Growing up in a household of artists, I watched as family members studied multiple mediums. My father is a wildlife painter, my brother a videographer, and I am a photographer. Nature has always been a focus of mine with my work. I love capturing moments that inspire, educate, and allow my audience to grow closer to our natural environments. Recently, I made the purchase of my first drone, a DJI Mavic Pro 2. The drone was a tool that my family was collectively interested in seeing fly. We all came out on the front lawn of my parents’ home the first time I flew it. It was not the quickly rotating propellers, or its small sleek size that captured our imagination. Instead, we were all curious about one aspect and that was the ability to see the world from a new perspective. Instinctually, we all knew that we rarely see our world from above and therefore we were curious. We watched in real time on my phone, which was connected to the drone, as the world became smaller and smaller while it ascended into the air. 100ft, 200ft, 400ft, suddenly our entire livelihoods became visible on the tiny screen: our house, our pond, and a little huddle of people. Why was this so profound and important to our connections with the natural world?
When we look back in time to the beginning of imagery, Ansel Adams undoubtedly comes to mind. He was one of greatest photographers to ever live and pushed the boundaries of still imagery with his work of American public lands. Yosemite National Park quickly became where he focused his expertise. With the help of publication, millions of people worldwide not only would see Adam’s work for the first time but also the national park itself. In a time where globalization was inching towards the 21st century, his work brought society to new worlds they would never have reached otherwise. Suddenly, the public did not have to physically be in a place to experience its beauty and understand the importance of its preservation. They could just look at a photograph.
Drones have revived this theme of intimacy with the world’s natural environments; the same one that Ansel Adams helped start. A few months have passed since I first bought my drone, but I must say the curiosity of seeing the world from above continues to bring me back to fly over and over again. I fly my drone in the same wooded piece of property behind my house most evenings. I watch as the drone lifts off into the sky and I become dwarfed once more by the size of the trees surrounding me on my connected phone screen. There is something very humbling and real about the entire experience. It strangely feels like I am watching someone play an open world video game that can be found on a console system or the cinematic start to a major blockbuster movie. All I need is some dramatic music and the scene would be complete. It’s hard to deny, there is a slight merge of my reality as a human and the make believe reality of our entertainment world. I become a character on my phone screen and not an actual human being. I become one with the natural environment surrounding me.
As a photographer, I have always loved to capture people within the environment that I am shooting. It creates contextual scale and connects us to the natural world. The drone brings a new level of context with more dimensional space to move around in. As the market for drones continues to surge, this merge of reality is becoming notably more relevant on social media platforms. Instagram, once a site primarily used for posting still images and promoting one’s art work, has now introduced a new era of drone content. Most recently, artists have begun to use the drone to place themselves within the setting of their artwork. For example, instead of just posting one photograph they have produced, there is a current trend of posting drone footage alongside it to show where the photo was taken. This is similar to introducing a setting in a cinematic production, but instead it is the artist’s surroundings. In some cases, they post no image but instead just the video of the creator immersed in their environment.
Is the drone helping the artist sell artwork as originally intended or are they selling themselves too? This never seemed to be as prominent of a question in the art world as it is today. If you liked someone’s art, you bought it because you connected to it on a simpler level. Maybe it was the beauty of the piece or it resembled something familiar to you. Now, with the drone and the outlet of social media, younger artists tend to sell more of an idea then a single piece of artwork. Younger generations of buyers are interested in an artist lifestyle and this in itself can drive the sale. Customers can relate to the silhouette of a person seen in drone imagery because they feel like it can be them standing in that same spot. When you buy the piece of work for this reason, you are finding identity within the artwork you purchase. This may be an unconscious thought process for almost all consumers, but it is undoubtedly there and this seems to be what marketers are targeting. The artist’s life in itself becomes a consumable brand and not solely the work through the use of a drone.
I have to asked myself, as an environmentalist, is the drone also making our natural environments a brand alongside the lives of the artists? Suddenly, everything feels more consumable with its abilities. I reflect back to flying over the trees behind my house. In that case, I am not flying for anyone else but myself. Almost all the footage will be discarded and never be shared. Yet, I am still flying the same area over and over again and for what purpose? This I believe has to do with consumption of our natural world. We consider consumers to be people that buy products, but we are also consumers in what we take in with our eyes.
This can best be explained through social media. Social media lures me into to consuming the places I see as well as the lives of friends and strangers alike. Each scroll with my finger is a new experience and this stimulates my brain. This type of consumption doesn’t help me survive like shelter, food, or water but is more an indulgence; a luxury of my privileged life. It is like sugar for my brain. I believe the drone is a similar experience of consumption through the eyes, but may be even more addicting than a still image. When I fly the drone, it will be the same woods as the day before, but it releases endorphins as the experience feels intrinsically new. The freedom of space to move in is expansive. Now, put drone footage on social media and you have an entirely new outlet of consumption for those not even flying the drone. It’s a powerful combination and probably why people are drawn to drone footage online and are consuming nature more rapidly.
This pursuit of consumption from our natural world seems inherently human. Hence, human exploration seems to be in our DNA. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans would not have lasted long if we would have stayed in one spot. We migrated all over the planet and pretty recently in our narrative have begun to extend into outer space. When Europeans “discovered” North America, this was not a mistake or luck. They were going to find it at some point, it was just a matter of time and technology. In today’s world we do not ultimately travel everyday of our lives, yet we still seek something new. Consumption seems to be our new way of exploration. The words almost seem interchangeable. Using the drone to go new places without physically going there satisfies these instincts. That being said, there has always been a struggle between humans and nature’s resistance to their consumption. If you wanted to climb a mountain and admire the view, you needed to put in physical exertion to do it. If you wanted to get close to a brown bear in Alaska, you had to be incredibly careful as to not put your life in danger. This time we don’t have to attempt to crest a mountain as our ancestors did, but instead we can just fly there. Have we finally defeated nature? Is this the pinnacle of consumption? To reach this point, the drone has melted human with machine. There is a cybernetic connection here that cannot be denied. The drone gives us a third eye that extends us as a being.
However, we need to be weary of this consumption by drone as there are both good and bad attributes. I use to go in my backwoods all the time as I child. It was exciting and new and represented a large part of what I knew of the world. As I grew older I was less inclined to visit. It felt as if it had already been explored and there were many new things in my life that were consumable. When I bought the drone, the excitement of a being a child was slightly renewed. I felt more inclined to explore my woods’ every nook and cranny with the drone’s capabilities. I then began to not only invade the space with my drone, but I also started to physically visit these places that I spotted through its mechanic eye. The drone sparked my imagination and my instinctual complex. I recently visited a stream that I spotted with the drone. It was incredibly beautiful, but there is a double standard to my actions that needs to be discussed. We may want to use the drone as a way to protect and interpret the importance of our natural world, but will it also push us to visit the places that deserve to stay untouched?
My biggest concern is not of the stream in my backwoods as I’m sure you guessed, but of Iceland, The Amazon, or Alaska; places that were once considered the last frontier and now are becoming more accessible with the help of technologies like the drone. These places hold mystery in our world and now we are finding all of the answers, and very much so are destroying them. I do not want live in a world with no unknowns left to discover and yet I own a drown. Why?
I do believe the drone may lead to new levels of consumption, but I do not think it is entirely bad. It has the ability to destroy environments, but it may also help us stay away from them and there is value in that. It is us, the consumer, that need to put a hold on our desires. We are the problem, not the drone, nor the environments around us. The drone could be a way for us to preserve places before we even put our hands on them. Humans need to be able to fly a drone into the Amazon Rainforest and instead of exploiting the ecosystems for our benefit, we need to turn the drone around and swear to never physically visit that area. We need to understand the value of the world outside of our own. If we want to use drones to protect environments, we have to use them in a fundamentally different way than they are advertised. They could be ways for us to subtract human interaction from the equation of environmentalism. After all isn’t that sort of the goal? We want to create less of an impact of environments, but this will never occur if we are physically in the space. Being in the space is already creating an impact.
My generation has always been told that to grow closer to nature, we need to disconnect from our devices. But maybe we need to grow closer to devices like a drone that can help us consume our environments responsibly. When you look at the phone in the case of the drone, you are looking at the environment. It is reality. It is not a simulation.