Drones have variable battery life, range issues, and face a tangle of regulations restricting their commercial use. That’s why, in order to capture the kind of photos he wants, George Steinmetz likes to fly himself. Strapped into a motorized paraglider, the photographer swoops over over vast expanses of deserts, snow-capped mountains, and terraced fields in Africa.
Over the past few years, the experimental aircraft has permitted Steinmetz to capture unique images of African landscapes, snapping up amazing photographs from Libya and Algeria to Niger, Botswana, and South Sudan.
The award-winning National Geographic photographer says the paraglider gives him a unique vantage point, allowing him to go higher and travel farther than a drone and lower than a helicopter or a plane. The project started when the only commercial ultralight pilot in Niger backed out of helping him while he was shooting for an article on the Central Sahara.
“I don’t fly without a camera. I am a photographer who flies. I am not a pilot who takes pictures,” says Steinmetz, who spoke at the opening session of the TEDGlobal in Arusha, Tanzania. “It’s really all about the picture.”
His photos show how the African continent is changing, from rural-urban migration to the impact of climate change.
Steinmetz says he’s drawn to remote areas so as to counter the narrative that everything on the earth’s surface has been captured. “I think there’s this hubris that everything in the world has been seen, like with Google Earth,” he says. His photos are about “showing people something they have never seen before,” he adds.
Steinmetz, however, says there are other challenges to this sort of photography, given the declining budgets and advertising revenues at major publications. This, he says, puts at risk the kind of in-depth photojournalism that he does. “It’s just not the world that is changing. It’s the market too,” he says.