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Drone Photo Award winners capture a dizzyingly fantastic view of the world 14

NPR freelance writer, Suzette Lohmeyer reports on the winners of the Drone Photo Awards–a contest that shines a spotlight on aerial photography. 

Women collect water from a dry riverbed in Khulna, Bangladesh. This photo was one of the “highly commended” images from this year’s Drone Photo Contest. Photo: Sujon Adhikary

What does our planet look like from the sky?

The winning images of this year’s Drone Photo Awards capture a dizzyingly fantastic view of the world. From high above, a field of bright green grass in Vietnam looks like faux fur – and a frozen reservoir in Kazakhstan resembles shards of broken glass.

The awards, in their fourth year, received entries from 105 countries and 2,900 professional and amateur photographers, says Luca Venturi, contest founder and art director of Siena Awards, a group based in Siena, Italy, that organizes international photo competitions.

The availability of cheaper and better drones over the past few years have helped popularize this style, especially among amateurs, says Ken Geiger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and one of this year’s judges for the awards. Not only is drone photography “fabulously fun,” he adds, “it’s an avenue of expression helping us learn things about our planet that we never knew before.”

The contest is open to all kinds of aerial photography, not just taken with drones but also blimps, kites, parachutes, helicopters and even hot air balloons.

Here’s a selection of contest winners and honorable mentions around the world, including the lower income countries that Goats & Soda covers. There’s photorealism — and also staged scenes that capture the pandemic times we’re living in.

Trees reveal their true colors

A fisherman paddles through mangrove trees at the Tam Giang Lagoon in the Hue province of Vietnam. Mangroves lose all their leaves in winter, exposing their whitish trunks. Photo: Trung Pham Huy

Photographer Pham Huy Trung calls his “Fishing in Mangrove Forest,” taken in the Hue province of Vietnam, “a balance between humans and nature.”

A former engineer, Trung says he is practical when he uses drones to take photos, always checking wind and fog levels before setting out as both can affect the quality of the photo. His ultimate goal, he says, is to find moments when a person “feels tranquility with the universe, inside and out.”

Scale and color play an important role in this photograph. “The forest’s white color showcases how spectacular nature is, while the red color of the fisherman’s clothing represents the beauty of humans,” says Trung. “Small and big, red and white — many more things should be [in harmony] together in life.”

Sunbathing — on ice

Photographer Alexandr Vlassyuk and a friend “sunbathe” on ice hummocks at the Kapchagay reservoir in Almaty, Kazakhstan. “Without waiting for summer, we decided to open the beach season!” says Vlassyuk. Photo: Alexandr Vlassyuk

In the photo “Beach Season,” taken at a reservoir in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Alexandr Vlassyuk is both photographer and subject — a task he says was no small feat. He was operating the drone while posing with his friend on ice hummocks at a temperature of 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Both were nearly naked. Oh, and it was windy, he adds.

“The shooting turned out to be quite difficult,” says Vlassyuk, an advertising photographer with a passion for landscapes. “I took a series of shots with two drones. Batteries were running low. In order not to freeze, we had to periodically warm ourselves up with hot tea.”

Geiger says he loves the concept. “It’s just so over the top that I couldn’t help but vote for it. It made me smile.” And the “pop of people and color” amid the broken-up ice, he says, “creates a strong entry point” for viewers.

Red-hot harvesting

Women sort dry red chiles at a factory in Bogura, Bangladesh. “Bogura’s chiles are famous around the country,” says photographer MD Tanveer Hassan Rohan. But the workers only get paid “$2 after 10 hours of work – and in some places they get less.” Photo: MD Tanveer Hassan Rohan

MD Tanveer Hassan Rohan, a freelance photographer from New York, has always tried to get photos from the highest places possible — way before drones came into the picture. “I try to find a place where I can see the area from the top,” like a rooftop, he says. “It allows me to really see that location.”

When commercial drones became available, he says, he knew he had to have one. “I try to avoid gathering where many photographers fly drones. Sometimes I go to unknown places and fly my drone from a safe location to see what I can find.”

One of those places is the courtyard of a chili factory in Bogura, Bangladesh, a little over 100 miles from where Rohan grew up in Dhaka. His photo “Red Chiles Harvesting” captures two lines of women sitting underneath umbrellas as they sort through a carpet of bright red chiles to be dried and preserved.

Other sky-high winners and commendations

People dine alfresco at makeshift restaurants in the snowy valley of Kongdoori, Gulmarg, in India’s Jammu & Kashmir. Photo: Dipabrata Sur


A photo from Adas Vasiliauskas’ series “COVID Self-Isolation Sucks,” which earned a commendation from this year’s Drone Photo Awards. The set of images, taken on the streets of his native Lithuania, plays on people’s desire to “live life” despite living in a “COVID nightmare,” he says. In this particular photo, a man posing on the bed of a truck pretends to ride his scooter. Photo: Adas Vasiliauskas

Women harvest grass in Vietnam. The grass has many uses, including as fodder for animals and fertilizer. Photo: Khanh Phan


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