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Behind the Curtains of the Global Arms Industry

Momo Takahashi   

Behind the Curtains of the Global Arms Industry

Imagery of battlefields and violence have permeated the news cycle as armed conflicts rage around the globe, particularly in the Middle East and Ukraine.

Rarely, however, do we see inside the multibillion-dollar industry behind the weapons that cause its destruction.

In his new book, "Nothing Personal: The Back Office of War," photographer Nikita Teryoshin lifts the veil on the global arms trade, capturing defense exhibitions worldwide.

"These [defense] fairs are the opposite of what you imagine when you think of arms and war," Teryoshin said in an interview with Business Insider.

Through the colorful, bright, yet uncanny depictions of the defense industry, "Nothing Personal" portrays a world that is the complete opposite of the battlefield it profits from, highlighting the sobering reality of war as a business and economic incentive.

From 2016 to 2023, Teryoshin documented defense fairs in 14 countries, including the United States, China, France, Abu Dhabi, and Russia. Closed to the public, his series offers a rare inside look into the lucrative global arms industry.

Teryoshin's photos depict the showy display of tanks, drones, missiles, air shows, and war shows at various defense exhibitions. He described the fairs as "an oversized playground for adults with wine, finger food, and shiny weapons."

"Dead bodies here are mannequins or pixels on screens of a huge number of simulators," he wrote in his book. "Bazookas and machine guns are plugged into flatscreens and war action is staged in an artificial environment in front of a tribune full of high-ranked guests, ministers, heads of state, generals, and traders."

Teryoshin's images are striking — a bright flash in each image tying together the bizarre display of weapons with abstracted figures of anonymous delegates. A colorful array of canapés and a bright floral dress are set in a scene with a sleek gray model of a naval gun looming in the background.

"I think it's the key visuals in the project where you see food and waitress serving wine and juice, and in the background, you see all these war machines," Teryoshin said.

In 2019, Teryoshin attended the International Defense Exhibition & Conference in Abu Dhabi, where he said guests were enjoying a cake decorated with a mini tank, jet fighters, and missiles.

"Special guests and generals started to eat the cake with little forks out from the pallet directly, and then I thought it looked like a real battlefield," Teryoshin said. "There was an explosion and a tank and a plane and jet fighters were flying little toys that were flying around this explosion, and it was totally weird."

He added: "The alliance of UAE and Saudi Arabia were flying strikes against the Houthis and bombing hospitals, schools, and houses of normal people, and at the same time, 1,000 kilometers away, they are eating this cake with an explosion."

With elements of dark humor and absurdity in every image, the photographer's distinctive visual style emphasizes the jarring juxtaposition of the luxury and celebration at defense fairs and the destructive weaponry and firearms the industry produces.

Large, metallic-gray missiles frame a half-empty coffee mug sitting on the edge of a display table. The camera's flash casts imposing shadows of the missiles around the mug — the everyday object normalizing the display of dangerous weaponry.

Teryoshin alluded to the look of crime scene photography when discussing the use of flash in his series. The cold, harsh flash highlights the environment's ominousity through a pointedly cynical perspective.

After the construction and the oil and gas sectors, the global arms trade is one of the most corruption-prone sectors in the world, according to Transparency International. By contrast, the international trade of bananas is more tightly regulated than the arms trade, according to the introductory note of the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

With the weaponry in the forefront, the fairgoers in the series remain anonymous — the figures of traders and politicians are all faceless and undetectable.

"I deliberately don't show you the faces of the businessmen," Teryoshin said in his artist statement. "It is not my intention to fix everything upon a certain person."

The anonymity of the figures adds mystery to each photograph and portrays the photographer's intention of showcasing the global arms industry as a monolith.

"I also didn't want to blame any special country, manufacturer, or person but to show it just as a phenomenon," he said.

Here, war is simply a universal means of commerce — the convention space secluded from the real terror of conflict.

Military spending worldwide amounted to $2.44 trillion in 2023. In the US, it was estimated that the average taxpayer contributed $5,109 to the US military and its support systems in 2023. While the average American contributes thousands of dollars to the military, the general public is not privy to the inner workings of war profiteering — something Teryoshin hopes to change through his photography.

Teryoshin shows the irony behind arms company slogans, such as "70 years defending peace" by Kalashnikov Group or "Engineering a better tomorrow" by Lockheed Martin, by showing viewers the opposite of a violent and terrifying battlefield: the people in business attire who profit from window shopping for war machines with champagne in hand.

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