Johnny Miller is a photographer and the founder of African DRONEand Unequal Scenes.
His photographs are truly thought provoking. They make you stop for a moment and think about the lives of the people inside the frame. I would say I was lucky when I bumped into Johnny's profile on Instagram one day. The moment I saw his photos, I was struck by its beauty.
Unequal Scenes portrays scenes of inequality around the world from a drone. I immediately reached out to him and asked about his work. It is incredible that Johnny talks about income inequality, about the unbalanced distribution of resource and wealth through his powerful aerial photographs.
This is his story.
I’m 37, born in Maryland but moved around quite often due to my dad’s job (he worked for NOAA – a government agency). I went to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and graduated with a political science degree – after working in Washington DC for several years I quit, and then set off to explore a different path for my career and life.
I first picked up a camera when I was 29 years old and taught myself how to shoot stills and video. I wanted to learn photography as a sort of trade, in order to make a profession for myself and own my own business.
When I moved to South Africa (6 years ago, to study at UCT for a master’s degree in Anthropology), inequality was impossible to ignore. From the minute you land in Cape Town, you are surrounded by shacks. 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. To paraphrase Barack Obama, I believe that inequality is the defining challenge of this generation.
"But I thought it was strange how easily it was to become habituated to inequality. To drive past these shacks every day, but not really think about it, or do anything about it.
So I decided to take my drone and focus on the problem – and try to change people’s perspective, literally, with an aerial view of the problem as I saw it. And one day in April 2016, I did just that – and the project was born."
My process of shooting these images is quite research-heavy. I identify where to take the photographs through a variety of tools. This is a combination of census data, maps, news reports, and talking to people. In South Africa and the USA I used data tools created with Census information, for example. In Mexico City I relied on advice from a helicopter pilot, Carlos Ruiz. In India, I used PK Das’ slum maps. So there are a variety of ways I do my research.
Once I identify the areas I want to photograph, I visualize them on Google Earth, and try to map out a flight plan. 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.
"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.
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."
"I love aerial photography because it allows us an emotional distance to really jump in and spend a lot of time looking at the photos.
When I was a kid I used to spend hours looking at maps, seeing all the place names and borders on the page.
It’s the same way with my aerial photos – you can almost lose yourself in them."
This is also why I think Unequal Scenes is important – it allows us the distance to really reflect on the fact that we have allowed our societies to become so unequal.
Traditional portraiture and photography on the ground rarely allows for that sort of contemplation.
Photographer I admire?
Anyone who has the guts to actually go into challenging situations and come out with beautiful images – I love traditional photo journalism. Old school guys with class and courage like Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, Greg Marinovich.
The South African images are my “favorites”, in that they mean the most to me, they were the first I took and they have a special resonate as I live in the country and I think the images have a real power to influence the discourse there. From an art point of view I’m happy with the image of Kya Sands and Bloubosrand (Johannesburg) because its got incredible balance, lines, and color which makes it a really strong image, and the difference between the two sides is as stark as anywhere I’ve seen in the world.
I use DJI drones because they are the best, most reliable, and cheapest option to do the work I do. I’ve used the DJI Mavic, Phantom, Inspire, and M600Pro drones. The M600Pro I mounted a Hasselblad A6D camera onto, which was pretty special and resulted in incredible images.
I think that reducing poverty is important and actually incredible success has been made in that field over the last 50 years. However this project focuses on inequality, which is actually increasing. It’s not enough to just give some enough to survive, its about distributing wealth fairly.
I hope my 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 best part about being a photographer is being able to see a little bit about everyone else’s jobs, lives, and homes.
Photojournalists get an ability to know about how people actually live because we have to go document it.
The second best thing is the flexible work schedule, not having to be confined to an office, and being in control of your own creative process."
As any photographer will tell you, the type of camera is pretty irrelevant these days. Great photos are taken with cheap miniature cameras (like drone cameras) which should go to show you that the “12 inches behind the camera body is the most important part” (Ansel Adams quote – referring to the photographer’s brain). One thing I’ve learned with Unequal Scenes is the power of developing a photo essay – multiple photos related to the same subject – and doing it well – vs. once-off photos or quick travel photos.
I didn’t study photography at college, I taught myself, and learned on the job from a variety of mentors and colleagues who I worked with. But I think there are professions, like art, fashion, and cinematography to name a few, where it will help you to study in a college. This is as much for networking and building a portfolio as it is for technical skills development.
"Getting to experience life inside Dharavi, especially the illegal aluminum smelters, was a really memorable experience ."