Men in shiny suits holding rocket launchers and high-powered sniper rifles and women in sleek dresses and high heels sitting in attack helicopters. Oh, and some champagne and trays of fancy canapés. This is the surreal world of weapons trade shows: glamorous events where it seems little thought is given to the destruction that will be caused by the things being bought and sold.
Since 2016, Nikita Teryoshin has been visiting these shows around the world, and photographing what he sees. In the nominated photo, a man carries a pair of missiles into a back office, while someone walks past on their phone in the background, showing the strange convergence of these weapons fairs and everyday modern life.
“Arms fairs are the total opposite of war: Good weather, drinks, canapés and shiny weapons make it seem the connection to the other side has disappeared. The last thing that really took me by surprise was in a weapons fair in Abu Dhabi, where they brought out a huge anniversary cake at the closing ceremony with bombs and explosions on it. People started cutting pieces out of it. It was a mess. Companies use slogans like, ‘70 years defending peace’ or, ‘Engineering a better tomorrow.’
A lot of people in the weapons industry believe these things. There’s a quote from the inventor of the machine gun Richard Gatling that says: ‘It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could, by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as 100, that it would, to a large extent, supersede the necessity of large armies and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.’ His motivation was not to accelerate the process of killing, but to save lives by reducing the number of soldiers needed on the battlefield. The future Gatling wrought was not one of less bloodshed however, but unimaginably more. The Gatling gun laid the foundations for a new class of machine; the automatic weapon.
I started photographing fairs for a while in 2014 because our photography school in Dortmund, Germany, was next to a giant fair hall. I began to visit fairs of all kinds, from agricultural to pet to even funeral ones. After visiting the Hunt and Dog fair, where I produced the series Sons and Guns, I was surprised by how people of every age are passionate about weapons of all kinds. I decided I wanted to visit a really huge arms fair and managed to find one taking place in a small city in Poland called Kielce back in 2016, which I received media access for because of my work for VICE Germany.
After that, I had this idea to go to other defence fairs to show this global aspect of the arms trade, even though I had no idea how to fund all the travel costs. After travelling to South Korea for the next fair, I was lucky enough to win the German VG BildKunst Grant in 2018 and PHMuseum Grant 2019. So now, after 14 fairs on five continents, it feels pretty ordinary for me to walk around observing what’s happening.
On my second day in Abu Dhabi I came across some traders dismantling a stand with machine guns and bazookas and carrying them back in a store room to lock them in overnight. I started photographing and had a rough idea in my head as to how it might look. Then there was suddenly another person becoming visible through the back door, holding a mobile phone – what a weird coincidence. It looked a bit like a stage play. This sort of moment is actually what I really love about photography.
In terms of my style, the flash helps me to highlight certain things. Sometimes it reminds me of crime scene photography. The concept of the Nothing Personal series is to show the system and also the cultural aspects of arms trade. In this picture the person's face is cropped out of the frame, but the traders also sometimes have guns or bombs in front of their faces, which is kind of a metaphor for this industry.”