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What American inequality looks like from above

Homeless encampments, glassy offices, RVs, and tech buses.

The story of inequality in the United States is written in its streets. In Silicon Valley, it looks like a homeless encampment carved out of a scruffy patch of land that’s separated from Facebook and Instagram headquarters by the expressway filled with private tech buses. In Baltimore, it looks like an empty highway that displaced thousands of families and was never even completed. In Detroit, it looks like a cinderblock wall that was built in the 1940s to separate black and white neighborhoods and shape the street grid.

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City planning can be a subtle weapon–it operates at a scale and speed that’s hard to grasp from the street level. It’s something Johnny Miller, the American-born, Cape Town-based photographer, knows well. Miller has photographed cities all over the world via drone, revealing the inequality is enforced, intentionally or not, in the way communities are planned. 

His first images, which documented the way apartheid shaped–and still shapes–South African cities, caught fire online. The photos, which speak with vivid, matter-of-fact candor and are almost cartographic in style, were covered by dozens of publications (including this one) and incited intense debate on social media. Since then, the project has blossomed into an ongoing global campaign, called Unequal Scenes, to document wealth and class disparity and segregation in cities all over the world. Miller has sent his drone into the air above Nairobi, Kenya; Mexico City; Mumbai, India; and other international cities–but until late 2017, he hadn’t had a chance to shoot in his home country of America.

“Ever since I took the first photo in Cape Town, I wanted to compare it to American cities, specifically Seattle,” Miller says, referencing the homeless encampments that dot the city’s underpasses. A trip to a drone journalism conference in Portland in late 2017 finally offered an opportunity to do just that–and after the conference, Miller spent weeks visiting newsrooms and shooting in more than a dozen American cities with support from the International Center for Journalists and Code for Africa.

The resulting images tell the story of disinvestment and government-enforced segregation through urban planning. Highways and street grids take center stage, rather than the border walls or favelas of Miller’s other photos. America’s urban fabric articulates housing and income inequity differently than in the global South. Verdant Midwest prairie, dotted by a few remaining homes, abuts dense, well-off suburban tracts. A statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, crowns a wide traffic circle. RVs line the streets of Palo Alto, California, where skyrocketing rents are driving some people into life on the road. Yet to Miller, there’s an underlying similarity between the different cities he’s documented from the air. “This is about a global phenomenon of inequality, and I think those Seattle tent city photos make that point,” he says.

The brief trip only left him time to shoot cities on the coasts and in the Rust Belt, but Miller envisions one day returning to focus on areas around the border in Southern California and Texas, as well as reservations in the Southwest. To him, we’re living in a golden age for independent drone photography, when the technology is accessible to everyone and drone operation licenses in the United States are still relatively affordable. Through his work at Code for Africa and the nonprofit AfricanDrone in Cape Town, Miller advocates for civic drone journalism around the continent–and believes that consumer drones are a powerful tool for independent information gathering, a fact that tends to get overlooked in discussions about the way they’re used today.

“If you go back even five years, the air above us was the domain of rich people and the government–you either had to be flying in an airplane or helicopter or own a satellite” to see the world from above, says Miller. Drones, on the other hand, are a relatively inexpensive way to understand life on Earth. “People often don’t talk about the fact that it’s an ability to make sense of the world yourself,” he adds. 

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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