Selling weapons ‘like vacuum cleaners’: Photographer’s look at the bizarre world of global arms fairs

An arms fair may contain all the trappings of war, but it is nothing like a battlefield. It is “an oversized playground for adults with wine, finger foods and shiny weapons,” said photographer Nikita Teryoshin in a press release about his new book, “Nothing Personal: The Back Office of War.”

Bodies, he continues, are mannequins or pixels on a screen. Machine guns and bazookas are plugged into flatscreens to shoot targets in a computer game-like simulation, and mock battles are staged in artificial environments for high-ranking guests, heads of states, ministers, generals and arms dealers.

“I’d say it blew my mind,” Teryoshin told CNN in a video call, recalling his first time attending an arms trade fair, where military, security and policing equipment is showcased and sold.

The Russian photographer said he was used to seeing images of war in the media — towns destroyed, the bloodied faces of people caught in conflict — but was taken aback by the disconnect between those scenes and the business dealings behind them.

A model of a Swedish Bofors naval gun is the backdrop to a colorful buffet at the MSPO fair in Kielce, Poland in 2016.
Peruvian delegation at the stand of UkrOboronProm. The Oplot-M main battle tank was offered during the expo as a potential solution to replace the old Soviet T 55 MBT of the Peruvian Army. SITDEF, Lima, Peru, 2019

“Most of the time, I’d see people… drinking beer, wine and, like, a vodka next to the machine guns and really (having) a hardcore drinking party,” said the 37-year-old, who has spent close to a decade documenting what goes on behind the scenes of the military-industrial complex.

Teryoshin has seen weapons being sold and tested at expos across the world, in Poland, Belarus, France, Germany, South Korea, China, the UAE, Peru, Russia, Vietnam, USA and South Africa. His book, released earlier this year, paints a picture of an absurd enterprise run by seemingly careless merchants of destruction.

One photo shows a half-consumed mug of coffee left near the edge of a table, barely a foot away from dummy Python, Derby and Spike ER missiles on sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Another captures a man in a shiny pin-stripe gray suit crawling under an armored vehicle between two large tires that look like they could crush him at any moment.

“I think it tells (us) things about this banality of, you can say, the evil… and how we are selling weapons as (if they were) vacuum cleaners,” said Teroyshin. “On the one hand, they tried to make it look perfect with this (gallery-like space) for the exhibition, and on the other hand, when you look… (and) see all the details… it’s kind of dirty.”

Teryoshin captured these scenes with a distinct flair — using a flash to create high-contrast, saturated images, some shot from awkward angles to leave viewers feeling unsettled.

The photographer also has a knack for picking out the kitsch and propaganda on display. There’s the close up of a blue-eyed, red-lipped mannequin decked out in a military uniform and wearing glittery eyeshadow; a travel poster-esque image of fighter jets and cotton candy clouds that one might expect to read “Wish you were here” scrawled in cursive; or the photo of a cardboard cutout solider, in full military gear, holding a rifle with a cartoonish rendering of a mushroom cloud in the background. The more authoritarian the host country is, the kitschier things get, said Teroyshin.

The Indian army's photo stand at DEFEXPO, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2020. The soldier is equipped with a Kalashnikov rifle wears a Russian uniform.
A shot of the reception at the 2016 MSPO expo, the biggest arms fair in Eastern Europe. The Tiger helicopter in the background had just returned from a mission in Mali.

In Russia, Teryoshin visited an arms fair at Patriot Park, a huge theme park often described as a “military Disneyland” where visitors are encouraged to climb on tanks, participate in urban warfare scenarios and eat military rations at the park canteen. It was here the photographer saw the biggest display of firepower he has ever witnessed: a mock battlefield, complete with artificial terrain and very real rockets.

“It was the only (arms fair I’d been to) where they were shooting real rockets over 20 kilometers (12 miles) maybe,” said Teroyshin.

No blood, no bodies

The photographer said he thought the salespeople at arms fairs actively distanced themselves from the damage these weapons cause. “There is no connection to death and war. You never see blood or bodies,” said Teroyshin, adding that the only thing he saw showing the human impact was an amputee mannequin (called Majid), used to simulate catastrophic medical care scenarios.

Weapons companies also appeared to brand themselves as heroes, said Teroyshin, who documented slogans he saw on site. Kalashnikov Group, whose AK –47 rifles are among the cheapest on the market and are thought to have killed more people globally than any other firearm, used the slogan “70 years defending peace,” he said, while marketing materials by Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers read: “We are engineering a better tomorrow.”

A visitor to IDEX 2019 in Abu Dhabi sits on a ferry, watching jet fighters, helicopters and cargo aircraft fly low.

In his book, Teroyshin has ironically arranged the slogans with his own images taken at the fairs. Manufacturing firm ITT Inc’s “Engineered for life” is paired to a close-up of a mannequin with a bullet hole in its head. Meanwhile, an Otis Defence slogan (“We believe every gun should always shoot like new. Whenever. Wherever. Forever.”) is paired with an image of three women in Islamic veils at an arms fair, one pretending to hold a rifle depicted in the poster in front of her.

At the 2018 Eurosatory expo in Paris, France, arms company CTA demonstrates their fire power on an aluminium sheet.

Teroyshin began documenting all types of trade fairs — for pets, agriculture and funerals — because his photography school in Dortmund, Germany, was located next to an expo hall. In 2016, the photographer, who has lived in Germany for over 20 years, published “Sons and Guns,” a photo series about hunting fairs, before turning his attention to arms fairs.

He began taking pictures showing the faces of buyers and sellers, but later chose to keep them concealed. “I just was thinking, ‘it’s not about certain people, but it’s more about the system behind it,’ which is the problem,” said Teryoshin. “Because most of the people will tell you: ‘Yeah, we have to work here because we have to feed our family’.”

Anonymizing his subjects was also a metaphor for an industry that “is kind of shady” and “doesn’t want much publicity,” he added.

On one of the last pages of the book, Linda Åkerström the head of policy and advocacy at the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society has written an afterword for Teroyshin’s book detailing her experience at IDEX, the biggest arms fair in the Middle East, and the growth of the military-industrial complex.

In it she said that the world’s military expenditure hit a record breaking $2.2 trillion with spending in Central and Western Europe surpassing levels “at the end of the Cold War.” The US and Russia, she said, were responsible for “more than half of the world’s exports of major conventional arms from 2018-2022,” and that states that did the most importing included India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia and China.

Åkerström said despite the Arms Trade Treaty coming into force in December 2014, many of the world’s top exporters and importers, including the US, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia are yet to ratify and that “the international arms trade remains less regulated than the trade in bananas.”

Teroyshin said he began his work, he believed weapons had no place in the world, but with the start of the Ukraine war, he said he’s changed his mind. “It is important that Ukraine is able to like to fight back and to protect democracy there against Putin’s regime.”

As one unnamed salesman from the Swedish at BAE Systems Bofors told Åkerström: “I would also like a world free from arms, but there is always a madman. If you can’t hit back, you’ll get beat up.”

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