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NatGeo Photographer Has Drone Confiscated While Documenting Mass Burials on New York’s Hart Island


Well-known aerial photographer George Steinmetz—a frequent contributor to National Geographic—has accused the NYPD of ‘petty press intimidation’ after he was given a citation and had his drone confiscated while documenting mass burials on New York’s Hart Island.

The incident was made public through Steinmetz Instagram account, where he published a photo he captured before his drone was taken.

“For over 150 years this island with no public access has been used to bury over a million souls who’s bodies were not claimed for private burial. With the morgues of NYC strained, the pace of burials on Hart Island has increased dramatically,” writes Steinmetz. “I was cited by NYPD while taking this photo, and my drone was confiscated as evidence, for a court date tentatively scheduled for mid-August.”

Speaking with DPReview, Steinmetz explained that he was cited for violating NYC Administrative Code § 10–126, which prohibits taking off or landing a drone within New York City limits. However, Steinmetz is pretty sure that law had nothing to do with the run-in, telling DPR that this was “a clear example of a law being used for petty press intimidation” because “it doesn’t look good to see the city’s poor treated like toxic waste.”

Both the ethical and legal aspects of the image—and photojournalism in general—are being hotly debated in the Instagram photo’s comments. But as photographs like the one Steinmetz captured and shared have drawn more and more attention in the media, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio took to social media to clarify the situation.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, de Blasio explained that yes, COVID-19 patients were being buried on Hard Island, but no, these are not “mass burials” with all of the lack of dignity that this term might imply.

“The heartbreaking numbers of deaths we’re seeing means we are sadly losing more people without family or friends to bury them privately,” writes de Blasio. “Those are the people who will be buried on Hart Island, with every measure of respect and dignity New York City can provide.”

De Blasio ended the thread by calling for solidarity in the days ahead, and writing that we “shouldn’t sensationalize the suffering and loss of our neighbors,” ostensibly referring to photos like the one captured and shared by Steinmetz, though he is far from the only photographer to capture such images over the past week.

Image credits: Header image of Hart Island by Francisco Daum, CC BY-NC 2.0