As the semester was winding down in May, Stacey Baker called while I was preparing for my last class of the year. The assignment for The New York Times Magazine was to photograph drones or “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAV’s) in New Mexico at Holloman Air Base on the edge of the White Sands Missile Base. I was given four days to research, gather gear, and organize the trip. I immediately called Ari Burling to see if he was up for a trip to the desert. Twenty-four hours later, Stacey had reserved travel and lodging, and I was looking at everything I could find about drones on the web.
We landed in El Paso the following Monday, emerging into an endless canopy of steel blue sky, loaded up a rented vehicle, and set off for Alamogordo with the air conditioning set to full. Our directions were to contact Lt. Logan Clark to arrange a meeting at dawn the next day. We spent the evening discussing the logistics of the shoot over beers and burgers before retiring early on pillow top mattresses and more arctic gales courtesy of Fairfield Inn.
Dawn on the desert is an extraordinary event in itself, with the light changing in hue from blue to gold, but to see these colors transform the technological aesthetics of the Air Force’s wares is equal parts glorious and surreal. To think of the lethal purpose of these insect-like machines is troubling in pink or pale blue, and thrilling to behold. We parked on a runway and watched the Predators and Reapers slowly ascend into the sky that perfectly matched their painted underbellies. Ari and I worked four cameras with assorted lenses and shutter speeds, trying to replicate in photos the strange events unfolding before us with such mundanity.
The next stop on our tour of Holloman was the GCS (ground control station) Farm, a small fenced in area between the hangars and flight deck. A smart arrangement of a dozen or so cargo containers bristling with antennae, flanked by satellite dishes sat baking in a level concrete expanse. Inside these windowless boxes sit pilots, who control the drones via remote guidance, informed by an array of cameras and sensors on-board the vehicle. We were allowed inside to watch the training of a new pilot. The entire experience seemed strangely religious to me: there pilots sitting prostrate before glowing monitors, speaking quietly in acronyms common to their clan. “GCS” became “Jesus” for me, and thus the term “Jesus Boxes” instead of “GCS.”
Holloman Air Base was first opened in 1942, and some of the initial architecture remains in use today. A hangar adjacent to the GCS farm is of this vintage. Constructed almost entirely of wood, it is kept in pristine condition by the Air Force, and harbors the long-winged UAVs. We took shelter there for a few hours, enjoying the shade, and admiring the structure from within. As we set up cameras, drones were led in and out as crew members pushed and pulled the light craft into and out of the massive hangar.
We visited a simulator later in the day, to see Italian pilots training on programmed missions in Kabul. Evaluators stood behind the trainees, changing the situation before them, and recording the men’s reactions on clipboards. The space is dim, mostly illuminated by an array of monitors, requiring exposures of fifteen seconds or more. The result is that only static objects retain their structural integrity in the final image. We shot mostly on film, and had hoped to achieve such results. Blurred people bring more focus on the apparatus in which they sit.
Near dusk we were led back to the flight line to watch the drones return from their missions. Slow and low they emerged from the sky, finally making their ginger touch-down and taxiing to the maintenance areas. Crews of airmen greeted the birds, rendered imperfect and sooted from fourteen hours aloft. After shooting through civil twilight, Ari and retired back to Alomogordo to get as much sleep as possible before dawn the next day.
A fuller account of our trip is the subject of an interview with Holly Hughes of Photo District News.
The online portfolio can be seen on The New York Times Magazine.