We always talk about South Africa’s wealth distribution problems with different angry voices. Some approach the topic blinded by privilege and others take on an angry stance because they have had enough. Johnny Miller (Millefoto), a photographer based in Cape Town, is talking about inequality in a different way. He has simply shot a photo series which shows you what it looks like in Cape Town.
I got to talk to him about the project and some of the reactions that people have had towards his work. Johnny Miller was inspired by his anthropology classes at UCT. He speaks about how many of his courses focused on the architecture of Apartheid – the actual physical characteristics of separateness. This knowledge inspired this photo series.
Why did you start this photo series on inequality?
I started this series on inequality one day after I had a conversation with my friend. He mentioned that the drone footage I had been collecting around Cape Town offered him a new perspective on places that he had always taken for granted. For example, Table Mountain, or, The Cape Town Stadium.
That got me thinking, “Hmm….I wonder if I can use my drone to show a new perspective on inequality in South Africa?”
In Cape Town, this is represented by wetlands, roads, train tracks, rivers, etc. In many cases, (and this is borne out by South African Census data from 2011) these architectures are still in place i.e. blacks, whites, and colored people are, by and large, living separated from one another. You can take a look at this interactive map.
This map is incredible: you can see, mapped by the color of the dots, how racial disparities still exist along very clearly defined roads and boundaries. For example, check out the R300, which separates Mitchell’s Plain from Philippi, or the M7 between Langa and Bontehuewel. By clicking on the household income button, you can then see the disparities in various suburbs, which unfortunately closely matches the race data.
I used this map, along with Google Maps, to identify those areas which were the most shockingly disparate. I wanted to fly over the areas I found, initially which was Masiphumelele and Imizamo Yethu, and then to share the images. I had never seen aerial images of the boundaries before from a drone, so I thought perhaps it would be a fresh perspective.
Can you take me through the process of capturing these images?
The first thing I noticed was that it was absolutely impossible to get a sense of the scale and the dramatic separation between, for example, Lake Michelle and Masiphumelele from the ground. The area is totally flat, and there is little opportunity to get high enough to see what’s going on around you. I parked in a housing estate just north of Masiphumelele, and the entire community was walled off with 3m-high walls. I couldn’t even see over the top of them until I flew the drone.
Hout Bay is a little different because it is in a valley, and Imizano Yethu is clearly visible because it is on the slope. But pretty much everywhere else in the Cape Flats was…well…flat. You actually can’t see the scale of the divisions until you fly above them.
Capturing the images is easy enough; I knew the shots I wanted based on Google Maps, so I just flew there, took some video and pictures, and then landed again. Everything about the process is legal.
What have been some of the responses to this series, good and bad?
The responses I have gotten have been at times very encouraging, and at times quite hurtful. I understand that to put your work in a public forum is to invite criticism…so that is something that I am going to have to learn to deal with. There are a few comments that inevitably crop up on the photos:
These types of inequalities exist all over the world. Why don’t you show somewhere besides Cape Town (or South Africa)?
My response is: You’re absolutely right. Inequality, shocking disparities of wealth, exist all over the world. I have never said anything differently, nor have I purposefully ignored that fact.
However, there are two main reasons why I choose to focus on Cape Town. One, of course, is that it’s my home. I started the project, as many people do, close to where I live and what I know, which is Cape Town. Two, is that while inequality does exist in other parts of the world, the legacy of apartheid, and specifically the architecture of separation, provides a very unique context in which to view this particular form of inequality. Not only that, but the extreme inequalities are usually not present in other parts of the world. For example, you can see in Imizano Yethu, how the shacks – literally, tin shacks – exist just meters away from very wealthy houses with swimming pools.
This is what shocks me, actually shocks me. That people can actually defend this behavior as somehow natural, or that it is a choice on the part of the poorer communities (actual comments, multiple times, on the Facebook posts). Of course it’s not a choice. And of course it’s not natural. It is shocking and impossible to defend as a status quo. That is why South Africa consistently rates amongst the most unequal countries on earth, as measured by the UN, CIA, and other methods like the GINI coefficient.
Luckily I have also received so many messages of support. The ones that mean the most to me are the comments that say, “Continue doing this project! It desperately needs to get out there”.
And you know, I agree. I think if people haven’t seen these sorts of images before, it does need to get out there. People do need to see them. It should not be covered up. And I don’t have any agenda besides providing a new perspective on an existing problem. I’m not giving any opinions on how to fix the problem – read my original posts. I’m just saying, “Here it is”, totally unbiased. This is the situation. The photo was taken by a robotic machine 300 meters in the sky. How can that be anything but objective? It is essentially allowing people to see something that they wish they could just ignore. But they shouldn’t.
I hope that this conversation, similar to the Rhodes Must Fall conversation of last year, contributes to an opening of dialogue and reflexivity on the part of the privileged. This will eventually begin to change the currently untenable status quo into something more just and equal for all.
At the end of the day, I am hopeful. The original post, which has been seen by over 230000 people (as per Facebook), would not have spread so wide if people had thought it was irrelevant. I guess that’s why I’m hopeful, is that it has been proven to me that this discussion is very, very relevant.
See more of Johnny’s work: http://millefoto.com/