On January 21, 2019, photojournalist Nikita Teryoshin was in the main hall of Abu Dhabi’s expansive National Exhibition Centre, surrounded by booths and stalls filled with giant shells, tanks, and some of the most powerful people on the planet. He had travelled from his Berlin home to the UAE’s capital for the 25th anniversary of the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), and to celebrate the landmark year, its organisers unveiled a particularly special surprise. At the room’s head was a table-sized cake, featuring a bizarre land, air and sea militarised scene, lined with edible ammunition across its rear.
“In the middle of this cake there was a huge explosion, jets were flying around, a tank, a soldier, and a battleship,” Teryoshin recalls, with a still-disbelieving pause. “Special guests were invited at some point to eat it with really small forks – it looked like a real battlefield at the end because it was such a mess. I was like ‘oh my god’, you think what’s going on there is so crazy and then there’s still something that can top it.”
A photograph of that surreal cake is one of many now featured in Teryoshin’s newly-published photobook Nothing Personal – The Back Office of War. The 2019 edition of IDEX was just one of the several arms fairs that the photographer travelled to over a period of eight years, after a visit to a hunting fair in 2016 got him thinking about the ways lethal weapons were bought and sold. Fairs and expositions from all corners of the globe feature – Russia, France, USA, China, Poland, Vietnam, South Africa, Peru and beyond.
The book is a window into the shady business of arms dealing, and the barely believable ways in which lethal weapons are commercialised and sold. Usually advertised as “defence shows” or “airshows”, the events give companies space to show off their latest innovations in military technologies. Ammunition and warheads appear in all shapes and sizes, while simulators, models and demonstrations highlight their power – if not their human impact. From the first fair he visited in Poland, Teryoshin was immediately struck by the contradictions that they presented. “It was pretty cynical actually, people were just selling weapons like vacuum cleaners,” Teryoshin says. “It was like a playground for adults – people were in suits shooting bazookas or machine guns plugged into screens, so I was pretty shocked.”
Alongside the photographs, Teryoshin printed punchy slogans that he saw or heard at the conferences used by the arms manufacturers and dealers. Phrases like “WE ARE ENGINEERING A BETTER TOMORROW” or “UNMATCHED LETHALITY AT ANY DISTANCE” give a disquieting, dystopian edge to the already unnerving shots. “I included the slogans of companies because I think it’s one of the best ways to describe what’s going on there – it’s kind of Orwell speech,” Teryoshin says. “One of the weirdest was from [Russian rifle manufacturer] Kalashnikov. I saw it with my own eyes in Moscow, it was an installation and a cube [made] out of glass and inside was a three-dimensional AK-47, and also in 3D was the slogan ’70 years defending peace’.”
Adding to the strangeness of the book, Teryoshin chose not to take pictures of any faces while at the fairs, giving the pictures an obscured, shady energy. “I didn’t want to show the faces of the people, and [focus more] on the systems of the arms trade,” he explains. “For sure there are CEOs and politicians – usually in every country the head of state is opening the fair, for example Merkel or Macron, Putin was in Moscow.”
Putin’s Russia, of course, launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine just under two years ago, while reports suggest Israel has dropped tens of thousands of bombs onto Gaza over the past months. It’s a world where military tensions have become more fraught than ever in recent memory, and these expositions and gatherings, where such destructive weapons are exchanged for billions of dollars, have become more relevant than ever.
“I went to [the arms fair] in Berlin in 2022 and also in 2018, so four years later,” Teryoshin says. “And there were much more arms, rockets, bombs and everything. So it’s getting more normal, and the idea of marketing war is a dangerous thing.”