Sydelle Willow Smith is a South African photographer who lets her own search for identity guide her lens. Born in Johannesburg, now based in Cape Town, and with family roots that trace back to Lithuania, the twenty-seven-year-old documentarian, who graduated cum laude in Social Anthropology, brings the questioning mind of a social scientist to every story she delves into, digging beneath the layers that we call our identity to reveal a starker, universal truth. Her latest project Soft Walls – on show at The Photo Workshop Gallery, Johannesburg, until April 2 – casts a light on positive relationships between South African citizens and African migrants in communities often plagued with xenophobia and social tension.
But Sydelle’s interest in community development – and the way in which progress often leaves some of us behind – isn’t confined to gallery walls. Through The Sunshine Cinema – a mobile, solar-powered cinema that will travel around Southern Africa’s most remote rural areas – Sydelle and her peers are connecting the dots between storytelling and social change by screening films and hosting workshops that champion local solutions to local problems, empowering communities to take on the challenges they face.
What is Soft Walls, and how did it come about?
Soft Walls seeks to deal with convivial relationships between migrated African nationals and South Africans, revealing the subtle ways in which individuals make sense of their experiences, forming relationships and bonds that can challenge dominant perceptions wherein difference is celebrated and prejudices towards “foreign” Africans are perpetuated. With migrants settling in, marrying, developing friendships and building homes with South Africans, the question of identity and belonging has become central. While immigrant integration has fairly engaged and transformed South African communities, the process has not, necessarily, led to cohesive communities. This has, in turn, led to the perceived walls or restrictions and unfavourable relationship issues. Soft Walls figuratively investigates the subtle ways in which African nationals and South Africans, in relationships, make sense of their space, experiences and complexities.
How did you come to photography, and what drew you to the documentary form?
My father was a darkroom technician for an advertising agency, and he built me a darkroom when I was sixteen. I started taking courses at The Market Photo Workshop and became hooked with it. The way it allowed me to talk to strangers, walk the streets searching for photographic moments, learning about light, learning about approach. I was transfixed by the darkroom, watching the images appear in the developer chemical. We had a lot of photography books in our house: Paul Weinberg, Cedric Nunn, Jodi Bieber, Guy Tillim, Peter Mackenzie, Bob Gosani and also the work of Obie Oberholzer, Dan Eldon and Mirella Riccardi was inspiring to me. I would sit for hours looking at images, as well as our family photo albums. I loved the way a photograph would recreate or shape a memory.
What is the photography community in South Africa like?
There are so many incredible shooters, so many stories, so many styles. Documentary or photojournalism has a strong tradition. I am from Johannesburg but live in Cape Town and at times it does feel like the photography community down here is more focused on the commercial side and fashion, those type of things. With Facebook the community extends beyond borders previously defined by distance and geography.
You won the Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship – how important are schemes like that for budding photojournalists?
I would not have been able to complete Soft Walls without the support of the Gisele Wulfsohn mentorship and the crit sessions held at The market Photo Workshop with amongst others, Jodi Bieber, Jonathan Torgovonik, Buyaphi Mdlele, Andrew Tshabangu, Thenji Nkosi and Dorothee Kreutzfeld. The grant allowed me time to do this project, and motivated me to continue it, I also learnt so much from showing my work to other people, and the curation process was something I had never experienced before – reading images in relation to a gallery space was confusing and eye opening, I do not think photographers would be able to do a lot of important work that is being done out there without continued support.
You recently spent time in Jo’burg with Martha Cooper, who documented the birth of graffiti in New York City in the 1970s. What did you take from the time you spent with her?
I was so lucky to be hired as her assistant for three weeks during I Art Joburg in 2012. It was incredible to be able to talk with her about her history, her journey and ironically she helped me offering me advice when I was writing my proposal to apply for the Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship. To witness her energy and passion for what she documents at the amazing age of 70. Last year she invited me to come visit her in New York and it was really special to stay with her in her apartment, surrounded by artwork made for her by the likes of Os Gemeos and Shephard Fairey, and talk to her about New York, photography, street art and Graffitti. One of the highlights was on the first night of being in NYC for the first time in my life, Martha Cooper took me to the Bronx on a Friday night and we hung out at a documentary training school similiar to the Market Photo Workshop and met very interesting folk – then the following morning she took me on a walk to the Graffiti Hall of Fame in East Harlem and it was very special to hear her stories, directly from her in the place where they happened! I keep in contact with her, and she is hopefully going to be coming back to South africa to continue a really interesting comparative project she is doing between Soweto and Sowebo in Baltimore where she has a house – she is a legend and I am lucky to have spent brief times with her.
What do you look for in a personal project?
A personal interest, an unrelenting interest, a feeling of wanting to communicate something from my particular perspective. Soft Walls became a project I wanted to continue as I often feel like an outsider or immigrant in South Africa – the country of my birth. Asked where am I really from? Originally, Lithuania I guess – my great grandparents were born there…. but I do not feel a visceral connection to that geography. Also, Soft Walls became what it is out of studying concepts of identity and nationality in Anthropology and I was intrigued by how I could artistically express the academic theory I had engaged with… and how people were living beyond xenophobia and prejudice. For my next project I am beginning to feel more comfortable with the idea of turning the lens back on myself engaging with my own familiar histories in someway that I havent quite figured out yet.
How has documentary photography led you to other side projects, like The Sunshine Cinema. Can you explain what that’s about?
I am intrigued by the afterlife of the films and photographs I take – how can media be utilised as forms of social change? While I was studying Anthropology I became very interested in the idea of participatory media making, and the idea for Sunshine Cinema developed out of this in a partnership between Makhulu (my fiance’s production company), Greenpop and Shift. The Sunshine Cinema is a mobile, solar-powered cinema that is enabling knowledge and skills sharing from one community to another.Through screening short films that show indigenous solutions to Climate Change, and practical approaches to address socio-economic and environmental issues, The Sunshine Cinema promotes sustainable innovations by Africans, for Africans. In essence, The Sunshine Cinema documents ‘appropriate technologies’ already in use in various communities, and shares these with other communities facing similar environmental and social challenges. To complement the screenings, practical skills transfer workshops are facilitated to demonstrate the simplicity of appropriate technologies and to explore broader, related issues through discussions. The Sunshine Cinema has extraordinary potential to develop relevant skills that can enable opportunities for sustainable livelihood and enterprise creation within Southern African rural communities, whilst bringing the power of media and visual communication to a largely untapped audience.
Who in the photography community – past or present – do you look to for inspiration?
There are so many incredible photographers out there but ones that immediately come to my mind are Alec Soth, Susan Meirellas, David Alan Harvey and locally Dave Southwood, David Goldblatt, Nadine Hutton, Zanele Muholi.
What else do you draw influence from, outside of photography?
Film is a very big inspiration – especially the films of Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The writings of Johnny Steinberg, Ben Okri, Arundathi Roy, Jonathan Frazer, Tom Robbins. The music of Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure, Amadou and Mariam, Beirut, Radiohead and too many actually to name. One of the biggest inspirations is that instinctual feeling when you know you are present in a beautiful moment whether that be happy or sad, and you have the underlying need to document it, to express it, to reinterpret it and reshare it with the world.
350 million photos are uploaded every day on Facebook alone. For all budding documentary photographers out there – how do you cut through the noise and say something meaningful in a single still?
Big question – the documentary Press Pause Play reflects on this powerfully. I think meaningful imagery stands out in the noise through the integrity and compassion of the person making the image as well as the formal qualities of the composition, the light, the colour the depth. Only certain images really make you feel, react, respond – the non snapshot imagery.
Soft Walls is on show at The Photo Workshop Gallery until April 2 and crowdfunding campaign for The Sunshine Cinema closes on April 11. Keep up to date with Sydelle Willow Smith’s other projects via her Facebook page.