It was only when aerial photographs depicting the eerie, near-abandoned streets of India’s usually hectic cities began to go viral on the internet that the far-reaching fallout of the pandemic became resonant.
While many urban residents were ensconced in their ‘silos’ pounding away at sourdough or exhausting Netflix libraries, drone cameras zipped through the pin-drop silence outside; chronicling unforgettable scenes of empty flyovers and bus stops, shuttered shops and even a lack of stray dogs on roads, becoming real-time storytellers of our neighbourhoods’ surreal transformation.
Drone photography is hardly a new phenomenon in photography, yet the prolonged lockdowns observed in several places throughout this year perhaps presented a uniquely fertile ground for it to shine. And photographers, along with videographers, took to the conditions with zeal.
A viral drone video of Mumbai under lockdown in April has racked up 6,242,325 YouTube views till date. At this year’s international Drone Photo Awards, held in September, an entire category was devoted to ‘Life under COVID-19.’ The winning shot, a picture of Israelis in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, protesting while also social distancing summed up the collective dystopia of 2020.
Statistically, it’s difficult to pinpoint a high rate of drone usage this year because of how many of them still remain undocumented in India, but, anecdotally at least, there has been a visible ubiquity of photographers favouring drone shots. Some of it came down to an obvious and heightened need to observe safety yet there were other catalysts at work.
“What has happened during this pandemic period is that a lot of cheaper drones have become available on the market. These drones, which are available online on platforms such as Amazon India, are being offered at a discounted price, and packaged with a warranty card and an official receipt,” says Archisman Saha, a Kolkata-based photographer, whose drone footage of the city under lockdown was picked up by several news portals.
A quick search on Amazon India backs up Saha’s claim. Non-premium drones are available for as less as ₹13,000. Saha, who bought his premium drone—DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro—for over a lakh last year, adds that India’s recent dispute with China has also limited the number of drones available in the market. This sends many buyers to black markets in places such as Metro Gully in Kolkata to buy second-hand models.
Other than drones now becoming more accessible to buyers, drone photography during the pandemic months has also been fuelled by a desire to document the mundane in a new light. For Hong Kong-based photographer Tugo Cheng, the lockdown period presented him with an opportunity to capture the many changes brought on by the pandemic—in everyday life.
“In Hong Kong, tourism has taken a massive hit due to the pandemic. As a result, the tourist coaches all remain in their depot, stationary and halted. I’ve lived in the city for more than 30 years, but I’ve never seen them at a standstill. So I decided to document this unique event through my drone,” he says.
Cheng, whose photo of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong was the runner-up in the ‘People’ category of the 2020 Drone Awards, prefers to shoot top-down to offer a wide-span view of the space he’s capturing. His latest series “Water & Earth” include roving dispatches from China of humans working in harmony with nature, from labourers working on salt flats and rice terraces, to city-goers lounging on the many layers of urban developments. For Cheng, the additional bonus of drones was he could cultivate the pursuit without navigating crowded spaces.
Cheng also believes drones offer a well-rounded sense of a certain space—a responsibility, which he says, lies with every travel photographer.
“For instance in my picture ‘Freedom,’ I have attempted to capture how Hongkongers spend their weekends in and by the water: some opt for pool lounges and parties, while others jump in the Victoria Harbour and swim. Through this shot, I’ve tried to tell a story about both the place and its people.”
Rakesh Pulapa, an award-winning travel photographer based out of Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, agrees with Cheng. “As a travel photographer, I want to come back from a trip with that one shot that gives me that sense of place—one which goes into my travel memory and makes its way into my life’s album,” he says.
Pulapa, who is also a winner of the 2020 Drone Awards, says that it is imperative for travel photographers to do their homework before visiting a new space for drone photography or videography. For instance, he says, he would choose destinations like Bali and Vietnam to visit over Dubai or Jordan, due to the strict laws regarding drone photography that abound in the latter places.
“I pick tourist-friendly destinations like Vietnam and Bali, which do not create much of a hassle regarding drone photography. Which is fortunate, because aerial shots of Vietnam’s architectural delights or Bali’s turquoise beaches are priceless to say the least.”
That being said, he warns, it is important to adhere to a country’s laws regarding drone photography on any photographical expedition.
For avid travellers confined indoors, drone photography was a much-required shot of hope this year. Travel photographers were already capturing stunning, wide-ranging panoramas long before the pandemic, but the need to provide this wholesome, wide-ranging sense of space to those starving for a taste of foreign shores gained momentum because vicarious journeys took on a special significance.
On May 2, the Ministry of Civil Aviation of India released an official notification greenlighting drone activities that helped manage the COVID-19 crisis, primarily in the field of surveillance, photographic documentation and public announcements.
Palapa, too, had been approached by the state government authorities for this purpose. In the past, he worked in collaboration with Andhra Pradesh’s tourism and forest departments, flying his device through hundreds of acres of dense mangroves and bushy forests—spots which are otherwise inaccessible to most.
The government’s fast-track approval of drone activity pertaining to the pandemic is surprising, considering that Indian drone regulation laws are not at all overarching. Under the current law, drone operators are expected to enlist their drones on the DGCA website. Once the operator uploads their personal information on the site, they will receive an Ownership Acknowledgement Number (OAN), using which they can upload all the information around their respective drone. They will then be granted a Drone Acknowledgement Number (DAN).
While the possession of an OAN and DAN doesn’t officially confer the right to operate a drone in India, the absence of the same can lead to penal action against the operator. As Saha puts it, it’s just better to have these in hand, should the police or other authorities raise any doubts.
Bharath Ramineni, a photographer in Warangal, Telangana, was savvy enough to loop his local police officials in, before he embarked on his passion project to document his hometown.
“Not too many people know about Warangal’s historical, architectural and cultural delights. By presenting my city through these shots in a whole new light—I hope to share its beauty with the rest of the country, and luck willing, the world,” he says.
Some photographers adhere to the notion that using drones to document places has its limitations. Parul Sharma, author of Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown, explains why she didn’t use a drone for the aerial shots she featured in her book that was released this year. Sharma’s work portrays Delhi’s vacant soul during the lockdown months through intimate portraits, many of them top-view shots clicked from rooftops across the capital, her favourite one being the terrace of the Statesman building. She says, “When it comes to imagery, there’s geometry and architecture to take into consideration. I’ll quote photojournalist Robert Capa when I say: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ And I suppose that’s why I choose to take my aerial shots from the top of a building instead of a drone, because to me, every single specimen in my shot needs to be documented.”
Despite the debate, however, there is no denying the role drone photography has played in these testing pandemic times. From documenting the deserted reality of our swarming cities to translating the inaccessible beauty of one faraway place to another in unexpected ways, drone photography ensured that even when our world stood motionless, the skies hummed with life.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.