Johannesburg - Cape Town photographer Johnny Miller used a drone to capture the Cape township of Masiphumelele from above. Separated by a stretch of wetlands and an electric fence from the scenic neighbouring suburb of Lake Michelle, Masiphumulele is densely populated and worlds removed from the lifestyle of its nearest neighbours.
When the post was shared more than 1 000 times, although Miller had only 1 200 followers, he knew he was on to something. In the months since, he has travelled South Africa with his Inspire 1 drone and captured images that tell a story of inequality that remains entrenched 22 years after the end of apartheid.
The project has garnered interest globally from influential media outlets, from India to Poland and China, from the BBC and CNN to Huffington Post and The Guardian.
Now Miller’s digital art project, Unequal Scenes, targeting a social issue, has taken the world by storm, also attracting interest from the government and business.
The series of photographs, which is being exhibited at Gordon Institute of Business Science in Joburg, shows the harsh difference between the living conditions of rich and poor in an objective and unambiguous way.
The Deputy Minister of Corporate Governance and Traditional Affairs, Andries Nel, who attended the opening this week, said the images provided an alternative tool to work towards the spatial transformation needed to heal the fragmentation left by apartheid.
The Saturday Star spoke to Miller, a photographer and videographer focusing on issues of urbanisation, social justice, dignity, and spatial planning. Originally from Seattle, US, he is living in Cape Town.
Q: What brought you to South Africa originally and what made you stay for so long?
A: I won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in 2011, when I was just starting out in photography in Seattle. This allowed me to study anywhere in the world for one year at a Master’s degree level, provided I spoke at Rotary clubs in the host country. It was a great opportunity and I’m forever grateful for it. I chose the University of Cape Town and studied anthropology.
Q: How did you come to start taking drone photos?
A: During my course work at UCT we covered a lot of topics and some of the most interesting to me were spatial planning and the architecture of the city, specifically the particular way it was done under apartheid. For example, there are huge buffer zones that were created to keep race groups separate. I just thought that was fascinating.
When I got the drone, I had a spark of inspiration that perhaps I could capture those separations from a new perspective.
Q: What were you hoping to get back then?
A: Drone photography is interesting because it gives us a new perspective on places we “thought” we knew. We have this amazing ability to “think” we know a situation, having seen it so many times from the same perspective.
It becomes routine, but when you fly, you totally change that. Buildings, mountains, forests - they all look totally different.
And you know, there have been tons of aerial photographs of beautiful Cape Town landscapes, but I hadn’t seen any on “social issues”.
I took the drone to one of the most dramatic examples of informal settlements, which is the boundary between Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle, Noordhoek. I wanted people to see that divide from a new perspective. I wanted to disrupt that sense of complacency that I felt and that I knew a lot of privileged people in Cape Town feel. And that’s pretty much how it all started.
Q: How did you pick the locations you photograph?
A: These photographs were taken in South Africa’s largest metropolitan areas: Joburg, Cape Town, and Durban. All the locations were researched using census data and mapping software to find highly unequal locations, which were then photographed and recorded using a DJI Inspire drone. The final images were not photoshopped or modified in any way, except for basic cropping, exposure, and colour corrections.
Q: Why turn a digital project into an exhibition of prints?
A: I had two reasons to work with the Gordon Institute of Business Science and create this exhibition.
First, seeing these images printed in a large format, in a tangible form, adds poignancy and gravitas that you just can’t get through your screen or cellphone.
I felt it myself, looking at the images, even though I’d seen them hundreds of times on my computer. There is an ability to linger, to notice details, and to change your perspective that is just not possible any other way.
Second, my intention was to provoke conversations about inequality.
I think printing them and hosting them in a safe, conformable space, like the institute, provides that atmosphere.
I’ve witnessed how the images draw people in and almost force them to engage with what they’re being confronted with. I think this public space, the open-plan foyer and cafeteria, lends itself beautifully to what I was trying to achieve.
*The Unequal Scenes exhibition is open to the public daily from 8am to 8pm until September 10 at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, 26 Melville Road, Illovo. For more info, check the GIBS Art on Campus Facebook page.