Inside the home office of a visionary documentarian
Words: Lindsay Samson | Images: Nick Gordon
Tucked away in a secluded street in Gardens, Cape Town, lies the home studio of Sydelle Willow Smith. A visual storyteller and media advocacy strategist, Smith has spent the past several years steadily building an impressive portfolio of work. Though she began her career as a photographer, Smith quickly realised that if she wanted to make an impact with the stories she was telling, she’d need to develop a more holistic approach. Since then, she’s done just that, exhibiting films and photographs globally and showing her work across the continent, all while making the subject of accessibility her prime focus. Hard at work on multiple projects at any given time, including an ongoing photography series called Unsettled that interrogates ideas around whiteness, the former teen punk band photographer allowed us into her workspace – and home – for a little show and tell.
Can you tell us a bit about the projects you’re working on at the moment?
Alongside my husband Rowan Pybus, I am cofounder of Makhulu Media, which focuses on ethical storytelling and impact-focused content for UN agencies, philanthropic entities and NGOs. I also run an NGO called Sunshine Cinema that uses a solar-powered cinema network to screen films to audiences that wouldn't ordinarily be able to watch them. They all feed quite well into each other. My photography at the moment is more focused on personal passion projects, like my long-term project, Unsettled.
Have you always wanted to work in photography and film?
Yeah, I’ve wanted to be a photographer since I was about 11. My father was a dark-room printer for an ad agency, so he built me a dark room when I was a teenager. I used to photograph punk bands for Blunt Magazine as a teen, so it's something I always wanted to do.
Do you love what you do?
I love meeting people. I like hearing about their lived experiences and why they think the way they do, something that I think gets lost more and more in an online world. I love the fact that my job takes me all over the world to different kinds of places. It’s a real privilege to be a photographer and a storyteller. You get to see and learn from diverse types of people and I want to make sure that that gets shared in as many ways as possible. I love what I do, because I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing.
Why is accessibility so important to your work?
I think it comes from thinking about the question, “Who am I trying to reach with the content I’m making?” If you want to make work for the echo chamber of people who look and think like you, then the internet is a fair platform for that kind of thing. But I think because we live in such an unequal society, especially when it comes to things like digital access, I’m interested in making sure that the content is widely available to a broader audience. They get left out of the picture a lot of the time, yet they’ll be the subjects the work.
Is there such a thing as an ordinary work day for you?
Not at all. But if I’m not shooting, a typical day sees me waking up, going for a run, working a bit, having lunch and, like any good Capetonian, sneaking off to the beach. Last year, I travelled more than I ever have for work (about 13 flights), but for the last few months I have been at my desk a lot.
What’s your favourite thing about working from home?
Being able to spend all day with Socks, my four-month old dachshund puppy. Also, being able to have a nap in my own bed when I’m feeling tired. I’ve never been formally employed before, so I actually don't know what it’s like to go into a “real” office every day.
How does working from home affect your productivity?
My mother worked from home quite a bit and I did homeschooling for some time, so the idea of being disciplined enough to work at home isn't too foreign for me. I am hoping to change this in the coming years, though. When I start a family, I’d like to have that separation of church and state, so to speak. But for the moment, it works well. We’re centrally located and the house is big enough to have our crew come in every day.
How would you describe your workspace?
A chaotic mix of all the different avenues of my work. There’s also still a little bit of the teenage punk in me. You see all the pit passes I have hanging and the graffiti? I spent a lot of time as a music photographer, so that’s where you see it emerge. I can be a bit of a chaotic person when it comes to my space, but I try to be organised.
What’s your favourite item on your desk?
I know it’s obvious, but my camera. It’s my baby. Then there are all my photo hard drives that are so important. But just about everything on my desk is functional. Nothing’s here that doesn’t have to be.
And your dream desk addition?
The new MacBooks get very hot, so a laptop stand would be my ideal desk item, as well as a more comfortable chair. And maybe a bigger sound system? I’ve always got my headphones on while I work, but if I’m alone, I’ve got the music blasting.