Illustration of a drone near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on February 27, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

A drone over Paris

PARIS, March 6, 2015 – Mysterious drones in the skies over Paris and several nuclear power plants have been giving the French authorities a headache in recent weeks. There’s naturally a lot of media interest in the phenomenon - and an appetite for photos to match. But it would take a major stroke of luck for AFP to capture a real-life drone in the sky over the capital.

I am therefore tasked with shooting a series of “illustrations”– general purpose photos that our clients can use each time a story about a drone crops up. The job doesn’t land with me by accident: I happen to be a drone enthusiast. I have two of them at home, which I use to take aerial photos when I’m out in the countryside.

So off I head, on a beautiful sunny day, my two-kilo drone wedged under my arm, to snap some images of the device with emblematic Paris landmarks in the background.


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Problem: flying a remote-controlled drone over Paris is strictly forbidden. A pair of Al-Jazeera reporters were arrested just two days earlier for flying one over the Bois de Boulogne on the western edge of the capital, for the same purpose as me. They were held in custody and one of them landed a 1,000-euro fine.

Since I am a law-abiding citizen, my initial idea is to photograph the drone on the ground beneath the Eiffel Tower. Except I soon decide it makes a pretty poor shot… On second thought, it occurs to me there might just be a way to capture an airborne drone over Paris without breaking any laws.

Throwing a drone into the air beside the Eiffel Tower (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

But first, let me tell you a little about our bikers. The biker is the press photographer’s best friend. AFP’s photo department employs two, who whisk us to the scene in cases of emergency, or when we need to take moving shots, like on the Tour de France. They have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. They’re the hidden helpers behind many a great photo, who do us all sorts of little favours.

That day, my buddy is called Guy Andrieu. He will also be my drone-launcher.

AFP biker Guy Andrieu throws an unpowered drone into the air, for the purposes of shooting an illustration picture, 

in la Defense business district on February 27, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

The plan is to use the drone with the power off (I even remove the battery to prove our good faith if the police come asking). Guy’s job is to throw it as high as he can while I snap away, and then catch it again. Passers-by will think we’re mad, but what matters to me is that lobbing a switched-off drone up into the air will not - I hope - land us behind bars.

First stop the Eiffel Tower. Where we soon realise our plan looked easier on paper. More often than not the launch goes pear-shaped: the drone “flies” all wrong, flipping on its side or upside down, before falling limply down again. It takes about 10 throws for each decent picture - and each time Guy has to catch my expensive toy before it crashes to the ground. At one point he gets his feet tangled in something and falls flat in a puddle.

At the Parc de Saint-Cloud, southwest of ParisAt the Parc de Saint-Cloud, southwest of Paris (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

Then someone rats on us. Our comic routine has started attracting attention. We see a man heading towards three police officers riding past on bicycles. The snitch points towards us while talking to the officers. Who look at us without intervening, for now. It’s time for us to get moving.

Next stop: the Parc de Saint Cloud, just southwest of Paris, which has great views over the capital. And where we are soon the star attraction.

“So when are you going to fly it then?” asks one bystander. “It doesn’t fly,” I tell him. “Oh. Well what’s the point, then?”

In La Defense business quarterIn La Defense business quarter (AFP Photo / Dominique Faget)

When we start playing catch, people crack up laughing all around us.

We shoot our final series beneath the skyscrapers of La Defense. Same merry-do-round, under the astonished eyes of the office workers and shoppers coming and going in the busy commercial district.

Three hours and several hundred throws later, our mission is accomplished. My drone makes it through unscathed. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Guy, who emerges in dire need of a change of clothes, and nursing a very sore shoulder.

Dominique Faget is an AFP photographer in Paris