From above: Johannesburg during lockdown

Photojournalists have been covering the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic mostly from the ground, but these drone images of the city from the past year provide a new perspective.

Over the past year, my duty as a photojournalist has been to document the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the people of South Africa. I often try to approach stories a bit differently and so I decided to supplement my usual photographic coverage with drone footage. I thought that, from up there, the drone’s camera might provide some interesting and unusual perspectives.

In response to the outbreak of Covid-19, the government imposed a strict lockdown, which was eased only gradually. Initially, people were ordered not to leave their homes unless it was to buy basics or medical supplies. The army and the police enforced the lockdown, often with violent consequences. 

This was a difficult time for many impoverished South Africans and migrants living in the overcrowded and dilapidated buildings of Johannesburg’s inner city, shack settlements and other densely populated areas. Without land or gardens – and with all public spaces closed – many felt trapped. For them the only place to go was up… to the rooftops.

On these rooftops I could see many things. Children played football or catch. Men busied themselves with card games or sometimes even bawo, the traditional East African game played on carved wooden boards with small rocks, beads or seeds.

30 April 2020: Laundry dries on the roof of an apartment building in Yeoville.

Some people did their washing, their colourful blankets winking up at me from where they had been laid out to dry. Many people just sat, looking bored and listless. Others chatted and laughed in the last warm rays of the sinking sun before going back inside those dark buildings.

Elsewhere I saw deserted parking lots and overgrown cricket pitches and play parks. One windy morning I flew the drone over a landfill site and noticed a large light blue patch that stood out among the mess of the dump. I paused. Even from the air I could make out the shapes of the protective medical gowns that had been dumped there illegally. During another flight, the notorious Red Ants, who were demolishing shacks near Lawley, resembled real ants as they marched off in a line with the corrugated iron sheets they had confiscated.

1 May 2020: Buses in a parking lot in central Johannesburg during the initial stage of the Covid-19 lockdown when public transport was not operating. 

I still have no idea who was responsible for the heart shape mowed into the lawn at the Zoo Lake sports club. It wasn’t me, I promise. Whoever did it, whatever their reason, made me smile on that day.

This series of images is not a commentary on anything. Some of the images provide useful information. Others might be considered aesthetically interesting. To me the photographs are nothing more than curious observations made from the air as I looked down on a complex city during a difficult time. 

3 May 2020: A man catches a bit of autumn sun on the rooftop of a building in Hillbrow.
7 August 2020: Used protective gowns lie dumped at the Goudkoppies landfill site in the Soweto area while waste pickers work nearby. 
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