The bigger picture: How a drone photographer is capturing inequality from the air

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New Delhi, June 20 (IANS) Towering skyscrapers and crumbling shanties, swathes of land awash in greenery and cramped urban dwelling spaces, regal-looking bungalows and slums may co-exist on ground but when viewed from the sky, they can reveal structural inequality prevailing all around us.

Drone photographer Johnny Miller, who has been awarded fellowships by Code For Africa (a news organization in South Africa) and the London School of Economics (LSE), with his somewhat unique project “Unequal Scenes” has set on to portray snapshots of inequality from South Africa, the United States, and among other places, India’s maximum city, Mumbai.

What makes his project interesting is the fact that all these photographs have been captured using a drone.

Driving past the tin shacks around an airport in South Africa, Miller was struck with the stark difference between them and affluent suburbs. Inequality stared him in the face everyday, and, in his words, that was a status quo he was “not OK with”.

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“One day in April 2016, I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment when I decided to take a drone over one area of Cape Town I knew to be very unequal – and the project was born,” Miller told IANS in an email interview.

“It’s not confined to one region of the world. It’s not confined to one group of people, or one nation — it is intersectional, it is international. 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 to ignore a problem which seems so intractable,” he added.

So what degree of difference does a drone add to a photography project as unique as his?

He said the drone provides an objective separation from subject that can be powerful when dealing with an emotionally charged issue like inequality. The height and distance allow the viewer to see inequality almost as if it were a structural problem.

Miller has also photographed from locations such as Mexico city and Nairobi, and the scale and the scope of slums in Mumbai was the most striking find for Miller.

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“It contains the heart of India’s most powerful industries, and some of its poorest slums — it’s an urban jungle, a vertical aerie for the super-rich, and a fragile marine ecosystem. Billion-dollar houses in the form of skyscrapers exist next to vast slums covered in blue tarps against the monsoon rains,” he shared.

Using drone photography, Miller is able to capture extremely different landscapes in one frame, leaving a trail of socio-economic inequality reflected in geographical discrepancies.

“A large population of the city lives in slums. And I think you can see that from the images — how vast and overwhelming the scale of poverty is, especially when juxtaposed with the extreme wealth of some of other half of the population.

“I think that this helps understand that the city functions in partnership with slum dwellers, not in spite of them. And that when people talk of ‘redeveloping’ places like Dharavi, it needs to be done in a way that redistributes wealth, rather than made ‘profitable’ only to the rich,” he said.

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In India, a mega-diverse country in itself, instances of inequality are plenty. Identity markers like religion, caste, gender, race, ability and ethnicity, bear a strong influence on the social status of an individual, even creating a geographic hierarchy.

Zooming out from everyday vision on the ground, this bird’s-eye view presents a bigger picture. When looked at like this, inequality seems systemic.

Unequal Scenes has been internationally recognised and awarded, and used by diverse institutions across the the world to promote the awareness in inequality issues and championing ways to end it.

Miller is currently completing his fellowship in Social and Economic Equity at LSE. He plans on empowering local storytellers so that more voices can be heard globally.

(Siddhi Jain can be contacted at [email protected])

–IANS

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