Pilot Spotlight: Interview with Gail Orenstein
Tell us your story, how did you get started in the drone industry and when did that happen?
My story began really when I was younger. My greatest influence was both my mother and my father. My mother loved photographs, I basically grew up with her telling stories about all the photographs we had around the house, as they were from my grandfather and my grandmother on both sides. There were also lots of World War II photographs of my dad on Titian Island in the South Pacific and a photograph of my grandfather in Wlodz Poland stand- on his farm in 1933. This was the only photo of him in Europe, so I was fascinated by that one and I always looked at it. However, my dad never liked to talk about this one photo because of the poverty and the anti-semitism they faced during that time.
That is what really influenced me a lot and in fact my father although deeply private shared my mother’s love and passion for visual arts in the 1950s and 60s he bought a new Bell & Howell 8mm film recorder but unfortunately, he was never a great film maker. Years later we found these 8mm films and we got them re-digitalised and a lot of the heads were cut off, I think he was running around trying to film us but we were a brood of 8, so we would get together for festive occasions years later and we would watch these 8mm films and try and identify whose little feet they were as he accidentally missed catching the heads in the frame while he was running around filming.
It was really very interesting merge between my mom and dad and I also grew up in a very social family. My dad did a lot of business in the house and there were always strangers over for dinner, so I was very familiar with a very multi-cultural home, we had everyone over, my parents were never racist, everyone was welcome in our home.
At a young age I started using my brothers Leica camera when he left it behind at the house attending Harvard. When I got my hands on it I really stuffed up a lot of film. It was hard but eventually figured it out and I decided later on to study photojournalism. I became obsessed with the photographers like Dorothea Lange and how she documented the Farm Security Administration and the great depressions conditions of the people. These images were so powerful. I only studied and never did anything else in college, I spent 4 years shooting and reading photo books.
Especially the Vietnam photographers like Nick Ut, Henry Huet and Don McCullen. Vietnam war photojournalism had a huge impact on me, I studied it a lot as well. I went to the School of Art Institute of Chicago for undergraduate degree in photo journalism and then I continued on with my master’s there, I was at the school for 7 years. It was there I started getting my first assignments.
So, after years of using traditional photographic equipment and video equipment for 23 years about 3 years ago, more news agencies started asking for drone footage so I became FAA and CAA licensed. The technology was changing so fast I did not want to lose out, I saw it as an exciting new piece of technology I could now have access to a bigger story from over it.
So, I was a very early pioneer in bringing drones to conflict zones and humanitarian areas.
And so, I took UAV equipment into these areas I was working in especially like in Iraqi Kurdistan and in fact I was the first female civilian to drone the Iraqi, Mosul offensive in 2017. Also I was the only female civilian with a drone to take aerial footage when the Rohingya were crossing the Bay of Bengal to escape a genocide of their in Myanmar.
So, I think it was a natural progression and really, I am very lucky as I had the photojournalsm experience and I just extended that into drone journalsm. A lot of my colleagues have not made this transition, they still only use traditional photo and video equipment, not UAV technology to shoot aerial footage or do mapping.
Tell us about your company and work and organisation and your position?
I’ve been working for the last 20 years with the same agencies who are affiliates of Getty images. The agencies give me assignments or I can choose to work independently and all my commercial work that I do goes to Getty Images. So, you can find my work there, but there’s a whole other side of my business for which I consult and teach. So, that’s a private side of the Gail Orenstein drone business that functions as a whole other commercial aspect of my work that me and my husband Robert Hooker own together. So, I really run my business developing content and teaching, but I also consult on international drone usage, and cross-border droning, because I’ve droned in 21 countries which is quite a lot in the UAV industry as it is still in its infancy.
I really took my photo journalism business model and extended it into my UAV business. I’ve been to 84 countries as a photojournalist, so I just kind of took that model and just ran with it using my drones. As I said I’m both FAA and CAA certified and registered with the National Union of Journalists and the International Press Association, so I have a lot of heavy credentials on me when I am working globally and I use these to do my work and move freely. It helps me get into fly in particularly difficult air spaces, having these licences, I highly recommend getting licensed. So, that’s my background behind my company. It’s both a news gathering company, but it also is a consulting company.
What kind of drones do you fly and what is your favourite thing about it?
Well as a drone journalist it’s kind of a unique question. I fly with a fleet of drones actually. I use to fly actually when I started 3 years ago, with only my Parrot Bebop 2 and my Phantom 3 but I would have my Phantom 3 confiscated a lot at the airports back then, so I just would really shoot a lot with my Parrott Bebop 2. I actually got a lot of aerial work done with that hobbyist drone, I did the Rohingya crisis and I actually did the Mosul offensive in 2017 with my Parrot Bebop 2. So, you know it doesn’t have to be something fancy, but I would say over the last couple few years as I find myself literally droning hours and hours a day, I am more particular about which drone I take to which region and to shoot what. The camera capabilities change so fast now as the UAV industry develops, I’m definitely thinking more and more which piece of equipment fits with my particular assignment and clients needs.
Have you learnt any valuable lessons being in the drone industry and can you share these lessons with our female drone community?
I’ve learned that just because I use drone technology, doesn’t mean that suddenly it’s a female industry, most of my colleagues have remained male, like it was in the photojournalsm business, that has not changed yet sadly. There’s not a lot of female drone journalists, so just because we have new technology doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be suddenly be flooded with females. Often I’m still faced with the same difficult challenges that women face in my field which is that you know the equipment gets very heavy. UAV equipment is very battery intensive and carrying a lot of drone equipment can be heavy and I carry a lot more of batteries to remote places.
When I was younger I was carrying rolls of film and they weren’t as heavy, but they were still cumbersome but now I am carrying a lot more heavy items. Sadly, I would say there is some sexual harassment issues that still make me feel uncomfortable, but I’ve been dealing with this for 24 years, so it’s a complicated issue and it’s a whole other kind of issue that I think needs to be made aware as it go under-reported.
I think will drone journalists will have their have #me too day but not anytime soon. I would also say if you’re a female and you want to get started in conflict and humanitarian, I would do a lot of documtry work first. You need a lot of courses on hostile environment training in using technology in hostile environments and self-defence classes.
There’s a lot of things young women of all ages can do to protect themselves while they’re in the field. You need to have all of preparation done before you go to any of these places. I don’t recommend you go into Iraq as your first introduction to this field. it’s very dangerous and if you’re in unfamiliar space like this, you’re not going to be prepared. So, I wouldn’t advise women or men starting out to go straight to war.
As for having a favourite drone I use while working in the field, I have favourite drones for different countries depending what I am droning that serve a different purpose in the field. It is a complicated question to answer in one interview.
Whether it’s from creative, commercial or humanitarian perspective, tell us about your most memorable drone flight you have piloted so far?
I think my most memorable flight was when I was flying next to the Myanmar border in Bangladesh and the Rohingya were fleeing, tens of thousands of Rohingya were crossing from Myanmar into Bangladesh and I actually witnessed this. These people were suffering so much, not only from days of walking without food and water, but distress over trying to locate their loved ones, distress about the genocide that was happening against their population and being denied by the Myanmar government. The fact that they were stateless and had no passports, the anxiety of not knowing their own personal fate.
I was working and with all of these refugees at the time when they reached Bangladesh and one day I was droning, they were building one of the first refugee camps and the backdrop was floods the monsoon and all the suffering was going on around me. Many times when I was droning this many of the Rohingya took the time to try and clear a path for me to be able to launch my drones, in the thick muddy conditions. I did not have my helipad for landing and you know these people who are in just unbelievable distress took a minute to help me try clear a muddy path to be able to get their story. Even under the most distress, I was deeply moved they were trying to help me find a piece of cardboard as they were suffering a genocide. And with all this hostility towards the press these days, you know seeing a population experiencing genocide and becoming refugees overnight yet realising the importance of your work while you have a President around the world saying “journalists are the enemy of the state”, these Rohingya were helping me was a moment I will never forget. I do usually bring a helipad so that I can land my UAV, but I didn’t have one in Bangladesh during the Monsoon. So, to see people give a little part of their roof so I can land my drone which won’t land in the mud is pretty amazing stuff, you don’t forget things like that. You don’t forget the faces, you don’t forget the people and that just really forever sticks in my mind, the sheer strength of these people.
What would you say to women and girls about the drone industry to spark their interest in getting involved?
I would say that you’re very lucky if right now you’re considering anything that has to do with being a female in this industry, because the doors are opening for you. There are many women in their middle age like me who bring a lot of experience to the field and young women who also come from different background like search and rescue and life guarding, that are bringing experience into this industry at an early phase of it’s development. We need people like that, so that when you come of age to get licensed which is 16 and you’re thinking about what direction you might want to take, the industry already has pioneers you can look up to as role models. You have us in the field doing the work, you can think about what you want to bring to the UAV industry, I had to figure that out by myself. We need strong women, we need young women not to give up, we know that this can be expensive between training and buying professional equipment but it does not have to be. More and more UAV companies are now offering free educational material like Dr Catherine Bell. Also, don’t give up just becuase it’s hard.
I have had a very long journey, my younger years I never had money, but I never gave up because it was always my passion. I would say with drone journalists, it’s a very different very unique way of using a drone, aerial filming is very difficult in a hostile environment, so you really have to be passionate about it. It’s not like you wake up one day and say “oh I want to take small drones to war”. if it’s really not in your blood to wake up and be excited about going to remote areas and working in them, working with news agencies, Police and with the military and often opposition fighters then this is not necessarily an area in UAV you would pursue.
We have so many under-reported stories that need a young women’s perspective, a young woman’s voice, a young woman to show what this story is about. Like why aren’t women in refugee camps getting any sanitary napkins, why are 2,000 women using 1 toilet. This is really important stuff and we need to as women work with Aid agencies and news agencies to cover it women but we have to as drone journalists use or access to these places give a female perspective on women’s issues. I would argue that is the most critical thing I could leave for young aspiring female UAV pilots, especially UAV drone journalists is don’t let the industry leave out the female perspective, the female voice.
Do you have any drone tips and tricks you can share with our audience?
Well you know I don’t really, I’m not into tricks so to speak. I am a very vigilant droner, but some tips would be to have first and foremost get licensed. Because in the areas especially young women it’s very important to be professionally accredited in these places I fly. The more professional paperwork you have, I know this sounds a bit odd, but the safer you might be when you’re crossing borders. If you have FAA or CAA certification and you have notarised journalist papers it helps.
Make sure all your accreditations are up to date, make sure as I said earlier that you can take as much hostile environment training, self-defence and also first -aid.
If you have any questions about what you might need to take before a trip, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a DM on twitter @droneorenstein. You can ask me about safety classes in your area and I will highly likely know where in the UK or Europe or the US I can put you in touch with. So, it’s very important to stay up to date with safety and security updates in the places you want to travel to.
What is the best way for our readers to get in touch with you?
So, feel free to get in touch with me, if you have any questions. But remember I am very cautious so if you’re expecting me to give you all the answers, I won’t be able to do that, but I will point you in direction always. Remember you are always at your own risk in these places so always stay connected and use social media so people can be able to know where you are and keep in close contact with you. Use Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and always have your GPS turned on, on your phone. It’s very important for family to be able to know where you are in conflict zones so stay safe and there’s multiple levels and ways that you can do that.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?
That’s a really great question, but I think I pretty much covered quite a bit. I think at this point I am going to end this wonderful interview and leave it open for some email questions or leave it open to Women Who Drone to take some questions and DM them to me or email them to me.
I would like to thank everybody so much at WWD. Go and visit my website check me out on Twitter, check me out on LinkedIn and I am very honoured and very humbled always to be able to do an interview especially for a female audience. Thank you very much.