Nikita Teryoshin – Nothing Personal: The Back Office of War

War is good business for some, and misery for most everyone else. The executives of defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin or Raytheon, people who directly profit from the outbreak and continuation of war, are incentivized to hope for its continuation rather than its cessation, because where there is war (in Yemen, Ukraine, or in Gaza) there is the need for arms and materiel. Contracts will be drawn up and deals brokered between states – multi billion dollar transactions announced routinely and typically with little notice. If there is a modicum of public attention paid to these sales then it will be presidents and secretaries of defense – heads of state, in other words – that we will associate them with, which of course is logical: they have both the political power and the necessary authority to broker these deals. What is less often considered in this equation of power and responsibility is that the arms industry is precisely that, an industry, a multi trillion dollar one that spans the globe, and which is comprised of a few dozen companies all vying for the same contracts, with agents dispatched from continent to continent and fair to fair, all trying to persuade and cajole (and bribe) government officials to shake and sign. What this all looks like, and what it in turn says about the industry as a whole, is precisely what Nikita Teryoshin investigates in Nothing Personal: The Back Office of War (GOST, 2024).

Arms company CTA demonstrating their fire power on an 2mm thick aluminum target. CTA is a joint venture between Nexter and BAE Systems based in France. EUROSATORY, Paris, France, 2018. © Nikita Teryoshin

Bringing together pictures from sixteen international arms fairs made over a seven year period, from 2016-2023, Nothing Personal is loosely structured around the eight pages that interrupt the sequence, and which introduce a major defense contractor (for example, Bell Flight, Rheinmetall, Saab AB), their country of origin (USA, Germany, Sweden), their revenue in USD for the year 2022 (3.3 billion, 6.7 billion, 4.1 billion), and a fragment of their marketing language (“First to fight”, “Nextgen Lethality”, “See First Kill First”). These textual interludes do not necessarily prefigure what is to follow, as the sequence is neither chronological nor organized by location. Instead, Teryoshin’s pictures are blended together so that differences in time and place are minimized or flattened entirely, with each fair seeming to resemble the others, an effect which is heightened by the fact that descriptive captions are withheld until the end of the book. We can learn which uniformed salespeople were photographed on which continent, or which missile system is being offered by which company, but the primary emphasis, ultimately, is on the sameness of these events, so that we can almost imagine them happening together or all at once, as part of a single expression of this industry’s perverse fusion of the profit motive, technological invention, and war.

After the presentation of the Finnish Patria 6×6 armoured vehicle. EUROSATORY, Paris, France, 2018. © Nikita Teryoshin

Teryoshin has remarked that gaining access to these fairs, which we might reasonably assume are highly secure and thoroughly vetted, was not overly difficult. With a few professional connections, along with a willingness to exaggerate his affiliation with some prominent news outlets, access was obtained and, once inside, little concern was paid to him. No one seemed to care that a photographer, whose motives and ideas were his own, would be documenting the industry from within. Regardless of the awkward positions he seems to be in when releasing the shutter, or of the garish and aggressive quality that his flash creates in these spaces – the way it quite literally seems to interrupt or arrest what he is photographing – Teryoshin seems to move around as though he were a ghost, a presence that is sensed but also seen through. What becomes ever more apparent as the sequence unfolds is that this apparent brazenness on the part of the professionals and political representatives that he is photographing is, on the contrary, a confidence and sense of security in what they are doing. In other words, they have nothing to hide and no one to fear. That a community of photography and photobook enthusiasts might grimace with unease or even laugh at how tawdry this world can be made to look would count for little, I’m sure, were it even to register at all.

Demonstration of a tactical throwable robot, a counter-terrorism device used to carry out reconnaissance operations. It can also deploy a flash bang grenade. MSPO Expo, Kielce, Poland, 2016. © Nikita Teryoshin

Though people are ever-present in these pictures, they come to function more as ciphers of the industry at large than as individuals with subjectivity. We never see a face in full, for example, as Teryoshin finds surprising ways, and oftentimes humorous ones as well, to obstruct distinguishing features or to crop them out altogether. Rifles, iPads, model tanks, and weapons brochures: all block our ability to see these people in the process of transacting and glad handing, or of hawking the latest and most sophisticated precision guided missile. Instead, Teryoshin constructs a portrait in the aggregate, composed of suited-up salespeople and representatives of state, all effectively anonymous and caught in passing, unabashedly at work trying to move munitions and secure newer and bigger contracts, or to pitch that their weapons systems will “outperform” the competition. The object of measurement for that performance is what remains almost entirely outside the frame in these pictures, if for no other reason than that these fairs deal with war and death in the abstract, as reasons for business rather than lamentation. When we are shown details which invoke those otherwise unseen horrors, they come to us in the form of simulacra, as props or theatrical sets (a gruesome leg fragment, or a replica bomb), as so many ways of making virtual what these fairs will ultimately help realize from afar. That Teryoshin is so intent on highlighting what is surreal and exaggerated in his pictures can be understood, I think, as a response to the extreme degree of casualness and self-assurance displayed at these fairs, where business that would otherwise be conducted surreptitiously is done so here over figs and macaroons.

The distinction between what is virtual and what is “real” in these pictures, or what is three-dimensional and what is merely two-dimensional imagery, is something Teryoshin blurs and, at times, seems intent on collapsing altogether. In what we may come to understand as being a kind of implicit critique of the industry he is photographing, his pictures relentlessly compress space and make distance, along with the difference contained therein, increasingly difficult to track. The cumulative effect of this through sequencing is that we start to read these compositions as containing images, as opposed to being the vehicles by which they are created in the first place. That merchants of war would relate to their industry through forms of commercial imagery which then saturate their environment (as they do ours as well), should come as no surprise even if the manner in which Teryoshin describes it ultimately is.

Waiting for a shuttle to the live demonstration site. Army Expo, Park Patriot, Alabino, Russia, 2019. © Nikita Teryoshin

Entering the back office of the Israeli Elbit Systems stand. In the foreground is a missile dummy of the air-to-ground Lizard bomb. SITDEF, Lima, Peru, 2019. © Nikita Teryoshin

A trader locks away two anti-tank grenades by Bulargian KINTEX. IDEX Expo, Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2019. © Nikita Teryoshin

Nikita Teryoshin

Nothing Personal: The Back Office of War

GOST Books, 2024

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Zach Ritter. Images © Nikita Teryoshin.)

Posted in Art, Contemporary Photography, Death and Photography, Documentary Photography, Essays, Essays - Art, Essays - Photography, Europe, Germany, Labor, Other, Photobook, Photography - All, Photojournalism, Politics, Reviews - All, Reviews - Art Book, Reviews - Photobook, Russia, Technology, USA, War Photography and tagged , , , , , , .