Unequal Scenes began as an aerial photography project in 2016, dedicated to documenting the world’s most stark dividing lines of inequality. From Cape Town to New York, the message is clear: The world is an unequal place. Tin shacks and dilapidated buildings are separated from mansions. Millionaires in high-rise aeries gaze down on informal settlements and public housing. Walls, highways and other infrastructure keep us from seeing the extent of the problem, let alone allowing us to cross over. Not only do these photographs display economic inequality, but also dehumanization. How long do we expect poorer communities to accept that they are walled off and excluded?
The very scale and unerring regularity across the world points to the systemic nature of inequality...and it’s killing us. Evidence shows that high levels inequality are correlated with worse health outcomes, like lower life expectancy, higher rates of heart failure, and higher levels of infant mortality. More equal societies are happier and more cohesive, and have taken steps to address systemic racial and gender inequalities. Most importantly, countries that are more equal have rejected the outdated and false notion that neoliberal principles such as lower taxes for the rich and deregulation lead to more prosperous outcomes. This is untrue, and the myth of individual success and a meritocratic system is proven wrong time and time again, one Panama Paper at a time. These photos don’t reveal anything like an “organic” level of natural competition – they reflect a planned and intentional disenfranchisement of the working class and poor.
When billionaire philanthropists focus on “reducing poverty”, they intentionally set the bar low, cheer themselves for providing what should already be shared, and deflect the gaze away from their own permissive tax avoidance structures. When critics claim that non-white, women-led, or Global South communities compete in a meritocratic marketplace, they neglect to account for the hundreds of years of colonialism, disinvestment, and hidden costs passed on in the form of pollution, underpayment, child care, and more. Climate change, health pandemics, and even the spread of digital technology have uneven impacts, and amplify and exacerbate existing inequalities in a population. These inequalities make life worse for everyone. Admitting that inequality exists and is a problem is the first step. Accepting that the rich will need to divest resources through taxation in order to rectify the situation is a much harder second step.
By using drones and helicopters for this project, I intend to provoke an analysis from a distant gaze at what Eyal Weizman calls “the inscription of humanity upon the earth”. For the first time in our history, drones allow photographers above the dividing lines which were previously kept off-limits. Looking straight down on the fences separating us from our neighbors provokes feelings of fear, despair, and an unsettling realization that we, the middle classes, are also complicit.
Johnny Miller, Ithaca NY, USA, September 2022
Johnny Miller is a photographer and multimedia storyteller based in South Africa and the USA. He is interested in exploring social justice issues from the ground and from the air.
His photographic project Unequal Scenes has garnered widespread praise and been featured in many of the world’s top publications.
He is currently a Senior Fellow at Code For Africa, a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics, and a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader.
Johnny is also the co-founder of africanDRONE, a pan-African organization committed to using drones for good. He attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, USA, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.