Long before photography and air travel were invented, people tried to imagine the world as perceived from above.
In maps, drawings, and paintings, they created an often astonishingly accurate vertical or bird’s-eye view of their surroundings. It’s not surprising that in the mid-19th century photographic pioneers succeeded quite quickly in capturing the land from hot air balloons. In the early 20th century, airplanes—and later helicopters—replaced the balloons, and from the 1950s onwards satellites offered an entirely new view.
Aerial photography extends the eye and serves both science and art, by documenting the area beneath, and also revealing color, patterns and shapes in the landscape. Moreover, aerial photography creates a context for individual features on the ground and places them in relationship to one another. It offers a new perspective on familiar objects and allows us to see ourselves in the larger context of the world. At World Press Photo, aerial photographs have been awarded since the 1980s. Although the first winning picture taken from the sky was actually made in 1971 by David Waterman, who photographed a British parachute team while also skydiving himself.
Most aerial photographs have been awarded in the nature category, and include majestic views of the Niger River (by Dieter Blum), Iceland’s Vatnajokull glacier (by Klaus Francke) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (by Oliver Grunewald) among others. The award-winning aerial pictures not only display the beauty of nature from above but also regularly touch upon environmental concerns, such as climate change and species extinction. Daniel Beltrá, for example, works primarily from the air to make photos that illustrate the fragility of our ecosystem. In 2006, he won an award for his story about the drought in the Amazon region.
Jackie Ranken photographed the drought that threatens Australia from her father’s antique biplane, while upside down, at the top of a loop. In her photos, she combined ecological concern with artistic vision. Kacper Kowalski’s 2013 story is equally beautiful and disturbing, showing the brightly colored, highly toxic traces in the Polish landscape caused by power stations. The pictures reveal an impact of industry on the environment that is hard to see from the ground. Kowalski is also a pilot and one of the very few award winners to fly the plane—a motorized paraglider to be precise—himself, giving him more control over each photo. In 2009, he also won an award for his aerial views of a Polish beach resort during the course of one day, and in 2015 his aerial photography was awarded in the long-term projects category.
The use of aerial footage became increasingly common in newsreels from the 1940s onwards. Photojournalists got on helicopters to tell the story from a different angle. Like Eric Bouvet, who photographed Lake Nyos in Cameroon after a deadly cloud of carbon dioxide burst from the lake and suffocated more than 1,000 people in 1987. Jeff Mitchell photographed the piles of dead animals awaiting incineration from above after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK. And weeks after the December 2004 tsunami struck Indonesia, Halden Krog photographed a fishing boat in the middle of rice paddy field some six kilometers from the coast. In 2011, photojournalist Koichiro Tezuka happened to be in a helicopter when he witnessed the powerful tsunami hitting Japan’s Tohoku region. One of his pictures shows the waves sweeping through Sendai Airport, not long after the helicopter he was traveling in had refueled there.
Aerial photography constantly challenges conventional modes of seeing, also by introducing new vehicles. Drones entered the contest in 2014 when Kunrong Chen was awarded for his photos of people taking their daily exercise viewed from a drone. They gave a unique vertical view from a much lower position than had been previously possible. Tomas van Houtryve, awarded in 2015, mounted a camera to a drone to photograph situations across the United States similar to those mentioned in drone strike reports in Pakistan and Yemen.
Naturally, it is not necessary to get on a plane or helicopter to take a picture from above, as many prize-winning photos illustrate. A ladder, a window from a tall building, a remote-control camera in the crest of a roof, can be sufficient to get an overview or abstract angle.