Unequal Scenes shows dramatic scenes of inequality in the world from the perspective of a drone. Looking directly down from several hundred feet above the ground, incredible scenes of inequality are revealed. Some communities were explicitly designed with segregation in mind, while others have grown more or less organically. (lensculture.com)
During apartheid, segregation of urban spaces was introduced as a policy. Roads, rivers, "buffer zones" of vacant land, and other barriers were erected and altered to separate people from one another. Twenty-two years after the end of apartheid, many of these barriers and the resulting inequalities still exist. Often there are communities of extreme wealth and privilege that are only a few feet away from squalid conditions and shacks.
With this project, I want to portray the unequal locales around the world as objectively as possible. By offering a new perspective on an old problem, I hope to provoke a dialogue that can help address the issues of inequality and disenfranchisement in a constructive and peaceful way.
Johnny Miller is a photographer and multimedia storyteller living in South Africa and the United States. He is interested in exploring social justice issues from the ground and from the air.
He is currently a Senior Fellow at Code For Africa, a Senior Atlantic Fellow in Social and Economic Justice at the London School of Economics, and a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader.
Johnny is also the co-founder of africanDRONE, a pan-African organization that advocates for the use of drones for good. He attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, USA, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
1. Why did you decide to work as a photographer?
I first picked up a camera when I was 29 years old and taught myself how to shoot photo and video. I wanted to learn photography as a way to express myself through art, but also to gain a professional understanding of the business of photography. In terms of my focus, I wanted to illustrate the systems that underpin our cities. I think that’s a really hard thing to see from the ground, so I bought a drone and became interested in aerial photography.
2. Where do you usually get your inspiration?
In terms of how I gain inspiration, it’s in seeing my photography help unravel some of that complicated nature of how systems work together. Photographers aren't responsible necessarily for creating direct change through their work like aid workers do, for example. But we make it impossible for someone to say, “I didn't know it looked like that”. That’s what keeps me inspired.
3. How did you get the idea to start the project #UnequalScenes and why is the topic of inequality especially significant to you?
When I moved to South Africa (6 years ago, to study at UCT for a master’s degree in Anthropology), inequality was impossible to ignore. From the minute you land in Cape Town, you are surrounded by shacks. Literally, tin shacks surround the airport, which you have to drive past for about 10 minutes, until you reach the more affluent suburbs where privileged people live. This is the status quo in Cape Town, but also in many cities around the world - but that’s a status quo that I’m not OK with.
I thought it was strange how easily it was to become habituated to inequality. So I decided to take my drone and focus on the problem – and try to change my perspective, literally, with an aerial view of the problem. And one day in April 2016, I did just that – and the project was born.
4. What is the message that you want to convey with this project and what change would you like to achieve through your work?
I love aerial photography because it allows for an emotional distance from a subject. I find this important when dealing with inequality or urban issues more broadly - we need a super wide view, just as much as personal stories. When I was a kid I used to spend hours looking at maps, seeing all the place names and borders on the page. It’s the same way with aerial photos – you can lose yourself in them and seeing all the little details. That is what I intended, that the photos would spark conversations, and through these conversations we could begin to understand the scope of the problem, and through that understanding, we could develop solutions.
5. What perspectives do you try to take in your work?
The images that I find the most powerful are when the camera is looking straight down – what’s known as “nadir view”, looking at the actual borders between rich and poor. Sometimes this is a fence, sometimes a road, or a wetlands. Whatever it is about the composition of those photographs, they are extremely powerful to people. I think the images make inequality relevant – people can see themselves reflected in the images, and it’s unsettling.
6. In which way do you think photography (or art in general) can contribute to a society?
I know photography contributes positively to society because we are a visual species. We process information primarily through our eyes. What’s a lot harder is making your photographs relevant, and to a lesser extent, knowing the strategies to have your photographs get in front of the right people.
7. What other documentary photographers inspire you the most?
I’m inspired by aerial photographers that go beyond just the beautiful, abstract images that you can find around the world. Edward Burtynsky is an obvious example of someone who sort of pioneered large-scale photography of the human impact.