Sydelle Willow Smith

Photographer and video director

Sydelle Willow Smith is a visual storyteller and entrepreneur. Holding an Msc in African Studies from the University of Oxford, she is inspired by media advocacy approaches in documenting social injustices. She co-founded the NGO Sunshine Cinema, a solar-powered mobile advocacy platform, and is a partner in Makhulu Media. A variety of books, films and music influenced her childhood and artistic expressions.

At the age of 16 she met Mujahid Safodien and John Fleetwood at The Market Photo Workshop. Here, she was introduced to the world of visual activism through the history of struggle photography in South Africa. “I am trying to understand my privileged position, the way people process their experiences and find hope,” Smith attests.

“Injustices and dichotomous divides infuriate me, which in turn inspires me. Tunnel-visioned opinions are growing, especially in the way that social media algorithms operate, and I am motivated to highlight the subtle nuances that are rendered invisible by such modus operandi.”

Her first love remains documentary photography, focusing on memory, migration, places and youth experiences on the African continent. Through Sunshine Cinema, she aims to build a media advocacy platform in Africa, which will ultimately give grassroot voices a chance to be heard, creating the necessary dialogues across current economic, generational and prejudicial lines. Smith prides herself on the range of initiatives they’ve collaborated on through the production company Makhulu Media, which is owned by her husband Rowan Pybus. They’ve worked with LGBTI activists and honoured environmental local heroes in the DRC and in Zambia. Closer to home, they have worked with youth affected by HIV-related issues. She recently survived a car crash returning from Botswana with her husband, in which her right index finger was partially amputated.

Surviving the accident has given her a whole new lease on life, and she is grateful it has not negatively affected her work. “Peter Mackenzie once told me to never forget to pack respect and humility in my camera bag. I am blessed that I can also carry that message on my hand.” As a visual storyteller, Smith wants to focus on conceptions of belonging and identity in relation to white South African histories framed by settler colonialism, as she continues to live out her passion and make a difference in the lives of others.

— Leigh Wils

Instagram: @sydellewillowsmith