These Drone Photographs Visualize Inequalities in Mumbai

Johnny Miller
Human Rights

Inequalities in our social fabric are oftentimes hard to see from ground level. Visual barriers, including the structures themselves, prevent us from seeing the incredible contrasts that exist side by side in our cities. "Unequal Scenes" uses a drone to illustrate the inscribed history of our world in a new way. Photographer Johnny Miller has received worldwide acclaim for this project. He calls his work "an act of defiance."

Looking at something from a different angle can be very enlightening. In the case of the project "Unequal Scenes" it is also disturbing. The aerial photographs illuminate the gap between rich and poor, they visualize inequality, racism, segregation in a somehow detached but also undeniable way. The Indian megacity of Mumbai is a very graphic example, which Johnny Miller has explored in his work.


Johnny Miller

Johnny Miller is a photographer, journalist, and founder of africanDRONE – a pan-African citizen journalist organization. He is based in Cape Town, South Africa, and has extensive networks and knowledge of contemporary African and world issues. He has received worldwide acclaim for his project “Unequal Scenes,” an exploration of inequality around the world using a drone. Johnny will be participating in the BMW Foundation Global Table in Marseille on "Building the Code for Resilient Societies" in June 2019.

Mumbai is built on a slender, impossibly crowded peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. 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 superrich, 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.

Informal recyclers in Dharavi exist within sight of the National Stock Exchange, traditional fishermen moor their boats in the shadows of skyscrapers in Worli, and leopards prowl the Sanjay Ghandi National Park on the city's northern flank. In short, it's a city of contradictions.

The area surrounding the Bandra Kurla complex is a mixture of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It is home to, among other things, the consulate generals of several countries, corporate headquarters, and the National Stock Exchange. Johnny Miller

Even the new airport is stunted, India's second busiest, with the east section unfinished and a second runway impossible to build because of the slums which encircle the airport from all sides. A modern subway system is being dug below ground, while the streets above heave with every form of conveyance in a vast cacophony of horns blaring.

Love it or hate it, Mumbai is a model of the city in the 21st century – a Global South alternative to Manhattan, an awakening elephant in the fields of culture, science, industry, and architecture, and also a thoroughly in-progress, semi-planned experiment of extreme growth. ​​​​​​​

Indian slums are a complex place – at once a strange mixture of industry and grinding banality. We tend to think we have a pretty good idea of what they're like – films like "Slumdog Millionaire" have created a sort of Asian "slum chic" archetype that is supported by the various slum tourism outfits in Dharavi.

These depictions are both accurate and inaccurate at the same time – the panoply of human existence is vast. The yearning, the romance, and the pain of everyday life are irreducible to a singular narrative arc. Moreover, even the term "slum" is problematic (although it seems Indian themselves rarely question the lexicon). How does one rectify the fact that the industry in Indian slums is estimated at over $1 billion yearly? That the land itself is worth billions of rupees? That Dharavi is a crucial voting bloc in municipal elections?

Dharavi Slum is one of the most famous slums in the world. The adjacent Mahim Nature Park was developed as a relief valve, an affordable way to escape the extreme urbanism which characterizes most Indian cities. Johnny Miller

"Unequal Scenes" uses a drone to illustrate the inscribed history of our world in a new way. The scars within our urban fabric, so apparent from above, can provoke a sense of surprise ("I didn’t know it looked that bad!")…But they also reveal our complicity in systematic disenfranchisement.

"This is not organic – this is planned and intentional disenfranchisement."
Johnny Miller

We live within neighborhoods and participate in economies that reinforce inequality. We habituate ourselves with routines and take for granted the built environment of our cities. We are shocked seeing tin shacks and dilapidated buildings hemmed into neat rows, bounded by the fences, roads, and parks of the wealthiest few ... But it’s the very scale and unerring regularity across geographic regions which points to the systemic nature of inequality. This is not organic – this is planned and intentional disenfranchisement.

This bridge will connect the Bandra Kurla complex to several transport links on the opposite side of the Mithi River. The building in the upper left is the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation LTD, which bills itself as "India's largest profit making company." On the right is the edge of Dharavi slum, the setting for the film "Slumdog Millionaire." Johnny Miller

By placing a non-human photographic actor – in this case, a remote-controlled drone – above these liminal spaces, a new vantage point is reached, previously reserved for the government and the very rich. The drone distances the photographer and the viewer of the photograph, both physically and mentally, and provokes an analysis of the distant gaze. It forces us to confront the ethics of representation, and the limitations (and freedom) of using technology in image-making. How far does the drone need to be from the ground in order to reach an "ethical" altitude? Who should have access to the airspace and to drone technology? Are drone images fundamentally different than a Google Earth image or a printed map?

Make no mistake – "Unequal Scenes" is an act of defiance. I defy the government to reserve the airspace as the domain of the wealthy and powerful. I defy the need to ask permission for access, permission, and clearance to depict images which are uncomfortable. And I defy the traditional power structures that keep these inequalities hidden so well from every direction except directly above. If the images provoke uncomfortable feelings of fear, despair, or an unsettling realization of complicity – good. They are intended to.

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