As much as we'd like to be there to see visitors from another planet land on Earth, there's a good chance aliens will find something we made and sent out into space before they actually find us. In that spirit, 100 photos that will explain who humans are are about to be launched into space. But how do you choose those images?
The photos, which range from an image of a Soyuz rocket launch to a grainy picture taken by a spy drone, will be sent into space on a gold-encased silicon disc on board the EchoStar XVI communications satellite this fall. The collection was planned by public art group Creative Time and organized by geographer and artist Trevor Paglen, and though other such collections have been sent into space before, this one is geared specifically toward showing not what humanity is, but what humanity was.
That's right, this is a group of images intended to show a future alien explorer what the race from planet Earth was like before we were wiped out, though Paglen and the experts he consulted when assembling the photos seem to agree that it's unlikely any being will ever find the disc. For them, the project was more about the effort to select the photos than making sure they're found.
"In one sense it's a deeply ridiculous project," Paglen said. "Having said that, I thought it was a deeply ethical project."
The images selected for the project are now assembled in a photo book titled The Last Pictures, which you can order here. All of the images have power, but not everyone believes the project was done right. Just ask acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog, who believes the photos should have been sent to the stars packaged with more complete captions.
"How do you tell them about the background of the photo?" Herzog asked last week during a panel discussion with Paglen. Among Herzog's objections was a photo of a child smiling despite being imprisoned in a Japanese-American internment camp. Herzog called such photos "a cheap shot at the aliens," but Paglen argued that the photo is powerful because of its contradictions, and noted that photos do not always have definite meanings. His collection, he said, is more about demonstrating the "progress" of humanity, including the negative developments. And despite his objections, Herzog eventually called the finished product "one of the most amazing, beautiful photo books I've ever seen."
Check out a dozen of the images, with very limited captions, below. If you want to see the rest, you'll have to buy the book.