Inequalities in our social fabric are oftentimes hidden, and hard to see from ground level. Visual barriers, including the structures themselves, prevent us from seeing the incredible contrasts that exist side by side in our cities.
Unequal Scenes uses a drone to illustrate the inscribed history of our world in a new way. The scars within our urban fabric, so apparent from above, can provoke a sense of surprise (“I didn’t know it looked that bad!”). But it also reveals our complicity in the system. We live within these neighborhoods, and participate in economies that reinforce inequality. The very scale and unerring regularity across geographic regions points to the systemic nature of inequality. Perhaps part of the shock is seeing tin shacks and dilapidated buildings hemmed into neat rows, bounded by the fences, roads, and parks of the wealthiest. This is not organic – this is planned and intentional disenfranchisement.
By placing a non-human photographic actor – in this case, a remote-controlled drone – above these liminal spaces, a new vantage point is reached, previously reserved for the government and the very rich. The drone distances the photographer and the viewer of the photograph, both physically and mentally, and provokes an analysis of the distant gaze. It forces us to confront the ethics of representation. How far does the drone need to be from the ground in order to reach an “ethical” altitude? Who has access to this airspace, this technology? Is there a pressing burden of public interest to see these images by drone, and are they something different than a Google Earth image, or a printed map?
Make no mistake – Unequal Scenes is an act of defiance. I defy the government to reserve the airspace as the domain of the wealthy and powerful. I defy the need to ask permission for access, permission, and clearance to depict images which are uncomfortable. And I defy the traditional power structures that keep these inequalities hidden so well from every direction except directly above. If the images provoke uncomfortable feelings of fear, despair, or an unsettling realization of complicity – good. They are intended to.