Over 100,000 life vests and rubber boats lie in a 10-meter high pile on the island of Lesbos, Greece. in 2015, Greece received over 800,000 refugees and migrants. All primarily arriving on boat from across the Aegean Sea. Image courtesy of Rasmus Degnbol. All rights reserved.

Flying Drones Over Europe’s New Borders

Aerial photos of migration’s temporary homes and infrastructures

by Emily von Hoffmann


Rasmus Degnbol remembers when, for the first time in his life, he became acutely aware of borders. A European citizen raised in the 1990s, he felt like he belonged to a European collective identity that threatened to shatter. His project Europe’s New Borders began in 2015 with him mapping and visiting borders that were visibly changing — being unmistakably reinforced to keep people out. Curious and anxious about the neighbors and their increasingly militarized fences, Degnbol used drones to access unique angles and scenes. For Polarr, I spoke with him about the project, what he saw, and the borders he’d like to revisit.


Emily von Hoffmann: In your artist statement about the project, you wrote that the unfriendliness of borders was new for people who haven’t experienced war, with European borders blurring amicably until the trend reversed, in 2015 — what made you feel the attitudes around borders were changing so dramatically?

Rasmus Degnbol: I think for many people this is hard to understand, but for me and my generation who was raised during the 90s, borders weren’t really existing here in Europe — its felt like a collective, a true European Union — at least in the more developed part of Europe where the last war was the second world war, which for most seems a long time ago already. So when the borders suddenly started to change physically it was really something that you, as a European citizen who travels across them a lot, could feel.

Refugees and migrants in the Croatian winter transit camp Slavonski Brod are marched towards the train that will take them to Slovenia. They have been in the camp for 5–6 hours where they have had access to hot tents, food and medical assistance. Image courtesy of Rasmus Degnbol. All rights reserved.

EvH: Tell us more about the decision to use drones — how did that complicate the work and expand its possibilities?

RD: I had collected a lot of research and stories on the borders and had started plotting them on a map at home. One night when I felt I had enough stories and the outline of the borders became clear to me I was thinking of how to photograph this story, not to just make pictures of fences and places where there is nothing. So I looked at the map and decided that I needed to make my own photographic map of Europe, a topologic survey of how the European borders looked now, and topographical work is mostly looked from above. Hence it was quite clear from the start that I needed to get airborne somehow.

First of all I had never used a drone before, and my choice was either to rent a helicopter for each location, or to start looking at the drone technology and what possibilities this would give me. Given that helicopter flights are incredible expensive but also the physical distance that this tool gives you to your subject, I was quite sure that the drone would be the perfect tool to still tell the scale, but in a near and detailed way. The whole technical aspect of actually building your own drone, getting it to fly steady and work with the camera was a nightmare, but I learned along the way and made due with what I was capable of myself.

A 4 kilometer bus convoy waits outside of the reception center in Presevo, Serbia. The buses come from all the borders of Serbia and are privately owned and run. The bus companies often charge exorbitant amounts for tickets for the journey further north. Image courtesy of Rasmus Degnbol. All rights reserved.

EvH: Can you tell us any particular technical details you can remember from creating the project — any image or technique perhaps that was difficult to capture, or required some extra creativity?

RD: I spent a lot of time finding the right camera, remember this is 2 years ago, so drone technology was nothing like it is today. So I tested out many different types of point and shoot, and compact cameras but settled on a Sony RX100 which could shoot in RAW, and the files were really sharp, plus I could control the camera from the ground, zoom in and out and make my composition as I wanted, this was very important for me that I wasn’t going to shoot it all wide and just crop in because I needed all the resolution I could get in the files as I imagined this project as large scale prints. I had my idea but didn’t know if this would actually tell the story I wanted, and this I think is very important to any photographer, you need to go out there and start shooting, because you’ll never know upfront.

Two migrants walks in the bufferzone at the Calais camp known as ‘The Jungle’ on the 19th April 2016. The bufferzone, a new and purposely built area clearly separates The Jungle and the freeway, making it easier for authorities to see migrants approaching the fence over which trucks heading to the UK drive. Image courtesy of Rasmus Degnbol. All rights reserved.

I remember when I did the first image on the greek island of Lesvos, where I started to project in early 2015. I got the image of a full boat with refugees and migrants coming to shore, and the perspective and angle that the drone allowed me to get was something new, it added to the story instead of repeating it, thats when I knew I had something that would work, and I cleared my calendar for the next 6 months and didn’t stop until the end of 2015, I was constantly following the trails throughout Europe, sticking to the borders and my story.

EvH: The project covers most of the borders of the European Union. Is there one border (or two) in particular that sticks in your mind? Why?

RD: The land border between Turkey and Bulgaria — one because it was one of the places I wasn’t able to get any images from with the drone, because the local authorities kept me from going close to the border, but also because this is one of the land borders in Europe where they get treated the worst. I saw so many things down there, local militias hunting refugees for their money etc. etc. but wasn’t able to photograph it, and knowing that this is still going on today haunts me. Its something I hope to be able to go back for.

Kånna, Sweden. The local school was arson attacked on 15th October 2015, the day before it was scheduled to house 80 asylum seekers. Police are currently investigating the attack. Hateful rhetoric toward refugees and immigrants is daubed on the walls. Sweden has been struck by countless arson attacks since receiving almost 200,000 refugees and migrants in 2015. Image courtesy of Rasmus Degnbol. All rights reserved.

EvH: The transformation to hostility, and the consequences of that transformation, are big themes. What are the consequences you’re most concerned about?

RD: Personally I’m very anxious about the future of the European Union — because in my opinion a Union is worth nothing if it doesn’t stick together in hard times, and the 2015 refugees crisis was for sure hard times for Europe, and still is, but the whole system collapsed with every country fighting for its own, and we didn’t fix the reasons for this, we only paid off Turkey to stop them from coming. So I worry for the future and what next big crisis will cause of damage for our Union, which we need to remember came out of WW2, one of the worst wars in history — this I think we have forgotten.


Rasmus Degnbol is an award-winning documentary photographer, author and filmmaker focusing on new-age storytelling. Explore his work and follow him on Instagram.