Seeing the world from above helps me make sense of everything.
I know it sounds like an extremely obvious thing to say, but it’s one of the reasons I was initially drawn to flying drones. I think like a mapmaker. My dad was a mapmaker. I grew up reading atlases, almanacs, and spinning globes. I love seeing things from above, and I understand things better when there’s an aerial component to them. In short, I’m photographing, and I’m telling stories, the way I want to see them.
When I started Unequal Scenes, one of the big surprises to me was that people would approach me and say, “I never realized it looked like that!”
My response was always a sort of disappointed, “Really?”
I guess I’ve just always looked at Google Maps, Google Earth, and different visualizations to help me make sense of where I am. (I used a couple great online maps for Unequal Scenes, including the statssa.gov.za maps of race dispersion and Adrian Frith’s dotmaps of census data). Also I just kind of thought, “isn’t it sort of an obligation to know what your city looks like?” In South Africa, it almost seems like it should be required viewing.
I wrote on my website, “The beauty of being able to fly is seeing things as they really are”. You physically are removing yourself from the Earth, in order to get the shot. It dissociates the photographer from the objects, and the humanity, on the ground.
But in a way, it brings about a strangely human component to the photographs. You understand what the urban planners, the architects, and the city officials were thinking when they planned the city. You can see the organic logic of how individuals have collectively organized informal settlements. And my heart aches to see the terrible separation between two communities, not from an abstract point of view, but from a human one.
That was one of the big shockers of the project to me. That the aerial view was the more personal one.
How can we learn to communicate and message more effectively in the 21st century? I think partly the answer is that we need to change our perspective. We need to commit to telling these stories in new ways.
That’s why I was so thrilled when Thomson Reuters Foundation picked up on my work, and saw the potential to tell stories in the biggest slums on Earth, using different viewpoints. Not just aerials, but also 360 video, interactive maps, and yes, traditional photos and videos. Traveling to Nairobi, and especially inside a vast slum like Kibera (Nairobi’s biggest slum, and one of the biggest in the world), it would have been almost impossible to tell the stories most effectively without this “new technology”.
Take the road story, for example (being published in mid-October on www.trust.org). I helped TRF shoot a story which focuses on a proposed road, which will cut through the middle of Kibera. This road is going to perfectly bisect the vast slum. Thousands of people will be displaced. Schools, clinics, and countless small business will need to be relocated. There is a palpable sense of unease. Residents know that there is little that they can do to change the wheels of progress burrowing towards them…Ultimately, inevitably, they will be buried underfoot, and the honking maelstrom of traffic which will connect Ngong Road to the Southern Bypass, will replace them in a sort of pyrrhic victory.
I loved this story because it touches on so many things I’m passionate about — infrastructure, boundaries, separation. The way that the architecture around us affects so very much our lived experiences.
But I also knew that there was only one way to truly understand the scope and scale of what was being proposed, and that was from the air. Maps wouldn’t suffice, they would be too dry, too impersonal. Ground-based reporting was needed, yes, but you would have to interview thousands of people to achieve the power of those collective voices, who would be disrupted and affected by the road.
From the air, though, especially from a low-flying drone, there is something real, something human, yet something so grand in scale. The contours of the hills of Kibera come alive by flying above them, turning flat maps into vibrant, undulating topographies. Individual double-story houses come into relief against the skyline, as do mosques, schools, and radio towers — symbols of the city, symbols of the people. And the vast multitudes of houses, a veritable sea of rusted tin roofs. Each of those roofs houses children, fathers, mothers, business owners, criminals, imams, dogs, lovers. Spread beneath the spinning rotors of the drone, you can almost lose yourself in a reverie that we are all in this together, that this community is ours, as much as theirs. It makes it attainable, to me, as the photographer, but also as the reader. I can understand, and by understanding, I can empathize.