The Shifting Standards of European Borders

Rasmus Degnbol takes his camera to the skies to offer an aerial perspective of the consequences, both big and small, of Europe’s largest wave of mass-migration since the Second World War.

© Rasmus Degnbol, from the series, Europe's New Borders

“I don’t see this as a migrant story,” says Rasmus Degnbol of his latest series, which is shot from a drone. “I see it as a story about borders. How can I tell a story about the changes to the borders of Europe, and what are the consequences of these changes, not only for refugees but for you and me?”

The Danish photographer started working on Europe’s New Borders in early 2015. During his research, he paid particular attention to under reported stories – of migrant shootings and of people who had frozen to death at borders – using the locations as a starting point to construct his own story. His intention, he says, was to focus on the impact of migrant movement – for example, the effect on transport infrastructure and the tourism industry.

© Rasmus Degnbol, from the series, Europe's New Borders

The idea of using a drone came later, but was an obvious decision, he says. “If you’re going to photograph borders in a topographic way then you have to get up in the air. I’ve always found technical stuff interesting, so I decided to build my own drone.”

It was a difficult process. Degnbol spent a month and a half building his drone, which later crashed on the Greek island of Lesbos. The second one worked better, he says, but still, Degnbol often only had one attempt to nail each shot. “I often didn’t have a lot of time to get the drone up in the air before the police arrived, so I had to know it was going to work.” He also had to make sure he had control over composing his shots. “I needed to be able to compose in the air in the way I’m able to on the ground – to zoom in and focus,” he says. “I couldn’t rely on chance.”

© Rasmus Degnbol, from the series, Europe's New Borders

Degnbol made the resulting images over six trips to places such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, and Serbia. He took most of his images at 25 to 30 metres in the air, and in doing so captures activities on the ground in incredible detail. “Shooting in this way you remain close to your subject, maybe not in a classic reportage way, but you keep that sense of nearness.” Making the work was, however, “a somewhat weird and lonely experience,” he admits. “I was there, but I wasn’t there physically. I don’t normally worry about police, but I became paranoid. A friend said to me, ‘Rasmus you have to make this story because it’s important.’ I thought about that a lot during the project. So I pushed on.”

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Rasmus Degnbol is a documentary photographer and filmmaker focusing on worldwide political issues and storytelling. His series, Europe’s New Borders was the winner of the PHM 2016 Grant Main Prize. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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