The Refugee Disaster seen from Above - on Rasmus Degnbol’s photos of ’Europe’s New Borders’

Written by Andreas Immanuel Graae, Ph.D.Student at Department for the Study of Culture

Drones. When thinking of these unmanned flying objects in the context of war and crisis, images of American operated Predators and Reapers most likely pop up. But drones do indeed have other and less lethal purposes – for instance that of documenting the refugee crisis from a radical new perspective.

 For this purpose, photo-journalist Rasmus Degnbol used his homemade drone last summer when he travelled to Lesbos to photograph the refugee disaster zone from above. For that he won several prizes such as the Danish Press Photo Award 2015, the Photo Annual 2016 by Photo District News (PDN), and the International Color Awards, Aerial.

 On June 1 he presented his project “Europe’s New Borders” at the Nordic Drone Games at the H.C. Andersen Airport in Odense. Images of walking refugees, empty beaches filled with piles of life jackets and car tires, boats, tents, fences, walls and endless lines of buses waiting to transport refugees back to were they came from, were accompanied by a powerful personal story; namely that of how he travelled Eastern Europe thin in his persistent aim of documenting the scale of the crisis.

 For instance, Degnbol told how often he was harassed by the local police and arrested for flying too close to borders and military zones – although he had permission – and how the migrants reacted to his drone: Contrary to what he expected, the they were not scared by the flying object, but often waved and smiled at it.

 However, the verticality of the drone also created a distance to the people photographed. A distance of which Degnbol is well aware, but which nevertheless creates a unique sense of the scope of the refugee disaster – and of the remapping of Europe’s borders. 

Europe on the edge of war

As a child of the eighties, Rasmus Degnbol remembers what Europe used to look like. During holiday trips to Spain, driving with his family in their grey Audi 80, he sat in the passenger seat beside his father who showed him the boundaries on the map, telling him about the different countries and cities:

 “Almost on graph when you crossed the border it felt like a new world when as a child I suddenly heard German, French and Spanish words for the first time. On rare occasions I was allowed to hand over our passports to the border police.”

 March 26, 1995 marked the end this era when the Schengen Treaty was implemented and the borders became increasingly blurred in our consciousness – until 2015 that marks the culmination of the refugee crisis so far:

 “Fences, barbed wire, armed border guards have suddenly become the new standard in Europe, and when I in the early summer of 2015 was watching all the physical manifestations of something I thought belonged to the past – I decided to photograph these ‘new’ European borders and what consequences they have and will have for Europe and the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who these days come to our borders,” Rasmus Degnbol explains on his webpage.

 Precarious bodies

Among the many powerful large-scale photos of migrants on the run, one particular image stands out. Interestingly, it pictures no human beings – but instead a 25 feet mountain of life jackets, discarded by more than 400.000 migrants who arrived on Lesbos during the first half of 2015. At first glance, one could confuse it with real living beings – or an abstract painting – but slowly the contours of life jackets, remains of rubber dinghies, car tiers, and shoes, emerge and form a desolated and unsettling image of the crisis.

 In contrast to many recent news photos picturing atrocities such as piles of drowned bodies, including dead children, Rasmus Degnbol does something different in this photo. He lets the material remains speak their own language. At the same time, the drone’s vertical and remotely cool perspective mirrors the cynicism and cruelty that characterize the Western migration politics. None of the photos show human faces, only bodies – and often not even bodies, but only mere material signs of precarious lives. The signs of human bodies no longer look human in the drone’s perspective; rather they look like ants.

 According to Judith Butler, our perception of war and crises is highly dependent on a politically and culturally mediated field of vision – what she calls “frames of war”. The frames control what we see (and do not see) on the images and hence affect whose lives are considered grievable, and whose are not. By exposing the piles of remains of hundreds of thousands of migrants, Degnbol and his drone thus blow these often very narrowed frames in his attempt to grasp the immense scale of the refugee disaster. Simultaneously, the drone presents a non-human gaze on the human as well as a human gaze on the non-human – arousing feelings and reflections of high relevance in these sinister times.

 Read more about Rasmus Degnbol and his project “Europe’s New Borders’ here:

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