Johnny Miller will exhibit his Unequal Scenes project during Creative Brain Week at Trinity College Dublin
Inequality is everywhere but a peculiarity of the human condition is that, after a while, we tend to just stop seeing it. All kinds of hardships and depravities that are shocking on first exposure quickly become normal and we get on with our lives, until something comes along to challenge the status quo.
For activists trying to make a difference, that’s a real problem. How to get people to look at the inequalities of the world with fresh eyes; to look at them as solvable problems, rather than just facts of life? For the American photographer and activist Johnny Miller, a chance photograph he took in 2016 surprised him with just how effective it was at doing just that.
“I’ve been living in South Africa for 12 years now, and back in 2016 I became concerned with the level of inequality I could see around me. It always sort of bothered me that the post-Apartheid architecture of separation was just blindly accepted there.
“One day, I got a drone, which was quite new technology, and I wanted to see if I could capture an image that would illustrate the contrast between the haves and have-nots in society. The very first picture I took, of Lake Michelle and Masiphumelele in Cape Town, went viral. I posted it, went to sleep and woke up to find it had blown up across the internet. That basically changed my life.”
The shot neatly illustrated the problem of social inequality in Cape Town from a new and shocking perspective. At a glance, anyone could see the issues in that society — wealthy people living on one side of a narrow wetland; poor people in a township on the other.
The picture kickstarted Miller’s enthusiasm for documenting inequality, prompting him to start the Unequal Scenes project. He now travels the world to find photographic locations that illustrate the dividing line that often exists just out of sight in society.
“Through that process I’ve become much more knowledgeable about inequality,” says Miller. “I originally moved to Cape Town to do a master’s degree in anthropology, so the idea that the world is organised into structures that aren’t always visible from the ground is really interesting to me. My dad is a mapmaker and so I see things naturally from the air.
“Drone technology came along at just the right time to help with this. People are really interested in the work and it seems to have enduring appeal.”
Miller will be in Dublin next week to present an exhibition of images taken from Unequal Scenes, and give a talk as part of Creative Brain Week at Trinity College Dublin.
Running from March 12-16, Creative Brain Week will explore how the brain and creativity collide to build new ideas in the areas of social development, technology, entrepreneurship, brain health and physical well-being, through talks and exhibitions at the university’s Naughton Institute.
A key part of Miller’s creative work is that it offers views of the world that people just don’t see every day. The arresting images are taken from the air and often tell a story that would otherwise require many thousands of words to do justice to.
“In any kind of activism, you need a number of tools to bring people to the point where they make some sort of decision. It’s important that this project, for example, is personalised, that I come right out and say, ‘This is my vision of inequality, and I think we should be reducing inequality around the world.’ The impact of the project has been massive.”
In May 2019, one of Miller’s images was used on the cover of Time magazine to illustrate a story on inequality in South Africa, and his work has grown steadily in significance since he started it. At his website specifically for the series, unequalscenes.com, he has posted images and write-ups from over 28 locations around the world, including Peru, India, Mexico, New York City, South Africa, Tanzania and Namibia.
“Some people have asked me in a snide sort of way, ‘Nice pictures, but what are you actually doing to reduce inequality?’ As if they’d ask any photojournalist in a war zone, what they’re doing to stop a war? It’s an asinine question, as I think this photo series has had huge impact in terms of communicating the scale of the issues out there and making people see them afresh. They’ve sparked a lot of conversations in a lot of different groups of people.”