The architecture of apartheid through the eyes of a drone – a Q&A with Johnny Miller

By capturing a bird’s eye view of Cape Town, American photographer Johnny Miller masterfully documents the stark racial and socioeconomic divide that still exists over two decades after apartheid formally ended.

His drone photography project, Unequal Scenes, unveils a previously mostly unseen perspective of the city. Taken from high above Cape Town, his photographs show wealthy, manicured neighborhoods flanked by tin-roofed informal settlements, lush green golf courses just next door to impoverished neighborhoods built on dirt roads, and buffer zones dividing the rich and poor.

Vignette Interactive interviewed Miller about his viral project and his plans for the future.

The project Unequal Scenes is an impressive way to really show the divides of the rich and the poor in South Africa. Can you walk me through the process of how this came about?

I won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in 2011 when I was just starting out in the career of photography in Seattle (I am American). 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. During my coursework, 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 that was done under apartheid. For example, there are huge buffer zones that were created to keep different race groups separate. I just thought that was fascinating. So when I got the drone in February 2016, I had a spark of inspiration that perhaps I could capture those separations from a new perspective.

I took the drone to one of the most dramatic examples of informal settlements, which is the boundary between Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle. 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.

Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle ©Johnny Miller/Millefoto

Had you used drone photography before? Does it take a different kind of mindset to do this versus working on a more traditional photo projects?

Drone photography is interesting because it affords people a new perspective on places they thought they knew. Humans have this amazing ability to think we know a situation, having seen it so many times from the same perspective. It becomes routine, almost a pattern.

When you fly, you totally change that. Buildings, mountains, forests – they all look totally different. And you know, there have been oodles and oodles of aerial photography of beautiful Cape Town landscapes, but I hadn’t seen any done on “social issues”. There may be people who have done similar stuff that’s out there, but I had never seen it.

One interesting thing to note is how far and wide these images have spread, in large part, I think, because of the different perspective. People are thirsty for new ways to communicate and message their issues.

Hopefully, this inspires people to think outside the box vis a vis portrayals of social issues. Maybe taking a beautiful portrait isn’t enough anymore. I think we are entering a new phase where “new” trumps “established”. Go out and tell the stories you want to tell – the barrier for entry is getting lower, and there are plenty of blogs, media, and people excited about sharing your work if it seems new and different.

Did you run into any issues or problems that you didn’t expect?

This whole project was unexpected. But I think the biggest surprise was probably the reaction from people in South Africa.

In this country, passions are visceral and on the surface. There are also lingering resentment, political and racial tensions, and historical issues at play. All of this is very recent and very in your face in South Africa. You are forced to confront it every day in the political discourse, in your personal discourse. I knew that the images would spark a conversation and some controversy — that wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was how much conversation.

The controversy, if you want to call it that, revolves around a few different interconnected threads:

  1. That I’m not “South African” enough to tell this story – that somehow I’m exploiting the country for my own gain, or not conscious enough of the nuance of these issues in order to report on them. These are interesting debates that have been raised. Am I “South African” enough to put forward this information? What does that even mean? And who gets to decide what gets published? It sounds a bit strange to me. I think information is information, and I actively try to disengage myself, i.e. Johnny Miller, from the conversation as much as possible to avoid these pointless, and ultimately distracting, side debates.
  1. That “negative” news about South Africa reinforces the connotation of the country with crime, negative race relations, and apartheid. I guess I counter that reality is reality – I don’t want to live in a world where all I see is positive news. I think it’s telling that this opinion generally comes from privileged people who don’t want to “rock the boat” too much by reporting on negative issues. Look — there are nuances that the images don’t convey, I agree. But the point of them is to spark conversations, spark research, spark interest in the nuances – in essence, to do the research on your own. If the images were too narrow, or too data-heavy, or different in any way, they wouldn’t be as popular. And that would mean we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, which may affect positively people’s lives down the road.

I can sleep well at night knowing I took these images. So, the criticism, while important, is something I’ve engaged with and have come to peace with.

If you were talking to someone who had never done drone photography before, what is the main tip would you give them before starting their project?

Practice – a lot. These things are big, heavy, and can be dangerous if they are used incorrectly. Be aware of the ethics involved when shooting from a drone. By that I mean come to terms with your own ethics and engage with the discussions about drone law and privacy. Be a smart drone flyer.

Also, buy insurance, immediately. You will crash eventually. We all do.

What kind of gear do you use?

My main drone is a DJI Inspire One. I use my iPhone 6s as the controller. I shoot all my stuff on the ground with a Canon 5D Mark III.

Are you planning to do more projects like this in the future?

Yes. I’ve partnered with the Thomson Reuters Foundation to shoot a four-part series on the biggest slums in the world: Nairobi, Cape Town, Mumbai, and Mexico City. I’ve also been made a Fellow at Code For Africa, which is a non-profit aiming to promote new tech on the continent.

They are both very supportive, and there are a few other projects in the wings that I’m very excited about as well, which haven’t been finalized. I’d love to hear from anyone interested in inequality, whatever form that takes, or how to partner together and tell these stories better.

Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course ©Johnny Miller/Millefoto

Do you think drone photography is important enough to be it’s own genre? Or is it just one more tool in a photographer’s wheelhouse?

I think my photos are one of the few examples of drone photography as a photo set that can stand alone without any other ground-based photography to support it. Mostly, though, I think that drone photo and video works best as an adjunct, a supporting element, to more traditional forms of photojournalism.

It’s not a new form of photography – we have been taking aerial photos as long as there have been airplanes. So, I don’t think it’s revolutionary in the way that it’s used. What is revolutionary is the access and cost, which has come down by such a tremendous amount that you now see the common man able to fly, and tell stories from the air. That means, much like the spread of “citizen journalism” in general, that we are all storytellers now, which opens up all these incredible opportunities for great work to be produced, and unexpected perspectives to be shown.

Check out Johnny’s social media on facebook and twitter for more of his work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Have you worked with drone photography? Share your experiences or another cool drone project you’ve seen in the comments section!

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

1 comment

  1. Terrific. I think of India showing these kinds of stark contrasts but I bet you could find plenty in the USA

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