Interview with Gail Orenstein, Photographer & Drone Journalist in Conflict Zones

Gail Orenstein has been a photographer for 23 years, and has travelled the globe documenting conflicts from Guatemala to Iraq. She was the first female civilian to drone in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq during the Mosul offensive in 2017 and her drone footage and photography work has been distributed globally to such organisations as CBS news, The Guardian, The Times, Washington Post, TIME, The BBC and more.

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Q1:         What initially drew you to photography as a medium?

I was always very interested in photography and my father, when I was younger, this was in the 60s actually, I don’t really remember the original footage because we had them re-digitalised, but my father used to have a Super 8 Bell + Howell super video camera and make movies all the time. The old Super 8 cameras. So my father was always making movies when we went to school and when we went to go skiing and at a very early age my father just loved film making.  The problem was that he tried to make some kind of cool films but often times he forgot to include our heads in the shots, so you see all these little kids running around headless.  So, I think he wasn’t familiar with how to use the eye piece.  When we sit around as a family we recognise, oh that’s me running around, that’s me running around, so you see a lot of children running around on film and you have to identify them as best as you can.  My father’s intentions were great you know to make these family movies, but he wasn’t technically very good.  So, lots of headless films of children and the attempt was wonderful though, you can see us fighting and playing in the snow, but it’s hard to identify who’s through the snowballs.

Q2:         Can you describe how your arts education and career path lead you to become a drone journalist?

Well I’ve been a photo journalist for 25 years. I think it was just a natural extension really, I studied undergraduate photo journalism at the Art Institute of Chicago and I received a master’s degree there in art therapy. I used photo therapy as a way to help people sort of use cameras to solve problems.  So, photography was always a big part of my family as well because my mother through the years as I was growing up and I was college and there was 8 of us.  She had eight children.  We always sent her photos, my mother kept my father’s World War II photos, my mother kept both grandparents photo albums.  So as soon as you would walk into our house it was sort of like a photo museum.  So, I think that had a really big impact on me and using this medium, because I was very familiar with it from my mother and my father and also, I came from a very, very social family.  So, there was always people around my parents, for dinner, for lunch for breakfast, visiting on the weekends.  So, I think it was a sort of a natural progression for me to become used to people always in an environment around me and large crowds and I really was you know, fearless.  That came from my parents, they were very social, and I was used to all ethnicities, black, white, Indian, everyone was welcome into our family.  And my parents had a lot of friends and they are very much still deeply loved for that. So, I really didn’t know until I was older really what a lot of racism was because my parents had everybody over, so as a photo journalist that was amazing really because I sort of came from an early point of view that you know, you just go and do your art and really discrimination just was not there.  You start to think about politics later on, my parents were not political, they were business people and they were smart about it and they sort of just, they really didn’t use politics as any kind of weapon ever and it wasn’t until as I said I was in University that I really became much more politically aware.  But I had that openness about ethnicity and welcoming all ethnic people and from all diverse backgrounds and also my mother was in a lot of women’s groups, so my mother was a great inspiration.  My mother helped a lot of women, my mother had a lot of female grandchildren and there were 7 girls that she raised and one boy.  So, my mother was always giving to women’s charities and really caring for women.  When she grew up she grew up taking care of a lot of women during World War II, her mother had a convalescent home that they rented above their house and my mother nursed a lot of women back to health.  I think my mother’s mother was responsible for a lot of the males coming in, but my mother was responsible, for a very young age she would talk to me being 15, 16, 17 and 18 being really happy to be able to take care of elderly women so that she could contribute to helping her mother. I think maybe they made $20 dollars a week or $100 a dollar, but that was a lot right after World War II.  So, my mother was extremely aware of poverty, my mother lived through it, my mother never judged anyone for their social class because my mother was very poor.  My parents worked extremely hard and became affluent later in their lives after building a business together for 50 years.  But never during that time did they, the only things that they put in their background from growing up poor was the determination to not to discriminate against the poor. And that a profound impact on my work.

Q3:         Can you give a description of the work involved in photo/drone journalism?

Yes, I think my photo journalism is a wonderful thing.  It’s wonderful to be a photo journalist and it’s a very unique thing to be able to do, to be able to tell a visual story.  And you know create some text with it.  I remember when I was smuggled into Syria in 2014 and I was with the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit and I was very interested in covering the female fighters the YPJ.  The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, that’s the female fighting unit.  And they took care of me, I was on the front line with them and I had a Nikon D3 and I stayed there and documented for a week the female fighters.  But I also documented the fight against Islamic State and I left around after Christmas.  So, when I got back to London after I was smuggled out of Syria in December 2014.  I came back and saw some footage by a Brazilian photo journalist named Gabriel Chaim, I saw Gabriel’s drone footage of his work in Kobani and it completely changed my life and it changed everything. I decided at that point once I saw Gabriel’s work that drone journalism would now be, using drones in part of my arsenal, my traditional cameras.  Using drones would always be the way that I would work from now on.  I thought that Gabriel’s, I thought that looking at that footage really got a much more in-depth story from using aerial shots. So, I studied that, and I brought from that really changed me and changed the way that I told stories.  Because you could really see the whole damage done in Kobani and using a done.  So, from that point I went to Iraq and I went to continue my work and now I carry a fleet of small drones with me. I started out using larger drones, but now I carry smaller drones and I use traditional methods such as my still cameras, my video and now I use drones.  So, I have quite a mix of hybrid technology now.

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Q4:         What particular issues arise from working in conflict zones?

Well as you can imagine one being danger because there are a lot of you know you have to be careful of a lot of different things, one is you’re at war, so there’s going to be a lot of gun battle, there may be bombs, airstrikes, drone strikes. I think you have to be very, very careful and one thing that’s changed using this drone technology as drone journalists, is that I can fly over an area now and review the footage and perhaps see maybe some areas that I want to stay away from now that before I might have had to walk to, I can use the drone as sort of a safety mechanism prior to.  So, I do a survey of the area before I decide now to walk around it.  I do a lot of pre-assessment drone journalism work of the areas, also its been fascinating change to work so closely now with Humanitarian Agencies and to work with mapping agencies and geographical agencies because I can now give mathematical formulations about the size of refugee camps.  You can use this footage when you drone over a refugee camp or a conflict area to really get a different picture and use it to help and assist aid and NGO agencies in a different way.  So, there’s picture telling still through traditional mechanisms and then as a drone journalist I have so many different other ways of using storytelling and assisting agencies using drones in conflict areas.

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Q5:         In your career have you encountered any issues relating to the fact that you are a woman?

That’s a great question because the answer is yes, and I think one of the biggest issue is that I don’t see many women in my job and I’ve always advocated.  I would love to see female photo journalists working in humanitarian and conflict zones very carefully of course.   I don’t encourage somebody to just go straight to Syria. I encourage that you study hard, you work hard and do a kind of internship perhaps with a news agency before you just start hitting the ground.  Other people may just say just go, but I’m a little more careful, I do realise I have a responsibility because these are very dangerous places.  And you really have to know what you’re doing.  So, I would say look around and see if you can do an internship and also take a hostile environment course, take all hostile kinds of training you can, and the Rory Peck has a hostile environment training.  Also, if you’re in University I would study war correspondence and journalism, I would really, really work hard at getting as much knowledge as you can before you go into any of these areas and that’s what I highly recommend.  Especially as a female, because you’re going to see a lot of male photo journalists, a lot of male film makers, a lot of male soldiers, a lot of male military.  So, you may encounter a bit of alienation, but you know work with everybody, I worked a lot with mainly with my male colleagues and when I do see any female colleagues of course you know I am so happy. But there are not as many, but I’m trying to encourage drone journalists, as many females to become involved as possible.  And I am starting a charity for teaching young females how to tell stories in their area, say in Rwanda or Uganda or Bangladesh. Training them as drone pilots, so that they can tell local stories using both traditional means which is photography and videography but also using drones. So, I am hoping that we will see a lot more women using this technology, using and becoming drone journalists.

Q6:         Do the specific problems of women globally have an impact on your work?

I think that’s a very important question as they all are. Remember I see a lot of women and children and when I’m working in conflict or humanitarian areas and it is usually the impact on these crisis’ the first affected are women and children.  So yes, globally there’s a huge crisis of women’s needs that are unattended.  Female hygienic needs that are desperately needed, baby formula that’s for young babies both male and female.  But it is the mother’s that are very, very hit hard in these global crisis’ and we need more, we’re always saying we need more humanitarian responses.  But one of the things I have seen over the years is that it’s very important that the response all be from well-trained locals because of the language and we need to train I think more locals, more female locals to deal with rapid response in humanitarian conflict areas that are hit hard.  These female locals they know the area, they know the language and I very much advocate the use of training locals in these areas to help females.  Training females to provide medical assistance when they are struggling in conflict or humanitarian areas.

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Q7:         Do you think there is something about your own character that has lead you into this field of work?

Well certainly I did touch on that with the synergy between my parents who have wonderful personalities and growing up around so many people and you know both my mother and father being involved in the visual arts at a young age.  I don’t think they really intentionally were doing these things, but I think by my father making films and my mother sort of making our house a photographic museum I think being surrounded by the visual arts that they had around the photographs of family, the photographs of my mother’s parents.  My father’s World War II photographs, all of this had a very much a huge impact on me because I saw it every single day as a child.  I saw it every day single, my mother had them on the walls all of these memories were ingrained in me as a child, they were very important, and I saw them through the visuals around the house, and through the stories.  My mother was a fantastic storyteller, she told stories, I would sit for hours and listen to her stories. My mother, the one thing I do regret my mother has passed away, but she still exists in my heart every single day and in my mind every single day.  And is with me on my journey still every single day.  But my mother, I wish I had recorded, towards the end of my mother’s life I did record many of my mother’s stories that she told about her upbringing.  But I do wish that I had smart as a teenager to record so many of the stories that she told me, that she suffered as poverty right after World War II and going through such difficult economic times in the late 30s, 40s and how much a struggle her family went through.  How much she helped her mother, those stories really had a profound impact on my work.


Q8:         How do you switch off from your work as a photo journalist or a drone journalist.

I think the thing is, I don’t really think that when you’re doing this kind of job you ever switch off, I think that this is part of who you are, this is part of your personality. And this is very much who you are as a person, so you live it, you breathe it, you are it.  When I’m walking down the streets I give to charity, when I see a homeless, I give to them.  When I document in Bangladesh I try to put my equipment down and try to help people.  I think it encompasses your life all the time, it’s part of your character, or you wouldn’t do that job. I think the job sort of reflects who you are, I don’t think everybody could be a photo journalist, I don’t think everybody could be a drone journalist.  I don’t think most people could go into a conflict zone and do what I do.  It’s a very unique job and I’m very blessed that I have the ability to be published where I can show people the faces that have been left behind and the faces that are struggling.  And even if one person or ten people see these that could have an impact and if I am the first there and news get to humanitarian agencies then that’s wonderful.  Because that information is passed along and then charities start coming and so we have the ability to have an impact, we can’t necessarily change the world so much, but we can let important people know that this is what’s happening on the ground, this is what’s being made so far available on the ground and can you send more help.  Can you send more aid, can you start a relief fund, so we do have the ability to change the situation, we don’t have the ability to necessarily stop the situation?  But even if you can save a life, then you can walk away feeling pretty good, if you can go back and visit and see that those people now have a regular home to live in, rather than a refugee camp.  I think you know, you can feel good about that, there’s a lot that I don’t feel good about I know people still living in refugee camps.  So, you never really switch off and especially when you’re in your studio looking at this footage, you always wonder what happened to this person, I remember this day when this family.  I remember this family leaving Mosel, I remember this family leaving Kobani in Syria.  Where are they now, that’s a question I always ask myself, it’s a question you know I live with but when you return, and you see sometimes there is rebuilding going on, sometimes there’s not and you have to live with those consequences.  So, you never really do leave, you never leave this, it’s always with you.  What you try and do is you try and out of it, you try to make an empowering situation for those that you have left through connections and through humanitarian organisations and through locals who you know have the power to change things on the ground. So, one hopes that you know when you show, and you have the power to also show your work in art galleries and things like that and donate some money and make a difference.  There are a lot of ways you as a person can go about doing your work, everybody does it very different when they leave a crisis situation but for me it’s just encompasses me all the time and it’s something that I am proud of and it’s something that you have to be a very social creature because when you finish, you still have a lot of people that you’re responsible too and so it never really does leave you, I think it stays with you forever and it helps you think of better ways as you get older especially using a drone.  Now I am thinking about how is it that I can go to these areas and do food drops as a drone journalist, so I think it helps you develop as a person, that’s what I hope it does for others, I can’t speak for others but for me I am always looking for ways to help people in my next journey.

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Thank you for this interview I hope you enjoyed it.

I did Gail, good luck in your work and thank you.


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