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Interview with drone journalist Gail Orenstein on the power of drones for good, meditation and drone porn

22 Januar 2019

Gail is an award winning UAV technologist & drone journalist. Gail has droned in 21 countries & is an expert on using drones in international airspace, cross-border UAV practice in remote places. She consults in solutions for maximising UAV technology in the Int. arena as uses drones in a global market. Her work as a global UAV pilot reaches across the US, EU, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central Asia & Africa. She is a speaker & evangelist for women and tech. We have had the chance to interview her for AIRTEAM a few days ago.

Interview with drone journalist Gail Orenstein on the power of drones for good, meditation and drone porn
Gail Orenstein teaching drone skills all around the world

1. First of all can you introduce yourself and tell us how you went from photojournalism to drone journalism?

My story began really when I was younger, and my great influence was both my mother and my father. My mother loved photographs, I basically grew up with her telling stories about all the photographs we had around the house, they were from my grandfather, my grandmother on both sides. There were also lots of World War II photographs of my dad on Tinian Island in the South Pacific and a photograph of my grandfather in Wlodz Poland stand-in on his farm in 1933. This was the only photo of him in Europe, so I was fascinated by that one and I always looked at it, but my dad never liked to talk about this one photo becuase of the poverty and the anti-semitism they faced during that time.


My mother always had photographs of her children and grandchildren all over the wall, so I would come home and she would have a cupper and tell me stories while I was eating. Her story-telling which was sometimes in Yiddish and English mixed had such a profound postive influence on who I am today with visual storytelling. Even when I visited them in Mystic Connecticut where I grew up all the way through until the day my mother passed away 4 years ago I can remember sort of walking into a photo museum that was their house, she would tell these stories to me, she was very nostalgic about her family, my dad was very sentimental and kept private, but he did have great WW2 military stories about him and his mates on Tinian Island.


So, I was always in a situation where I had my mother telling wonderful stories and I had a visual archive of everything that was important to her and those became important to me and I inherited many of this photos when she passed, the irony of her death was that she died from Alzheimer's, so she actually lost her memory, the one thing that really connected her to the world of visual arts.


That is what really influenced me a lot and in fact my father although deeply private shared my mother’s love and passion for visual arts in the 1950s and 60s he bought a new Bell & Howell 8mm film recorder but unfortunately, he was never a great filmmaker. Years later we found


these 8mm films and we got them re-digitized and a lot of the heads were cut off, I think he was running around trying to film us but we were a brood of 8, so we would get together for festive occasions years later and we would watch these 8mm films and try and identify whose little feet they were as he accidentally missed catching the heads in the frame while he was running around filming.


It was really very interesting merge between my mom and dad and I also grew up in a very social family. My dad did a lot of business in the house and there were always strangers over for dinner, so I was very familiar with a very multicultural home, we had everyone over, my parents were never racist, everyone was welcome in our home.


At a young age, basically at around 12, 13 years old I began taking my brothers Leica camera when he was at Harvard and left this behind hanging in the house. So, my first experience is I saw that camera often and so when I got my hands on it I really cocked up a lot of film trying to use that Leica, it was hard but eventually my dad and I kind of messed with it and we got it work and I started using it and I decided to study photojournalism. Because I became obsessed with the photographers like Dorothea Lange, and how she documented for the Farm Security Administration, the great depression the conditions of the people and these images were so powerful I only studied I never did anything else in college, I spent 4 years shooting and reading photo books.


Especially the Vietnam photographers like Nick Ut, Henry Huet and Don McCullin. Vietnam war photojournalism had a huge impact on me, I studied it a lot as well. I went to the School of Art Institute of Chicago for undergraduate degree in photojournalism and then I continued on with my master’s there, I was at the school for 7 years. It was there I started getting my first assignments.


So, after years of using traditional photographic equipment and video equipment for 23 years about 3 years ago, more news agencies started asking for drone footage so I became FAA and CAA licensed. The technology was changing so fast I did not want to lose out, I saw it as an exciting new piece of technology I could now have access to a bigger story from over it.


So, I was a very early pioneer in bringing drones to conflict zones and humanitarian areas.


And so, I took UAV equipment into these areas I was working in especially like in Iraqi Kurdistan and in fact I was the first female civilian to drone the Iraqi, Mosul offensive in 2017. Also I was the only female civilian with a drone to take aerial footage when the Rohingya were crossing the Bay of Bengal to escape a genocide of their in Myanmar.


So, I think it was a natural progression and really, I am very lucky as I had the photojournalsm experience and I just extended that into drone journalsm. A lot of my colleagues have not made this transition, they still only use traditional photo and video equipment, not UAV technology to shoot aerial footage or do mapping.

2. How long have you been flying drones and which model do you currently fly?

Well as a drone journalist it’s kind of a unique question. I fly with a fleet of drones actually. I use to fly actually when I started 3 years ago, with only my Parrot Bebop 2 and my Phantom 3 but I would have my Phantom 3 confiscated a lot at the airports back then, so I just would really shoot a lot with my Parrott Bebop 2. I actually got a lot of aerial work done with that hobbyist drone, I did the Rohingya crisis and I actually did the Mosul offensive in 2017 with my Parrot Bebop 2. So, you know it doesn’t have to be something fancy, but I would say over the last couple few years as I find myself literally droning hours and hours a day, I am more particular about which drone I take to which region and to shoot what. The camera capabilities change so fast now as the UAV industry develops, I’m definitely thinking more and more which piece of equipment fits with my particular assignment and clients needs.

3. What do you enjoy most about flying drones? What was the most memorable or funny moment while flying your drone?

I think my most memorable flight was when I was flying next to the Myanmar border in Bangladesh and the Rohingya were fleeing, tens of thousands of Rohingya were crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh and I actually witnessed this. These people were suffering so much, not only from days of walking without food and water, but distress over trying to locate their loved ones, distress about the genocide that was happening against their population and being denied by the Myanmar government. The fact that they were stateless and had no passports, the anxiety of not knowing their own personal fate.


I was working and with all of these refugees at the time when they reached Bangladesh and one day I was droning, they were building one of the first refugee camps and the backdrop was floods the monsoon and all the suffering was going on around me. Many times when I was droning this many of the Rohingya took the time to try and clear a path for me to be able to launch my drones, in the thick muddy conditions. I did not have my helipad for landing and you know these people who are in just unbelievable distress took a minute to help me try clear a muddy path to be able to get their story. Even under the most distress, I was deeply moved they were trying to help me find a piece of cardboard as they were suffering a genocide. And with all this hostility towards the press these days, you know seeing a population experiencing genocide and becoming refugees overnight yet realising the importance of your work while you have a President around the world saying “journalists are the enemy of the state”, these Rohingya were helping me was a moment I will never forget. I do usually bring a helipad so that I can land my UAV, but I didn’t have one in Bangladesh during the Monsoon. So, to see people give a little part of their roof so I can land my drone which won’t land in the mud is pretty amazing stuff, you don’t forget things like that. You don’t forget the faces, you don’t forget the people and that just really forever sticks in my mind, the sheer strength of these people.

4. Drone flying is quite a male dominated area. Why do you think so? Do you think this is changing soon? what can females do to

I’ve learned that just because I use drone technology, doesn’t mean that suddenly it’s a female industry, most of my colleagues have remained male, like it was in the photojournalsm business, that has not changed yet sadly. There’s not a lot of female drone journalists, so just because we have new technology doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be suddenly be flooded with females. Often I’m still faced with the same difficult challenges that women face in my field which is that you know the equipment gets very heavy. UAV equipment is very battery intensive and carrying a lot of drone equipment can be heavy and I carry a lot more of batteries to remote places.


When I was younger I was carrying rolls of film and they weren’t as heavy, but they were still cumbersome but now I am carrying a lot more heavy items. Sadly, I would say there is some sexual harassment issues that still make me feel uncomfortable, but I’ve been dealing with this for 24 years, so it’s a complicated issue and it’s a whole other kind of issue that I think needs to be made aware as it go under-reported and needs to be addressed more as an issue for female reporters in remote places.


I think will drone journalists will have their have #me too day but not anytime soon and would that help or hurt us in the industry, this is a complex issue I am unable to explain my thoughts on it in one interview. I would also say if you’re a female and you want to get started in conflict and humanitarian zones, I would do a lot of documentary work first. You need a lot of courses on hostile environment training in using technology in hostile environments and self-defence classes.


There’s a lot of things young women of all ages can do to protect themselves while they’re in the field. You need to have all of preparation done before you go to any of these places. I don’t recommend you go into Iraq as your first introduction to this field. it’s very dangerous and if you’re in unfamiliar space like this, you’re not going to be prepared. So, I wouldn’t advise women or men starting out to go straight to war.

Conclusion

Well since it is still in its infancy there is room for innovation but I worry that big commercial industry might shut out smaller UAV operators. I have been to a lot of drone conferences and I hope that I don’t continue to only see agro, security and military. We need to keep it attractive and affordable so that it does not become another male run industry with only key-players having a say of it’s future. For me the excitement is deeply personal, I drone for work but also for spiritual reasons. I find it to be meditative, calming and relaxing. I don’t mean that to sound silly, but it is a way of engaging with technology that does not leave me passive, I am very active, I hike with my drones, I trek, I am always seeking new countries to do assignments in. I find flying deeply rewarding, it really has changed my life. Many people drone to get “hot shot” footage of the next castle, I call that drone porn. When I fly I am like a child, it is always a profound experience for me. We never discuss the emotional side of droning and this is something I am writing a lot about.   

Find our more about Gail on www.gailorenstein.com

Conclusion