We featured Johnny Miller’s first series, the Inequality Series shot in Cape Town, a while ago. It was met with some very interesting reactions. Johnny has since expanded the series across South Africa and has taken to calling it the Unequal Scenes. We catch up with him briefly and follow some of his scene narrations. You need to check out his website, unequalscenes.com and his upcoming exhibition in Johannesburg.
You decided to name the series from the Inequality series to the Unequal Scenes. Why the change?
I decided to name the series Unequal Scenes, because it had a ring to it that I liked. And they are, “Unequal Scenes“, for a lot of reasons. I felt like the word “Unequal” was a bit broader than “Inequality”, and encompassed more than just economics. Also the domains for Facebook, Twitter, and the web were available.
You were in Johannesburg and Durban shooting the extension of the series. Where do you see it heading next?
I see this project potentially heading to other areas of the global south that have issues with poverty. I’m hoping to take the project to other major cities like Mumbai, Rio, and Lagos, because I think with a bit of a comparative approach it could really be powerful work in the field of urban planning and especially, global south urban issues. I have some exciting partnerships that I’m hoping will move forward in the next couple months.
What were some of the challenges of shooting in Johannesburg and Durban?
Shooting in Joburg and Durban were challenging primarily because I don’t live there; I don’t know the cities, I don’t know the neighborhoods. Some places in Joburg felt very unsafe; and without really knowing where you are, it’s a judgment call whether you want to fly or not. I decided to push forward and risk it because I thought the project was worth it. Also, GPS helped a great deal, as did having an inverter in the car with me to charge batteries. I probably drove a couple thousand kilometers over the week.
Durban was very beautiful to fly over. I love the scenery there. Durban was interesting because there seemed to be informal settlements everywhere, they would just appear along the side of the road as you were driving, so it was difficult to know when and where to fly.
One thing I liked about how the photos came out, was how the “feel” of the city comes through in each image. So the Durban images look very much like Durban – green and vegetated, with rolling hills. Joburg was all orange, dusty, and flat. And then Cape Town is sort of a mix of the two.
Morningside is one of Durban’s richest suburbs, and for good reason. The location is spectacular. High-rise apartment buildings tower over cliffs above the Umgeni River, with beautiful views of the spectacular Moses Madiba soccer stadium, Durban Country Club, and Indian Ocean. Even President Jacob Zuma has an official state residence there, one of three around South Africa.
However like many cities around the world, the rich find themselves at the top not just financially, but geographically. Several roads lead down from Morningside to the Umgeni River. Along these winding roads, following the steep topography of an ancient river bank, are hundreds of shacks housing thousands of people. These shacks are constructed in narrow drainages, perched one above the other in a series of descending contours. Durban’s torrential rains can play havoc on the residents, as can the ever-present threat of fires. This is of course coupled with pervasive unemployment, poor service delivery, crime, and disease.
The story of Alexandra and Sandton is a story of the most stark divide of wealth in South Africa.
Sandton, as all South Africans know, is a name synonymous with wealth, opulence, finance, and white flight. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange is located here, as is Sandton City shopping centre, Sandton Convention Centre, headquarters of various companies, a polo club, and a residential heart that purports “Manhattan-style living”.
Sandton benefited from the urban decay of central Johannesburg during the 1990s. It became an alternative, attractive, and safe area for business to operate, and is now considered the financial centre of South Africa, and therefore, one of the major financial centres of Africa.
Less than a kilometer away, across the M1 highway, sits the former township of Alexandra, an icon of apartheid-era urban planning, and former home to several famous struggle heroes including Nelson Mandela.
The story of Kya Sands is a story of ash, smoke, and broken promises. Search for the informal settlement on Google and you will find many articles relating to fires; including one that burned over 200 shacks in November 2015. Search a little more and you will find a list of protests and claims that formal housing that was promised but never forthcoming. A little bit more, and you’ll find accounts of the army being mobilized after xenophobic violence erupted.
Across the street, among leafy trees, shady street corners and swimming pools, you find the middle-class suburb of Bloubosrand. A quick search on Property24 shows that many houses are worth over 1 million rand. Across the street, tin shacks with car tires on their roof extend into the distance. If you look even closer, the main thoroughfares in Kya Sands are actually drainages for the black, filthy water emanating from the nearby creek.
Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course
Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course is located along the lush green slopes of the Umgeni River in Durban. Almost unbelievably, a sprawling informal settlement exists just meters from the tee for the 6 hole. A low-slung concrete fence separates the tin shacks from the carefully manicured fairways.
Vusimuzi settlement is in an interesting position. It protrudes like an isthmus between a fetid stream, a huge cemetery, and two slightly wealthier suburbs. High above the shacks, high-tension power lines carry electricity to other areas of Johannesburg, but not Vusimuzi. As one resident put it (in an article written in 2013), “Electricity flows above, but not below”.