Image for article titled The U-2 Spy Balloon Selfie and the Grand History of Pilot Self-Portraits

Image: James Harper Defense Imagery Management Operations Center

There is, as best I can tell, no special historical significance to this photo, taken by James Harper of the Air Force’s 1st Combat Camera Squadron. Compositionally, it’s pretty straightforward, the pilot’s breathing apparatus and helmet centered against the bubble cockpit and outstretched arms as the rain of New Orleans streaks across the window. What sets it apart, what merits inclusion here, is that it is one of the earliest pilot self portrait in the DVIDS collection, if not the very first.

Because works produced by the US Military are, unless otherwise noted, public domain, it is easy for anyone covering this field to default to these images. As academic Paul Musgrave noted, “the story the United States government tells the world about itself and its own doings is phenomenally militarized — and because of a quirk of copyright law, that means that much of the visual public domain of the 21st century is a product of the security state.”

Harper’s selfie, which as of this writing had only been downloaded once prior to this story, is an important image — less because of its perfectly fine content, and more because of the fact that it’s available to freely download in the first place.

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