Johnny Miller is a professional photographer and video producer who moved from Seattle to South Africa when he won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship in 2011, allowing him to study anywhere in the world for one year at a master’s degree level. Miller chose South Africa, and during his anthropology studies at the University of Cape Town, he became very fascinated with spatial planning and the architecture of the city, specifically the way in which the city was shaped during apartheid.
“For example, there are huge buffer zones that were created to keep different race groups separate,” Johnny tells Resource Travel. And even though apartheid officially ended 22 years ago, many of the barriers and the inequalities they have engendered still exist. But, as he writes on his website, “discrepancies in how people live are sometimes hard to see from the ground.” So when he got a drone, “I had a spark of inspiration that perhaps I could capture those separations from a new perspective.”
Because Johnny had only seen aerial photography of beautiful Cape Town landscapes, but none of “social issues,” he took his drone to one of the most dramatic examples of informal settlements: the boundary between Masiphumelele and Lake Michelle.
Drone photography affords people a new perspective on places they “think” they know. When you fly, you totally change that. Buildings, mountains, forests – they all look totally different.
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.
Do your pictures require a lot of research?
They are definitely not “random.” I undertook extensive planning before each flight. First, I used this map of South Africa, where you can search based on income, language, and race. This way, it’s fairly easy to see discrepancies in cities and towns. Once identified, I would use Google Earth and try to map out a flight plan.
One of Johnny’s major problems was his drone’s very limited battery life of only about 12 minutes, which only allows it to fly for a few hundred meters. Furthermore, he needs a safe and legal space to operate from and South Africa has piloting laws for flying drones. It makes the capturing of these images much more difficult than people generally think.
How did you feel when you looked at your own pictures?
Well, the minute I flew above Masiphumelele, I knew that I had a very special image on my hands. Such a stark divide, so obviously representing what I was trying to illustrate. However, my favorite image is Sweet Home/Vukuzenzele. I think it’s absolutely fascinating to see the organic structure of the informal meet the rigid lines of the formal settlement.
Johnny is very aware that his images are not a representative picture of all life in South Africa, and that reality is much more nuanced. He points out that there are areas in every municipality that are integrated, integrating, and in general doing well. There are many positive news stories about South Africa, but his images do still reflect reality too. “There is extreme wealth and extreme poverty in this country, and it’s juxtaposed in a very strange way.”
What do you hope to accomplish with your pictures?
I want to provoke people into a discussion about inequality. In that sense, I am an activist, and my work is close to journalism. But I do try to frame each shot in an artistic way. I want the images to be compelling to look at – not “beautiful” by any means, but with a certain aesthetic to them. These are not snapshots in any sense, they are carefully planned, hardly edited images.
How did other people react to your pictures?
It’s probably been 70/30 positive vs. angry responses to these images. There have been a lot of personal messages attacking me for the work, but the supportive comments carried me through dark times. People can say very hurtful things, and you need to know that people also believe in you, and want you to succeed.
Recently, I spoke in front of a crowd and a man came up to me, saying “you’re giving a voice to millions of people around South Africa, who are living in these conditions.” That hit me very hard, and I am not going to stop publishing these images. Because, as this project gets bigger, the responsibility to people like that man grows larger and larger. It was a real eye-opener, and this project has shown me that people have major psychological hurdles just admitting that there is a problem in this country.
Johnny tells Resource Travel he has two main hopes for the images. First, he hopes that they will force conversations to be about what these pictures represent. Not talking about just housing – that’s the easy answer. “I’m talking about all the issues that go on to create the situation in which these communities can exist like that, side by side.” Secondly, Johnny hopes that his pictures help people tap into that neighborly spirit which he trusts we all have, as human beings.
I just hope that people are inspired to get to know their neighbors, even if they speak a different language, or have a different color skin, or live in a different environment. Because I want to try and break down that level of fear that I see so much of today. The fear of the unknown.
Johnny’s work (in progress) has been labeled “Unequal Scenes” and can be elaborately examined on this special website, but also on Facebook and Twitter. Johnny also has a YouTube channel, on which he uploaded three “Unequal Scenes” drone videos.