Aerial photography, by nature, usually reveals patterns that are hard to comprehend as a pedestrian. Large-scale features such as infrastructure, landscape, and human geography can be put into perspective and thanks to Google Maps and other online satellite mapping services, this is information is all readily available at our fingertips.
However, as one photographer has pointed out, much still goes unnoticed. A resident of Cape Town, South Africa since 2012, Johnny Miller has captured the city’s housing landscape and highlighted a problem that’s still plaguing post-Apartheid South Africa. As his project title Unequal Scenes suggests, Miller’s images portray the scale and proximity of inequality still present in Cape Town.
“There’s a very uniquely South African form of spatial segregation that was developed during the apartheid,” said Miller in an interview with The Architect’s Newspaper (AN), adding how city planning and infrastructure carved Cape Town’s social and racial demographics. “So, for example, roads, rivers, train tracks: the apartheid government did very well at separating people through architecture,” he continued. “You see just in the way that the city is designed, it’s going be pretty difficult to redistribute wealth and facilitate the free movement of people.”
Miller said he likes how his detailed images facilitate long-term viewing. The physical structure of communities becomes visible, allowing the disparity to be instantly apparent. The homes of the wealthy are arranged in a clearly structured and planned fashion. The “townships” of the poorer, black community however, show roads—if they can be called that—meandering in every which way. As a result, keeping track of dwellings, keeping them on the electric grid and part of the plumbing system, is difficult though most visibly, however, is perhaps the change in color from one side to the other. For instance, one township is adjacent to a golf course: a wealth of greenery covers the wealthier area while the township shows only shack rooftops and dusty dirt-tracks.
With the rise of the Nelson Mandela, the apartheid government lost power in 1994. More than twenty years on, Miller explains that change hasn’t been easy. There’s been a failure in communication between the government and its people, leading to mistrust in state power. “There’s a lot of inequality, disenfranchised people who are really angry,” said Miller. But he’s is hopeful his project will finally spark a constructive dialogue between the authorities and the population. “I’m trying to promote a peaceful dialogue where people can share their opinions and become aware…. I think awareness is the only tool to defeat the fear that I see as really the root problem,” he added.
Miller hopes the legacy of his project will be the government’s response to the questions that arise from his photography. Already, government officials have responded to his work, remarking on their awareness of the issue and stating that they are working on the problem. “What gets me excited about this project… you start to hear those answers, which is really what people want to hear,” Miller implored.
Merely photographing the from above, though, isn’t Miller’s only ambition. He estimates that very few individuals within these poorer communities have even heard about his work. Despite his doing the rounds in South Africa’s printed media, mobile-media remains the dominant form of communication for many in townships. Cellular data tariffs can be pricey. Miller subsequently intends to display his work to residents within the photographed townships, providing what he thinks is an unseen perspective on where they live. “I think it would be really fascinating to show the person on the rich side and the poor side, just see what they have to say.”
In light of the responses Miller’s work has drawn, especially in comments on his Facebook page, it seems that his photography illuminates what appears to be an inconvenient truth for many. “In my opinion, I think it’s a lot of fear that drives these negative comments. Fear of the other, not understanding the person on the other side of the fence.”
“Perhaps it takes flying above people, two to three hundred meters, to take away that humanity and reduce humans to mass clearings, or agglomerations, for people to pay attention,” he continued, noting how some may have become desensitized to the traditional imagery of poverty: the African child with a bloated stomach looking into the camera. Indeed, “that face” can come from anywhere in the Third World, whereas Miller’s drone images illustrate that poverty literally is on their doorstep, something which is arguably more personal.
What is apparent from Miller’s work is that the drone provides a new perspective that, in Miller’s words, “people really respond to. Seeing something they thought they knew in a different way” is evidently something that resonates—with the wealthier side for now, at least. If you want to follow Johnny Miller’s project, you can do so through his Twitter feed, here. You can also find more videos here.