Missiles and mimosas: a glimpse inside global arms fairs

In Nikita Teryoshin’s flash-lit photographs, attendees watch battlefield simulations and inspect weapons of mass destruction while drinking wine and eating cake

Berlin-based photographer Nikita Teryoshin has long had an interest in fairs, beginning with the giant exposition hall that was next door to his photography school in Dortmund, Germany. Since his studies, he has gone on to photograph fairs of all kinds, focusing on everything from agriculture to pets. But one in particular has held a special fascination for him over the years: arms fairs.

He visited his first in 2016, which took place in Kielce, Poland and at the time was the biggest in Eastern Europe. Usually closed to the public, he gained access due to his work for Vice Germany, and what began was a photo series that would take him to arms fairs all around the world, including Belarus, South Korea, France, Germany, South Africa, China, UAE, Peru, Russia, Vietnam, the US and India.

Top: After the Finnish Patria armoured vehicle presentation. Eurosatory, France, 2018; Above: Belarusian officer by a satellite multimedia truck. MILEX Expo, Belarus, 2017; All images: © Nikita Teryoshin

Teryoshin’s photographs are currently on display in an exhibition at Freelens Gallery in Hamburg, and they have also been published by Gost in a new photo book called Nothing Personal – The Back Office of War.

His photographs of the fairs, and those that attend them, speak to the strange nature of these events, which occur in peaceful, almost inviting settings, yet revolve around technology designed to kill. The series also coincides with a growing global expenditure on arms, suggesting an increasing desire in tech of this kind.

Model of a Swedish Bofors 57 Mk3 naval gun. MSPO Expo, Kielce, Poland, 2016
On the deck of a ferry while jet fighters, helicopters and cargo aircraft fly low. IDEX Expo, Abu Dhabi, 2019

Flash-lit and boldly coloured, Teryoshin’s photographs emphasise the odd contrast between how these fairs are run, and the real purpose of them. “[They] show the back office of war, which is the complete opposite of a battlefield: an oversized playground for adults with wine, finger foods and shiny weapons,” he explains.

“Dead bodies here are mannequins or pixels on screens of a huge number of simulators. Bazookas and machine guns are plugged into flatscreens and war action is staged in an artificial environment in front of high-ranking guests, ministers, heads of states, generals and traders.’

Reception for Airbus military helicopters. MSPO Expo, Kielce, Poland, 2016
Waiting for a shuttle to the live demonstration site. Army Expo, Park Patriot, Alabino, Russia, 2019

Not wanting to point the finger at any one person or group, Teryoshin chose to hide or obscure the faces of those in attendance, instead focusing on details such as their clothes, the food they eat, and the wine they drink, as they casually peruse lifelike models of guns, rockets and other weapons of mass destruction.

In one photo, carefully-painted fingernails stand out on a delicate hand that grips the trigger of a sizable rocket launcher. In another, a plastic cup of beer – the kind of which is often found at parties – rests on a display of realistic tank models.

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
Peruvian delegation at the stand of UkrOboronProm. The Oplot-M main battle tank was offered as a potential solution to replace the old Soviet T55 MBT of the Peruvian Army. SITDEF, Lima, Peru, 2019

Considered as a whole, the series presents two prominent, contrasting notions: the apparent cognitive dissonance of attendees who pick at buffet food while inspecting machines designed to destroy, and the callousness of others who perhaps enjoy the fairs in full awareness of the implications.

Both speak to a disconnect between humanity and the technology that we create. Far from the battlefield, these models and simulations serve to entertain and even excite, but those willing to follow the situation through to its logical conclusion realise that these arms fairs are little more than precursors to conflict, war and misery.

Saudi visitors watching the air show during the trade fair. IDEX Expo, Abu Dhabi, 2019
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

Commenting on this, Teryoshin puts forward a quote by the inventor of the machine gun, Richard Gatling, whose wishful thinking hints at the misguided beliefs of the subjects in this book: “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.”

“Ironically, rather than decreasing the number of soldiers on the battlefield,” Teryoshin says, “his invention led to unimaginably greater bloodshed.”

South Korean officer watching the air show by the aerobatic Black Eagles air force team flying KAI T-50B Golden Eagle jets. ADEX, Seoul, South Korea, 2017

Nothing Personal – The Back Office of War by Nikita Teryoshin is published by Gost; gostbooks.com