While studying for a master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, American photographer Johnny Miller found the startling inequality impossible to ignore.
“From the minute you land in Cape Town, you are surrounded by shacks,” he told MNN. “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 (myself included) live. This is the status quo in Cape Town, in South Africa, and in many parts of the world — but that’s a status quo that I’m not OK with.”
Inspired by a quote by former President Barack Obama describing inequality as the “defining challenge of this generation,” Miller took to the sky in April 2016 to shine a light on the contrasting living conditions below. The powerful visuals captured are part of an ongoing series called “Unequal Scenes” that has since expanded to many other countries around the world.
While Miller uses a variety of angles to capture the stark inequality of neighborhoods, there’s one particular shot that delivers the biggest visual punch.
“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,” he says. “Sometimes this is a fence, sometimes a road, or a wetlands – with small shacks or poor houses on one side, and larger houses or mansions on the other. 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 deeply unsettling.”
When it comes to choosing his scenes, Miller says he takes the time to heavily research and identify prospective sites based on census data, maps, news reports, and just talking to people.
“Once I identify the areas I want to photograph, I visualize them on Google Earth, and try to map out a flight plan,” he says. “This includes taking into account air law, air safety, personal safety, battery life, range, weather, angle, time of day and many more factors. Not to mention all the logistics that go into taking aerial photographs around the world – hotels, rental cars, different languages. Oftentimes I’ll have a friend, or a colleague, or even a co-worker who will help me out – but sometimes I’m totally on my own.”
Traveling to capture some of these scenes, however, isn’t without risk.
“Shooting in dangerous cities and informal settlements often means you are highly aware of your surrounding environment, your personal safety, and the actions you are having on the community around you,” he says. “When you have official support, it can be a fun, even rousing atmosphere – like in Kibera, Kenya, where we were surrounded by dozens of people cheering at the drone rising into the sky. When you are on your own, it can be much more challenging and even scary.”
Miller credits aerial photography with providing an “emotional distance” and staging of scale that’s not always possible from below.
“Traditional portraiture and photography on the ground rarely allows for that sort of contemplation,” he says. “I’ve also seen the work spark conversations amongst everyone – educated or not, rich or poor, all colors and genders. This is really what I intended and desired to happen – 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.”
The project has also not only fueled Miller’s love and appreciation for photography, but also set him on a path to expand his on-the-ground efforts to raise awareness and address inequality around the globe.
“It’s been incredible how this project has been internationally recognized and awarded,” he said. “I’ve been awarded fellowships to both Code For Africa (a news organization in South Africa) and also the London School of Economics, where I am completing my fellowship in Social and Economic Equity. I also have founded my own NPO, africanDRONE.org, to help promote drone journalism and empower African storytellers who are looking to use drones in their methodology.”