In 2012, the journalist Michael Hastings revealed to the wider world that American drone operators had adopted a morbid term to describe those killed by one of their missiles: "bug splats." The term, Hastings explained, had become popular "since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed."
That phrase seems to sum-up the problems that have plagued the American drone war, which has left thousands of civilians dead and has been beset by criticism that the use of such weapons has inaugurated a new era of impersonal, video game-like warfare. An art collective is now trying to turn the term "bug splats" on its head with a provocative new installation in a remote area of Pakistan that features a giant portrait of a survivor of an American drone strike that killed much of her family. The collective, whose members live in the United States, France, and Pakistan, printed the image on the kind of vinyl tarp found in most Pakistani villages and unfurled it about two weeks ago, though they won't say where.
For the purposes of the art project, the woman on the tarp remains nameless, but she is easily identified as the subject of a portrait snapped by a Pakistani photographer and published in 2011 by Wired. In the original photo, she stands next to her brothers shortly after her parents and another brother were killed in an American drone strike on the town of Dande Darpa Khel on August 21, 2009. Now, she will potentially be seen by the men -- or at the very least their comrades -- who killed her family. The artists have named their project #NotABugSplat.
"The idea is that we wanted to show someone who is there on the ground, the idea being that when a drone operator sees this photograph they are looking at the collateral damage that will be the effect of the bombing," Akash Goel, a member of the artist collective behind the installation, said in an interview.
The decision to feature a picture of a drone strike survivor may come as a surprise, but according to Goel, choosing a living victim emphasizes the continuing risk posed to civilians by such strikes. "We wanted it to really be a picture of the future," said Goel, who is also a practicing physician and said he was drawn to the project in part to shed light on the trauma inflicted on children as a result of drone strikes.
The project was carried out with help from the semi-anonymous French artist JR, who has become a global phenomenon by pasting portraits of ordinary people anywhere and everywhere. That effort, the Inside Out Project, aims to tell the stories of the individuals who participate: "The concept of the project is to give everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and a statement of what they stand for, with the world ... Anyone can participate, and is challenged to use photographic portraits to share the untold stories and images of people in their communities." In Caracas, the project has put up more than 200 portraits of women who have lost a child to violence. In Karachi, the project's posters feature the faces of Pakistan's embattled minorities.
In the case of the portrait unfurled in Pakistan, the message seems blunt: "I'm alive -- at least for now." (Whether that message would be comprehensible to an actual drone pilot circling the skies of Pakistan is murkier.) The artists involved in the project are unafraid to wield an emotional cudgel. "We chose the image because of its innocence," Saks Afridi, another member of the collective, said in an interview.
According to Afridi, the villagers were happy to help with the project but were reluctant to gather in large groups for fear of strikes. Once the villagers grow tired of having their field covered in a tarp, Afridi said, they can recycle the vinyl, which, among other things, could be used as roofing material.
For now, these artists have certainly succeeded in putting a face to the human costs of American drone strikes in Pakistan, and perhaps having seen such an image will make a U.S. drone operator think twice before firing his missiles. Perhaps.