Johnny Miller's aerial photos a wake up call on SA's great divide

Nothing illustrates the chasm between rich and poor in SA more clearly than Johnny Miller's bird's-eye view photos - taken by drones - of affluent neighbourhoods rubbing shoulders with shacklands. But rather than despair, the photographer argues, we should use them as catalysts for change

19 May 2019 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON


'Where are the drone photos?" asked Sarah Leen, National Geographic director of photography, when she met Johnny Miller in 2017, and he handed her two boxes of images from his award-winning portfolio.
The year before, his first Unequal Scenes photos, showing scenes of inequality from above, had shaken the world.
These unique aerial shots - looking straight down from the sky onto wealthy and poor residential areas side by side - were what she particularly wanted to see.
"I've never seen this (perspective) before," she said. "This is your vision."
Now tens of millions of people have seen his images.
This month, Time magazine, marking SA's 25th year of democracy, published Miller's aerial image showing Primrose, Ekurhuleni, and the adjacent informal settlement, Makause, on its cover. It was headlined, "The World's Most Unequal Country".
A FIRE FOR JUSTICE
"The Time logo and that red border do something to people's minds," said Miller of the exposure, though the magazine is just the latest in many high-profile publications of his Unequal Scenes series.
Miller's stark recordings of inequality, shot from a drone, started with a picture of the informal settlement Masiphumelele and the neighbouring Lake Michelle in Cape Town in 2016.
"As an American, I have been accused of parachute journalism," said Miller.
But this charge, of dropping in and out to report on areas of which he has little knowledge, is certainly not true in Miller's case.
He first came to SA seven years ago to study and never left. He lives in Cape Town, and hopes to stay.
"I'm passionate about living here," he said.
A fire for justice drives him.
Miller said: "Looking at it through my narrow lens, SA has changed in the three years since I started this. The response to the images now is different. There is outrage but more acceptance.
"I think there has been a seismic shift since the outright denial of 2016," he said, reflecting on how movements such as #FeesMustFall had made a difference.
"Unequal Scenes is not a polemic about SA. It was never explicitly about race, though in the South African context that's impossible to ignore. It's about global inequality and the city I live in. I live in a privileged part of Cape Town and I'm very self-reflective."
Next, he intends to do portraits of people living on either side of the divide as well as shoot new countries.
"Google Earth gives you a satellite view. Many of them orbit 200km in the sky and their resolution is only about 31cm per pixel. With drones you can get down to millimetres per pixel if you want," he said.
A HAPPY ACCIDENT
In 2016, Miller graduated with a masters in anthropology at the University of Cape Town, in which he focused on the post-apartheid city and apartheid spatial planning, laying the groundwork for his aerial views.
But the drone series took off virtually unplanned, sparked by a friend's reaction. Working as a freelance photographer, Miller got a drone as "a kind of a lark" to expand his visual options.
When Mike Howe-Ely, who had grown up in Cape Town, said, "I've never seen Table Mountain look like that," in response to his drone images, Miller saw the potential to shift the way we look at what's familiar.
"I realised this could rock the world's perceptions," he said. "I'm passionate about the hidden architecture in the way we live, though in SA it's not so hidden. I thought I could show the extreme inequality in a different way."
Miller then packed up his drone one afternoon and headed south, reaching the informal settlement of Masiphumelele, not far from Cape Point. Standing on the outskirts, he sent the drone skywards and shot photos and then, from a nearby parking lot, more options including Lake Michelle.
"I was shocked at the impact of that photo. It was profound. At first, 200 people liked it on Facebook and then overnight it went viral. Eighty percent of the comments were positive and about 20% negative."
When he posted the first photo, he said he was starting a small series. That's how you start a project, he jokes: just say you are.
"I had a project before I had taken the photos. People were asking: 'When's the next photo? What will it be about?'"
Initially, Miller and his then-girlfriend funded it, driving around Cape Town taking photos, but then he got his first fellowship of many, from Code for Africa.
Now his series has expanded to include Kenya, Tanzania, India, Mexico and, most recently, the US.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
His success and multiple awards have not distracted Miller from the content. If anything, it's made his focus sharper.
His interview revolves more around issues of inequality than his success, and how to interrogate it further.
"This project is about justice that has not been executed or executed poorly, and how to fix that," he said.
"This is how we don't want the world to look. There's nothing natural about it and we have the power to change it: the message is not bleak, it's hopeful," said Miller, whose photos have been used by bodies like the World Economic Forum to illustrate inequality.
Miller has also co-founded an NGO called africanDRONE with Code for Africa to help give people access to these machines.
"Drones are really an empowering tool, like cellphones and the internet. Six years ago, no-one had access to the sky unless you were very rich or doing a survey," he said.His images have become a rallying point for activists, students and the media, and he rejects allegations that they have been Photoshopped to make poorer people look colourless and the trees less green in their areas.Such "poisonous allegations", he says, "come from people in denial."He offers to show me the history of his edits."It's a Hail Mary because they know they are beaten."PUSH FOR CHANGEHe's just returned from a 45-day trip which included stops in Brussels, Belgium, for an exhibition; Gdansk, Poland; Washington DC, New York City, Boston, and Seattle to visit his mom in the US; Bonn, Germany; and London."We all have a role to play in pushing for change. There needs to be people burning tyres and protesting, there needs to be people speaking to power, and there needs to be independent activists."I see myself as a moderate activist, someone who targets people in the middle classes, who look like me and sound like me. I'm talking to people in the boardroom. I've got a mask on like Arya Stark and I can use it for good."

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