Social housing from a different view

One of the images taken with a drone by Johnny Miller for his Unequal Scenes project in Cape Town. This image was taken in Hout Bay, showing Imizamo Yethu and a neighbouring suburb.

Issues of social housing and inequality in the city have been highlighted during recent months and UCT students have now turned their attention to analysing the media coverage of these topics.

Activists, most notably those from the Reclaim the City campaign, supported by NPO and legal clinic Ndifuna Ukwazi, have been fighting for affordable housing close to the city centre and also supporting those who face eviction and being moved to far-flung areas such as Wolwerivier.

The UCT Centre for Media Studies honours and master’s students presented some findings of a content analysis of social and print media and interviews with Reclaim the City activists, on Thursday May 18.

The guest speaker was Johnny Miller whose Unequal Scenes project, with aerial footage showing the inequality in Cape Town, went viral last year.

Mr Miller, an American, has been living in Cape Town since 2012 and studied anthropology at UCT. He has fallen in love with the city and has decided to stay, now living in University Estate.

A professional documentary photographer, he was surprised at the massive response his Unequal Scenes project received.

“One thing I noticed initially, as a lot of foreigners do, is how divided the city is. The way that the city is actually designed is very unique and in your face (such) as how people are kept separate.”

He said the moment he realised the drone was a valuable tool was when he used it to take pictures of Table Mountain from the air.

He said he showed it to a Cape Town friend who said they had never seen the mountain like that before.

It was then that he realised the drone could be used to show things in a new light.

“That was a real wake-up call for me. That made me realise how powerful a tool that is, that it can really change someone’s attitude of how they see the world. Things that they thought they always knew what they looked like, they can now see with fresh eyes.

“I felt that that psychology of how we go about our daily lives is that we see patterns and those patterns tend to disappear. An example would be when you drive home, you’ve done it every single day, you kind of just blank out. When you get home you don’t remember everything that you saw because you’ve done it so many times.

“To some extent that happens on a mass scale and maybe some people in Cape Town have become accustomed to how the city is so divided because they see it every single day.”

He said the role of the visual journalist was to use different technologies and ways of seeing things to shake people up and get them to re-engage with these issues.

He said the work has received a mixed reception and he did not expect the photographs to go viral as they did last year.

“A lot of people have commented on my work. My Facebook page at the time only had 300 likes, I had never had a project get anywhere close to this big. When I took the first photo I knew that it was going to be a very powerful photo. I think it is a combination of drones being new technology that people were interested in, the right environment and time for South Africa to start talking about this, and the aesthetic which allowed people to share them easily.”

Mr Miller said the photos that were shared the most in his Unequal Scenes project were the ones that were shot from the top and directly looking down, showing the incredible inequality between neighbouring areas.

“People don’t seem to respond so much to the ones that are taken at an angle towards the horizons. I think part of that is how we consume media.”

Mr Miller said it was the role of journalists to present these images.

“I’ve got a history of taking photos on social issues. I don’t have a South African accent, I’m white and I’m male. All things against me when I’m talking about important issues like this. I very consciously shared these images without reference to the fact that I was American. I was trying to make it very objective and factual. A stark aerial image can allow the conversation to flourish without mediation on my part. I’ve never claimed to have the solution.”

Professor Herman Wasserman, director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, said they chose to focus on spatial inequality because they wanted to show how research could engage with real life problems. “We also wanted to engage with the wider community in Cape Town. We take community engagement seriously and we wanted our research to be formed by things that were going on in our community. It was about trying our hands at research that makes a difference.

“The legacy of apartheid and colonialism is very prominent and visible in our city. The number of people that can afford to live in the city is actually decreasing. Cape Town is also the only city in which the population of informal areas has increased over the last five years. There’s also a big property boom in the city yet there’s been no social housing built in the city centre since 1994.”

He said Reclaim the City had done a lot of work to raise awareness on the issue.

Associate Professor Tanja Bosch said the idea behind the research topic was a public engagement with research. The students will continue to work on their projects on spatial inequality in Cape Town throughout the year. Some of the students included looking at mainstream media coverage of the Reclaim the City campaign as well as the amount of people talking about the issues on social media.