“This fear occurred to me, that I had inadvertently put my foot right in the middle of something extremely scary.”

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Episode notes

Johnny is a photographer and activist who’s based in South Africa. (You can find much of his work here.)

He’s best-known for his drone photo series Unequal Scenes. These images are striking and almost violent: shanty towns abutting stately suburban homes; a slum wedged in beside a gleaming financial district.

In this interview we talk about his broader ambitions to shift the narrative around stark economic inequalities, both in his adopted home of South Africa and further afield.

We get into the artistic process of finding and developing images; the personal costs and difficulties that come with provoking debate; and the power of a different way of seeing to give new perspectives on a very old problem.

Topics discussed:

[04:20] The need for a new narrative around inequality. Difficulties of communicating complex socio-political issues, and learning from the climate action movement.

[07:50] The original “lightbulb moment” where drone photography enabled something very familiar to be seen in a completely new way.

[11:30] The “accidental epiphany” of the very first Unequal Scenes photo, of Masiphumelele in Cape Town. Surprising and almost immediate reactions from all segments of South African society.

[19:20] The process of researching and selecting images. His trademark “violent” style of urban photograph. Scenes that are sticky and resonate with the wider public, versus ones that are equally important but perhaps too subtle.

[29:20] Getting pushback from experts and activists. The ethics of provoking conversation on divisive social/political issues.

[40:00] Some more ground-level work, including with Syrian refugees and in slums around the world. Differences between the “top-down” perspective and looking people in the eyes and building trust.

[46:40] The difference between highlighting structural problems and telling stories. The power of keeping the project tightly focused (despite criticism!).

[52:55] Drone technology as a democratic enabler. The AfricanDRONE network to support communities to tell their own stories, and disrupt industries that need disrupting.

[1:01:15] The place of Unequal Scenes within the political landscape of South Africa. What kind of impact he wants to have as an artist working on inequality and linked political issues.