Photographer and filmmaker Sydelle Willow Smith`s work so far can be summed up as photography with an eye for social relevance. Her interest in issues affecting South African society have led her on an astonishing path looking at and documenting topical issues – such as migration and conservation – for her work in film and photography. We sat down with her for a chat on her thought-provoking work.
A. How and why did you get into your career as a filmmaker/photographer?
My father was a darkroom technician/printer at a commercial advertising lab. I remember going to Museum Afrika as a young child, and my mother showing me the darkroom installation, and being fascinated that my father worked in such a space. I began taking courses at The Market Photo Workshop when I was sixteen and started photographing the Joburg Punk Scene, where I used to hang out. I liked the fact that I could fit into small spaces, being small, I could hide behind the drums and take pictures of the musicians thrashing about. The first image that got published was a double page spread of a band called The Vendetta Cartel, in Blunt Magazine. It was a great moment for me. After doing more courses at The Market Photo Workshop in 2007 I decided to go to University to get a degree in Film and Anthropology. My late Aunt was an Anthropologist, and I was always fascinated by the places she had lived and the people she had met. I guess the combination of Photography , Film and Anthropology fits my character so well, as I am naturally curious about peoples’ lives and their stories, particularly people who face great struggle in terms of South Africa’s’ socioeconomic issues. The first photo essay I did was about domestic workers living on the top floor in small rooms, of penthouse apartments in Houghton where my late grandmother lived, called Life Between Two Floors
B. Was it a conscious decision for you to focus your work on socially relevant topics, or did you gradually drift in that path?
It was a conscious decision. Growing up in a liberal leftist Jewish household in the suburban sprawls of Johannesburg may have had something to do with it.
C. Apart from your documentary film Perils and Pitfalls, what other work have you done on the issues surrounding migration in SA?
When I was a second year student at UCT I was the photo editor of a current affairs student magazine, The Cape Town Globalist. Myself and a reporter visited some of the refugee camps after the May 2008 Xenophobic Attacks, particularly Soetwater and Bluewaters. I was struck by the ways people made “home” for themselves in the temporary space and the difficulties they had faced in getting to South Africa, and what their future in South Africa faced, the series was called No place to call home. During my Honors Thesis these themes inspired by thesis in a temporary relocation area in Delft, colloquially known as Blikkiesdorp. I worked with four South African youth from the “camp” using video and photography together we mapped experiences of the ways home and community were made and broken within the space, the project was called Making Home in Temporary Spaces. When I graduated from my Honors Degree in 2011 I was commissioned by the civic organisation, P.A.S.S.O.P, in partnership with Solidarity Peace trust to make a short documentary, Perils and Pitfalls, about migrants experiences of Home Affairs and Deportation in South Africa. This experience has led me to my current photo/video project which is funded by a grant from The Market Photo Workshop, called the Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship. The project is called Making Neighbourhood and I will discuss it below.
D. What inspired you to look at migration as a subject in the documentary?
As an Anthropology student you are taught culture is a construct that is used in some ways as a political resource, in a similar vein to nationality and the imagined but imaginary nature of borders, race and ethnicity. I am interested in visually depicting these ideas, and conversations, freed from an academic context. Global village aside, countries borders exist and regulate access and control. I am interested as an artist (visual commentator), about how a country like South Africa with its history of control and separate development handles this influx of people from across Africa. Specifically in relation to a sense of “ubuntuism”, or “panafricanness”. Inherently I think my interest in migration is deeply rooted in my own personal history as Jewish person. My great grandparents arrived off the boat from Lithuania in South Africa and made home for themselves in a new place, granted they were given opportunities not afforded to black or coloured South Africans by The Apartheid Government.
E. How do you think photography and film can be used to play a positive role in representing and defending migrants rights in SA today?
I cannot speak for “migrant rights” specifically, but I do feel that Art has a role to play in South Africa by offering a “fractured mirror” on society’s ills and developments, provoking dialogue and debate.
F. What is your involvement with GreenPOP!?
I am a photographer for the organization on a voluntary basis and plan to be a researcher on a very exciting media project are in the pipeline. Last year I documented their 2012 Trees for Zambia Project for a month which is an absolutely unforgettable experience. I also work with them with my partner Rowan Pybus who is the Director of Makhulu – Moving Images – a video production company based in Cape Town and Greenpop’s official media partner. I work on the video projects as a producer/camera operator. We recently pitched a feature documentary that details Greenpop’s journey with conversing the forests of Livingstone, Zambia at Durban Filmmart during the 2013 Durban International Film Festival.
G. What is your current project all about?
My current project is called Making Neighbourhood which looks at how “immigrants” and South Africans experience forms of conviviality, and togetherness. Yesterday I began photographing two best friends, 13 year old girls who live in the same street in Maitland. One girl is “coloured” , the other from Mali and they see each other everyday. Last week I went to an Easter Service with a Zulu lady who is a domestic worker in Camps Bay, married for 10 years to a man from Malawi. I have met some great people the past few months and am looking forward to bringing their stories into a cohesive form , for my solo exhibition of the work at The Market Photo Workshop later this year. The film is funded by department of Social Anthropology at The University of Cape Town, headed by Cameroonian Professor, Francis Nyamnjoh, whose research focuses on conviviality.
H. Who is your inspiration in terms of your work?
Many different people. Johnny Steinberg and Ivan Vladislavic for their words. Jodi Bieber, Dale Yudelman, Nadine Hutton, Olivia Arthur, Alec Soth, Alex Webb, Mary Ellen Mark, Dan Eldon and Sebastio Salgado for their images. Jim Jarmusch, Oliver Stone, Fernando Meirelles, for their films. People I meet, conversations I have, things I read, all fuel inspiration.
I. You captured some poignant images for The Guardian newspaper on a recent fact-finding mission with Zakes Mda, Lindiwe Magona, Njabulo Ndebele and others to Eastern Cape schools. How did you feel about the trip, and what you saw there?
The trip was unforgettable, and while physically reading a newspaper detailing the state of the education crisis in South Africa can be done with some ease, being in a classroom watching 150 children trying to learn is not so easy – while I am honoured as a photographer to be allowed to visually witness such atrocities, it is horrifying to see before ones eyes the culture of poverty currently being bred in the minds of young school children receiving a failing education across South Africa due to a variety of causes including those historical as well as obvious inadequacies on the part of the Department of Basic Education….
J. How do you see the future of documentary film and photography around social issues in SA?
I want to be hopeful and say it has the opportunity to be abundant, there are so many worthy stories needing to be told, training and opportunities need to be provided to ensure that many different voices have the opportunity to be heard.