Landscape Stories: What artists influenced the most your beginnings? Where can the roots of your work be found?
Johnny Miller: I think my father probably influenced me the most. He is a mapmaker and a sailor, and there were always atlases, globes, and maps around the house that I was fascinated by. It's how I make sense of myself within the world. I locate myself and orient myself quite geographically, rather than with memory, or intuition.
I'm influenced by classical forms of photography and art, but also with entities that aren't traditionally associated with the "Art world": Politics, economics, and technology. I really like, for example, what Forensic Architecture (a design outfit based in London) are doing, which is using art and design to help provide legal evidence in international criminal cases.
Landscape Stories: Could you describe your earliest experiences with photography, both as a viewer and an artist?
Johnny Miller: I first considered photography as a career later in life. I started off making videos in an unpaid internship when I was 29 years old, and basically learned photography as a side passion. I believe that if you're interested in journalism and documentary photo work, you must have a variety of skills, not all of which relate directly to image making. You need a deep interest and curiosity of the world around you, and of the people who inhabit it. You need to be flexible, comfortable in uncomfortable situations, quick, responsive, and good with reading people. You have to be a business person, manage money, arrange logistics. The list goes on and on.
Landscape Stories: How would you describe your photographic voice/language and way of working/creative process?
Johnny Miller: My aerial work is quite different than my documentary work, and as such the process is also quite different. With aerials, the camera effortlessly strips away all detail and nuance through its wide lens and position in the sky. This makes it easy to find shapes, colors, and balance, but also an intimate tie to our urban histories, that are probably more akin to Modernist art than anything.
The creative process happens to me, instantaneously. I of course research, and plan my shoot very well. But I can only tell what images will "work" when I'm in the moment, when I'm shooting. With traditional photo work I will work with the person to find those moments. With a drone, I operate without thinking too much about it – I turn on the other part of my brain, the creative one, and just let that do its job.
Landscape Stories: In your work I see a certain relationship with (man) nature and space; a sort of "symbolic landscape" is recurring. In your opinion in which way the landscape could be considered physical, mental or psychologic?
Johnny Miller: I actually don't consider the landscapes symbolic, I consider them explicit. These are literally the "inscribed histories" of our world (as Forensic Architecture's Eyal Weizman writes). What fascinates me with aerial photography is how it makes apparent our complicity in our city designs. It's always fascinated me how years ago, men sat in little rooms, made plans and drew sketches, planning how our cities would look, how our streetlights would operate, how our parks would be laid out. We live literally in someone's inscribed history, in an urban planner's real-life sketch. To me that's always been a revelation that's made me feel a bit sick, especially when I look and see how screwed up a lot of our cities are, and how, through my social contract, I'm complicit in that.
Landscape Stories: Could you describe your experience of photographing a place you have never been before?
Johnny Miller: A lot of research goes into finding the right places and stories that I want to tell. For "Unequal Scenes", it's fairly important to me to make sure that the locations I photograph are actually unequal – this may involve a deep dive into newspapers, journals, and data sources. Not everything is how it seems from the air. Of course I also rely on locals, friends, and partners to help manage and realize the project.
Landscape Stories: In "Unequal Scenes" you seem to be interested in a species of human geography, in other words the anthropological landscape and its influence upon its inhabitants. Could you comment?
Johnny Miller: I think I've covered this in question #4. But yes, I am much more interested in urban landscapes than, say, natural landscapes or even human/natural combinations. This is because humans fascinate me; the way we treat each other, the systems we develop, and the epitome of an emergent system is a city. They are also novel in the way that we rarely see our cities from above – and so just the ability to gaze idly at an urban landscape, apart from the "meaning", is oftentimes pleasurable.
Landscape Stories: How does the project evolve since you start shooting? How do you choose the places you photograph?
Johnny Miller: The project has evolved as I have evolved as a person. This project is a very personal one to me, and the amount of time and effort to develop myself into a better person I'm hoping comes across with the photographs as they progress into the next phase, which will be a deeper and more traditional look at the boundary lines and the people who inhabit each side of the "Divide" through portraiture and stories.
I choose the photographs through a wish list that I have, which I match against available funding and logistic feasibility. There are a lot of places to photograph that are unequal in the world – not all of them will work for my project. And while I would love to, I simply cannot afford to travel to every spot where inequality occurs. So it is a balance that I try to strike while still maintaining my career.
Landscape Stories: Referring to your work "Unequal Scenes", what are the reasons that motivated you to tell us about these places? How can photography have a political meaning? How important are to you political, economical and social aspects of your research? To what extent your work represents and reflects present times?
Johnny Miller: The reason I started "Unequal Scenes" is because inequality is pervasive, systemic, and it is getting worse. This is my attempt to provoke a conversation to try and find a solution.
Vast inequality is not an inevitable phenomenon. It is only made possible by careful intervention of power through complex political and economic mechanisms. Some inequality is a good thing, and can be motivating, but vast inequality – and I won't define it much more carefully than that – is a very bad thing. And I would go one step further, and call it an "immoral" thing. It should be everyone's duty to evaluate our societies and take action to speak out if needed. Otherwise, we are the worst type of citizen – a selfish sheep.
The fact that some capitalist systems tend towards unchecked inequality is not based on a wider tendency of greed, as many people think. It is more akin to a criminal enterprise "gaming the system" to empower a few at the expense of the many. I am concerned with the top .01%, the super-wealthy, and our complicitness in allowing them to amass that wealth due to the false hope that one day, maybe we will get there too. This complicity is what most people have a problem with, and it's also where I focus my camera – the super-rich don't live next to the super-poor. We do. The middle class. We. Us, the targets of my work.
"Natural Ability" is the main criticism I hear of my project. But I whole heartedly reject this. People are not naturally lazy or poor – our abilities are disseminated equally across sex, race, and geography. The only deciding factor is human intervention. Humans decided how our cities should look, and who lives where. Humans have decided how our economies should run, the rules by which we play by. Humans make arbitrary choices of prejudice and discrimination. None of this is natural. And our cities reflect that.
But instead of wallowing in hopelessness, I choose to see hope and possibility in the images from "Unequal Scenes". I see an inscribed history that can be erased, redrawn, and re-mapped. I see a problem that we caused, and which we can fix. I see opportunity but I also see recognition – recognition that this is being documented, so that it doesn't happen again.
Landscape Stories: Landscape Stories #26 Habitare bring attention to living a place, a city, a neighborhood, a house, a room. We have quoted James Ballard, "High-Rise", Jonathan Cape, 1975: "A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake".
In this dystopian science fiction Ballard describes the residents of the tower block as forced inhabitants living in cages. The structure of power is metaphoric, vertical and hierarchic.
In other way, in your "Unequal Scenes" you portray scenes of inequality around the world from the sky with a drone. Urban layers appear flat, the structure of these big maps evidence the systemic nature of inequality.
Please could you explain this a bit more?
Johnny Miller: It's an interesting question, one I hadn't really considered until now. But you're right, there is a flatness to the images in "Unequal Scenes". I wonder if perhaps the fact that these photos are so popular, so relevant to people, is because of that flatness? People can see themselves reflected in the rich neighborhoods, they can see themselves as "average middle-class" and identify with the photographs. This flatness makes us complicit, but it also gives us power, communal power.
Landscape Stories: What's your plans for the near future?
Johnny Miller: I want to do three things:
- Take this project to as many people as possible, and spark as many conversations as possible. This means continuing to exhibit the photographs and speak about "Unequal Scenes".
- Shoot with a high-quality camera more locations – a lot of the images were shot with an inferior camera on the previous generation of drones, and I want to change that with the next series of images, which I've already begun in South Africa.
- Create a lasting institution to "give back" in a more meaningful way, which is going to involve an arts activism component. This is where my ability to effect change really lies, and I think it's also the most valuable part of the project.
Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena