Interview: Travis Fox's beautiful, haunting drone photographs document America's scars
The cover of Travis Fox's new book, Remains To Be Seen.
About the photo: California City was an ambitious planned city located one hundred miles from Los Angeles. The project was created in 1965 with the aim of creating one of California’s biggest cities. It has largely failed in the decades since, leaving a mostly empty suburban street grid covering two hundred square miles in the Mojave Desert.
Travis Fox has spent his career using emerging forms of technology as journalistic storytelling tools. He was the first video producer to win an Emmy for an online video and was part of the team at the Washington Post that helped establish that new form of online journalism. Fox was an early adopter of drones and currently serves as the Director of Visual Journalism at The Craig Newmark School of Journalism.
[Fox] uses a drone as a documentary storytelling tool to explore how the scars of industrialization, urban sprawl, and institutionalized racism remain in America's backyard, even as the physical spaces begin to deteriorate
Fox recently released his first monograph, Remains to Be Seen, through Daylight books. It’s a project that uses a drone as a documentary storytelling tool to explore how the scars of industrialization, urban sprawl, and institutionalized racism remain in America's backyard, even as the physical spaces begin to deteriorate. “The whole point is when does memory become history,” he says. “When do physical traces disappear? This whole book is all about that threshold.”
Fox spoke to DPReview recently about how he got started with drones and the chaotic process of flying and shooting. In this interview, he also shares his advice for how to break away from the classic cinematic drone shot and use the drone instead as a storytelling tool.
How and why did you start working with drones?
It was experimentation. I’d been a filmmaker for many years and I’ve always needed to get up high. I have a whole history of falling off newspaper boxes, damaging the tops of rental cars, and negotiating with building owners to get on top of roofs. I’ve done this all over the world, I found it always amusing. When drones were coming out I figured that it would fix a problem that I always had. I got one early on, around 2014, and started experimenting. I went through that phase of the beautiful shot, gliding through the air, and quickly found that it can be overused. That started a period of many years of experimentation of what can I do with this tool that isn’t contrived, boring, and predictable? The book is the end of that period of five years of experimentation.
Where did you start shooting the project that would become Remains to Be Seen?
It started at The Pines in Fallsburg, New York. I was just looking for places near where I lived in upstate New York to fly that were interesting, there wasn’t any more thought than that. I was just inspired and interested by what I saw there – I remember it in real-time. There was so much visual diversity in one place and it was relatively calm because there was no risk of hurting anyone.
As I dug into the photos, I also dug into the history of the place. Aesthetically I was drawn to the images, but also historically, the idea of when memories fade and the physical space fades
As I dug into the photos, I also dug into the history of the place, I met several people who had worked there. Aesthetically I was drawn to the images, but also historically, the idea of when memories fade and the physical space fades. The whole project is exploring when memory becomes history. When do the physical traces disappear? This book is all about that threshold.
What drone were you using to capture the images in Remains to Be Seen?
The one that I used for the photos in the book is all the DJI Inspire II with the Zenmuse X7 –the good one with the interchangeable lenses. I’ve used several over the years, all DJI products. I also have a Mavic Pro II, so some of the images might have been from that – I use that one when I don’t want to make a lot of noise. The image quality is much worse with that one though, so I used the Inspire II for the vast majority.
Flying drones come with a lot of restrictions – there is only so much battery life, you can only fly in certain areas, and you usually can’t be flying over people – how did these influence the work that you are able to make?
I can’t imagine doing it without those restrictions. The restrictions informed the project. If the restrictions weren’t there the book would be twice as big or it would be done twice as quickly – one or the other. The majority of places that I wanted to go to I couldn’t, because of some restriction – either flight over people or because it was restricted air space. I take pride that all of these photos in the book were done legally, which is more than you can say for a lot of drone photography that is out there.
What sort of research went into selecting the places where you photographed?
The process was pretty unique and it took me a while to figure it out. Eventually, it became a three-step process. The first step was research that any journalist would do: talking to people, making phone calls, reading newspapers, and familiarizing myself with the topics. When I found specific areas or topics that piqued my interest I would go to Google Earth and spend a lot of time looking at the land and trying to find patterns of things that interested me visually.
I take pride that all of these photos in the book were done legally – These locations were well researched ahead of time, both in terms of the journalism, as well as the logistics of flying
When I find something interesting I also use Google Earth to figure out the logistics. I have to fly with the drone within line of sight, so I have to find a place that I can launch with a clear sky, not under power lines or trees, and fly within 1500 feet laterally of that location. I do all of that research ahead of time on Google and drop pins and so when I drive there I go to the pin and I go from there. The majority of the time was doing that kind of work as opposed to flying. These locations were well researched ahead of time, both in terms of the journalism, as well as the logistics of flying.
Were there any instances where Google Earth failed you in terms of images being out of date?
Yeah, all the time. That was probably the majority of the places that I went to. Or the images that I was getting just weren’t very interesting or didn’t inspire me as a photographer.
What was the actual shooting process like?
The batteries last about twenty minutes, so I’m up there for twenty minutes at a time before I land and switch batteries. I’ll repeat that as many flights as I need to. It’s kind of a manic process. Photography can be kind of leisurely and thought-provoking, but when you are flying the drone it’s a sprint because of battery life and because you are worried about crashing and hurting someone. I’m worried about that all the time.
It’s kind of a manic process. Photography can be kind of leisurely and thought-provoking, but when you are flying the drone it’s a sprint because of battery life and because you are worried about crashing and hurting someone. I’m worried about that all the time
There is a lot of stuff my brain has to deal with that isn't the aesthetics. It’s not like shooting on the ground where the artistic side of my brain is working more. With this all sides of my brain are working – it’s kind of overwhelming. The risks are life and death. If the drone falls and hits someone it will kill them – almost certainly – at the altitude that I’m flying at. When I’m flying in urban, somewhat crowded areas, like Baltimore, where I flew a lot, it's really nerve-wracking.
People also don’t like drones, so managing that can be also difficult. Several people were not happy, several people called the cops on me, one person fired a gun at the drone. It’s just a lot to think about.
Were you shooting alone or working with a team when you went out to fly?
I much prefer to fly with one other person, it's my partner who I fly with most often. She acts as a visual observer, which is an FAA-designated job, where I can keep my eye on the screen and see what the drone is seeing and she can keep her eye on the drone.
People also don’t like drones, so managing that can be also difficult. Several people were not happy, several people called the cops on me, one person fired a gun at the drone.
You are required to have a naked eye on the drone at all times, per FAA requirements, so she can keep an eye out for helicopters and scan for power lines to meet that requirement, which allows me to focus. She was with me for maybe half of them I would say and that is the much-preferred way to fly. Sometimes when she wasn’t available I did it on my own. Those were the more stressful trips, Baltimore, which there are several photos from in the book, that was one where I was on my own.
What’s interesting to you about the overhead perspective that a drone offers as a storytelling tool?
Much like how DSLRs democratized video production, drones are democratizing aerial photography – you don’t need a helicopter anymore, so that has opened it up to a wider variety of people who can experiment. It’s not Edward Burtynsky's level of work, that is going to be shown globally, but it is what it is.
What I wanted to do, was an exercise in thinking about memory and history – there is a healthy dose of nostalgia politically in this country – on the left and the right for different reasons. The left is thinking about systematic racism, while the right is kind of nostalgic for 'Make America Great Again' – there is this examination of the past and I think within that concept this is a way to see the past in a different way.
As a photographer, aesthetically it's an exercise in losing dimensionality. The drone flattens everything. It makes these big three-dimensional things totally flat and I think that is an interesting way to deal with patterns and to create patterns. On the ground, you don’t see it, but from above you can flatten space.
Do you have any technical tips for folks who are just getting started with drone photography?
When you fly it is always easier to be higher up than lower down because there are fewer obstacles in the sky. What I always tell my students, first-time fliers, get above the treeline and you are okay, you aren’t going to hit anything, especially in a sparsely populated area, to use the FAA terms. Start in your backyard, do what interests you and be mindful. The reason that people don’t like drones is people think they are intrusive. Everyone is worried about their privacy as if people really care.
I’m always shocked when I’ve been flying somewhere and someone accuses me of spying – no one is spying on you. I think we have to acknowledge that feeling is out there, so when you are flying in residential areas you have to expect that people are going to think this even though it's silly.
For better or for worse this is the feeling that people have, they think [drones] are these super-secret spy things.
I wear a high visibility vest, I try to preempt these things by talking to people and walking around first, telling them what I’m doing. For better or for worse this is the feeling that people have, they think they are these super-secret spy things. Knowing that and being a good ambassador for drones in general, both in terms of the legal stuff and respect for privacy, will help us all. They’re cool, right? There have been several instances where the cops came to say something negative and when I’ve shown them the screen and shown them what I’m doing they think it's cool and they calm down. They can see that you aren’t seeing in people’s windows, you just can’t do that with drones, the cameras are not set up for that. Once you spread the gospel hopefully people’s minds will change.
Do you have tips for photographers who are interested in using drones as a storytelling tool?
Follow the FAA rules. There is a big problem with people flying recklessly and with publications running photos from drones that were flown recklessly. That creates competition for those of us who are trying to do it safely and legally. That would be number one.
Number two is to use it to continue what I’ve started – how can you use this in new ways? I’m so bored of the pretty picture through space. There is a lot that can be done with mapping and with analyzing landscapes. We are seeing this in agricultural settings, where you can analyze 300 acres of crops and it does it automatically, how do you apply that to a storytelling situation? I don’t know, but the technology is there, if you could figure that out I think that could be pretty cool. That’s what I always tell my students. It’s up to them to figure that out, but it's ripe. The technology is there, it's available, and someone is going to figure it out better than me.
More images from Remains To Be Seen
Travis Fox is an aerial photographer and the Director of Visual Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY).
As an early adopter of drone technology, his photography focuses on social issues on the landscape. His first book, Remains to be Seen, was published by Daylight in November 2020. Scars of Racism, a project documenting the physical legacy of racism in America, was exhibited at Photoville in 2019. View more of Fox's work here.
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