How Journalists are Using Drones in War Zones: An Interview with International Aerial Photojournalist Gail Orenstein
BY Isabella Lee19 October 2018
Drones have enabled journalists to capture stories with a new perspective and enabled them to cover stories that were previously out of reach or too dangerous to cover in the field. We met with photojournalist Gail Orenstein to learn how she incorporated drones into her storytelling career.
Gail has been a photographer for over 20 years and has been using drones as part of her reporting toolkit for the past three years. She has traveled, often on her own, to 84 countries. Her recent work has focused on drone journalism in conflict zones. Her work has been distributed worldwide by international news outlets including CBS News, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Mashable, Washington Post, TIME, The BBC, The Telegraph, and many more. She has also been featured as a “Top UAS Predictor in the Field” by Women and Drones.
Read on to learn about Gail’s experiences traveling with her drone and using it to document stories in places like Ukraine, Iraq, and Georgia. Gail shares with us how drone laws differ around the world compared to drone laws in her home, London. She also gives us advice to share with those who want to use drones in journalism.
How did you become a photojournalist?
I come from a large, close-knit family, and my mother has a deep love of photography. Every room in our home was inundated with photographs, and my mother had a great story to go with each one.
Visual storytelling comes naturally to me as it does to my mother, so it made sense for me to go into photography. I started photographing on the streets of Chicago in my early twenties while attending school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I began getting official assignments after I graduated, and from there, things took off.
At what point did you start incorporating drones into your reporting?
I incorporated drones into my work three years ago after an eye-opening experience in Syria. I was smuggled into Kobane, Syria to cover the Syrian war in 2014.
One day we were in a safe house, and suddenly there was a military drone strike against ISIL forces in the building next door. The power of the strike was insane—everything around us was blown to pieces. The next day a Kurdish commander took us to the site of the strike. It looked like a huge sinkhole with glass everywhere. I felt so lucky we were next door and not in that building. Safety is always an issue in a conflict zone, but this was really close.
My experience in Syria increased my concerns about safety; running around in the field was getting more and more dangerous. I also realized that these stories were getting much bigger. I need aerial equipment to cover these stories. Droning was an obvious solution to both these issues. Now with a drone, I can soar above and get really dramatic footage with less risk to me personally.
When you first started to use drones, what were some lessons you learned?
First, I had to become an expert on the drone laws of the local countries, and these laws change very quickly. When I arrive in a new country, I always take a photo of the airspace regulations webpage, so if I am stopped I can say I have the updated regulations on my iPhone. Also, I never travel anywhere without serious drone liability insurance that covers me globally.
Second, I had to get fully licensed. I decided it would be best to have both a CAA license and an FAA license. Let me tell you, I am so happy I did that. It was costly and very time consuming, but when I take out both licenses I am always flagged through customs. Well, so far anyway.
I also keep my professional journalism credentials up to date and notarized. For a professional drone pilot, it is my personal experience that obtaining the right certifications and professional paperwork is the first and most critical step. Only then do I get to think about what equipment I want to take.
Once I have all of my documentation sorted I get to think about the kind of drone I will take for my next assignment. A professional drone journalist needs a fleet of drones. There are major differences between battery life cycle, the size of the drone, weight, camera quality.
What is your favorite drone to fly for aerial photojournalism?
Right now it’s the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. I’ve used it to produce some of my most complex work to date. I really like this particular drone although it is a bit cumbersome. I still have my Mavic, and I just bought a Parrot Anafi.
Though the industry has moved on, I still have a real soft spot in my heart for the Parrot Bebop 2, as it was the first drone I carried around when I started. Though it lacked many features I take for granted now I never had any trouble traveling with it. I could carry it around in one arm and fly it off the iPad. It gave me a lot of freedom, and I was able to move about Bangladesh and Iraq with it and do some work I am still very proud of.
How do drones improve your ability to document stories through photography?
The obvious answer to that is that I can get the big picture quicker. I can access the area much faster without having to spend hours or days walking around. So, I can photograph larger areas to show the impact of catastrophic events or document the number of people in a refugee camp. It also allows me to see in real time where I might want to go to get further documentation on the ground later on.
I cannot believe I worked without this tool for 30 years. It has changed my work on so many levels in recent years.
You have traveled internationally to 84 countries. What has been your experience traveling with a drone, taking it through airports, and receiving approval to fly?
It varies dramatically from nation to nation, with some places demanding I get written letters from governments ministries to pretty open policies about droning. You really need to spend time researching beforehand, have your paperwork in place, and be prepared to deal with changing red tape, especially in areas where drone laws are not established or in areas where the civilian population has not picked up droning.
One experience I look back on is traveling with a drone to Nepal. I had not received my certification yet, and I was refused access to certain areas. It is now one of the most strict countries to receive permission to drone. After the earthquake in April 2015, every drone hobbyist took a drone to Nepal, and they flew over UNESCO sites, temples, and really sacred places of worship. This caused the government officials to crack down on Nepal drone policy.
Tell me about your experiences recently traveling to countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. How did flying in these countries compare to flying where you live in London? Is there anything about UK drone laws you want to share with us?
In places like Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria the uptake of drone usage is much higher than in the UK. Drones in these countries aren’t only used by the military, but also by film-makers and journalists. Surprisingly, these countries have a more established drone culture than in a place like the UK. People are accustomed to drones because of the war, and there are a local culture and industry around drones.
Due to the war in the East, the Ukrainians, in particular, have developed a strong culture of handmade reconnaissance drones they use on the frontlines. They have excellent engineering schools and a lot of determination—a very powerful mix when it comes to getting things done. Matrix UAV is just one startup Ukranian UAV company that is leading a new wave of hand-built drones. They are building drones that they hope will carry blood to the frontline as well as bring back wounded Ukrainian soldiers while also doing reconnaissance missions. I am deeply impressed with the start-up UAV movement in Ukraine.
When I was in Georgia I took a train to Azerbaijan. I was told I would have no problem crossing the border. When I arrived in Azerbaijan, the customs officials told me they would have to confiscate my drone equipment. I took out my proper licenses and press documents. These were very heavily examined. My papers saved me from having to give up my drone. The customs officials told me that since I had these official papers they would let me through. I learned that the drone laws in Azerbaijan are enforced much more strictly than drone laws in Georgia. You have to register your drone with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Azerbaijan, and there is no flying in Baku without permission. So again, be careful and keep yourself protected as laws change arbitrarily.
Here in the UK, I recently flew into a bird migratory path by accident. This was outside London, and I am very very careful about migratory paths. The birds had already migrated a few months before, I had checked the area, the map, and everything appeared okay. During the flight, the local Canal and River Trust approached me and said I could not drone in the area because it was over a bird migratory path. It did not matter that the birds had left months ago. There are lots of places in the world were the laws and locals are much more pro-drone than drone laws in the UK. So again, you need to do your homework not only about local laws but also about local culture.
Tell me about your most recent project using drones.
I am working with an Azeri film-maker Rashad Abeyev about a film covering the Caucasus region. I am working simultaneously as a drone journalist in these places. I have had an opportunity to film the most amazing different groups of people and their settlements, including Azeri fishermen on the Caspian Sea. Also, we are incorporating into the film a village of mountain Jews living near Dagestan on the border with Russia. The mountain Jews really fascinate me, since as a Jew I had never heard of them. I went to Quba in Azerbaijan and droned the synagogue and the surrounding area—it was amazing.
What project are you most proud of that involved drones?
I am very proud of the work I did with the Rohingya refugee crisis on the Myanmar and Bangladesh border. I was there at the start of the genocide on the Bangladesh side when thousands of Rohingya were fleeing Myanmar. I was able to get a great deal of drone footage during the height of the monsoon season. I caught severe phenomena, but I was determined not to leave without that aerial footage. No camps had been built yet. There were masses of people struggling against the elements to get to safety and build really massive refugee cities on muddy hills very quickly.
I did this work in 2017 moving about independently using my own drones and loading my work up at night. Suddenly a lot of relief agencies working there contacted me about my work, which gave me a real sense of satisfaction as they wanted to use the aerial footage. I realized at that point the aerial footage was the evidence. You cannot fake a news story from the sky. It was a great feeling to share that footage with these agencies.
Most of all I am proud of the women that write to me. I hope that women continue to work in this industry and don’t give up. Sadly, I saw statistics about the growth in the industry, and men are making the most gains. We cannot lose the female perspective, what a horrible loss.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photojournalist who wants to use drones?
Be prepared to work and study hard. Review the work that is out there. Photojournalism is already two fields merged into one, which means you have to learn to be a photographer and a journalist. Most photojournalists also do video, so to do that job too you have to learn to use your camera to do video work when needed.
Drones add a new dimension to an already difficult job. You really have to take the time to get properly trained and certified. You need to put in the hundreds of hours of flight time to develop your skills, to build confidence, and to be aware of safety. When I fly, I fly for all—I think about other pilots, and I am determined to stop any reckless droning I witness or hear about. We must work as a community to keep our standards high.
You also need to learn air laws/drone laws and the masses of technical and regulatory information that goes with droning. I have spent months in classes learning theory and in ground school in the US and UK.
This is a really demanding job, on top of international regulations, technical specifications, operation manuals, and a regulatory environment that is constantly changing. I don’t say this to make those considering entering drone journalism afraid. Don’t be afraid. Instead, be prepared to train for at least a few years. Droning is a profession taken up by many and pursued by few.
To learn more about Gail Orenstein, visit her website. Let us know how you think drones have impacted the way we document and view news from around the world, or share your thoughts on this interview, by hopping into this thread on our community forum.