Refugees reach a police check point in Serbia close to Miratovaz, on the border with Macedonia.

Migration From a Bird’s Eye View: A Reflection

I own a camera and can barely make it function. I have often daydreamed about becoming a famous photographer (emphasis on “dream” because of my complete lack of artistic ability). I love the idea of telling a story through photographs, which is why Rocco Rorandelli’s talk, The Refugee Trail, at New York University Florence was so inspiring.

Rorandelli’s presentation was the first of a three-dialogue documentary photography series, The Migration Crisis in Europe Through Images (Alessandro Penso will speak on April 18 and Henk Wildschut on April 27). Rorandelli’s work has been featured in publications such as Le Monde Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair. The most interesting thing about him is that he found success as a photographer and never had any formal training as one – he got his doctorate in biology.

This particular collection documents the refugee crisis through aerial photographs, taken with a camera placed on a drone. Rorandelli traveled the path from Greece to Germany that so many of these migrants have walked before, crossing borders at Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. He had to obtain permission to use his drone from these countries’ governments, and it was not always granted to him (in these cases he snuck away from the military personnel and used it anyway).

Something Rorandelli said about human communication really stuck with me: “The first thing we look for (are) eyes.” In these pictures, “we aren’t seeing eyes.” The people he photographed are very real, but his camera’s point of view dehumanizes them. Rorandelli chose to photograph from above because he wanted to take a unique approach to a subject that has been already been documented. The people in his photographs become part of a collective story, rather than having their own. To the viewer, they are groups traipsing through mud or walking on a litter-strewn road, not faces or personalities. In a few rare cases people stare up at the sky, intrigued by the drone snapping pictures above them. Only then do we see their eyes, and we are left questioning who they are.

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