I also have another personal project in the works about how massacres split family trees as this is what happened with my family and the ‘Sook Ching’ massacres in Malaysia. This is still in very early stages but I am planning to try get out there to make work in the Johor region soon.