Sydelle Willow Smith
Sydelle Willow Smith is a photographer/video director working across Africa focusing on memory, migration and identity. She will be working on Un/Settled – a multimedia documentary project that explores white South Africans histories, privileges and reflections on identity. The project is a collaboration between photographer Sydelle Willow Smith and writer Olivia Walton. Smith is the concept developer and lead artistic director of the project.
Sydelle Willow Smith talked to MA student Esther V. Kraler about the impact of histories of exploitation on people’s sense of belonging, the importance of addressing probing questions and creating dialogue amongst South Africans regarding white privilege in a post-Apartheid, post-rainbow nation, post-TRC South Africa.
Listen to the interview here.
Why do you think it is important to (re)shape discussions about South African identity today?
Perhaps it’s best to start with why I started the project in the first place. So, I’ve been a documentary photographer for the past 11-12 years and I had never really done anything where I was turning the lens on myself or the world that I accessed as a white female South African. I went to Oxford and did my Masters in African Studies in 2014-2015 and really started to understand the scope of the different types of colonialism that had affected the continent and the phenomena of settler colonialism in South Africa [that] was very uniquely different to anglophone and francophone other parts of the continent. And I became really interested in how that kind of sense of being, of coming from elsewhere with this heritage and history of exploitation and problematics had affected people’s sense of belonging. In my work I am always looking at how people shape their sense of belonging in relation to who they think they are or who they are or where they come from. And I think that this kind of conversation is really necessary to be having in a post-Apartheid South Africa, post-Mandela, post-rainbow nation, post-TRC because I think that these are conversations that haven’t been had honestly and there was a sense of a kind of washing-over of everything and then absolution that wasn’t really there. So that’s why I thought, it was important to do this project about identity.
Could you talk a bit about your approach to the project and why public engagement is central to it?
The project aims to have a public engagement level to it because I find gallery spaces quite exclusionary, especially in such a social unequal country like South Africa. So, with funding permitting I will be doing exhibitions out in the streets of the work, with quotes of the work from the interviews so that people of all walks of life can engage (with) the work and spark further conversation around the topics that the work speaks to. So, I’ve started doing that with the Borderlands Public Arts Festival (http://www.borderlands.co.za/), putting the art up in public disused military spaces around Simonstown and have people come and engage in it that way. I’ve been using facebook and instagram quite extensively to get people speaking to the work and finding out what people think about the work which has been really interesting and informative so far. I think that this kind of work is not necessarily suited for a gallery space and is very much about public engagement. That’s why there has been such a focus on doing it that way.
What do people think about the work? And what would you say are participants’ motivations to be part of it?
I think in terms of participants being part of the project, it has been quite interesting because a lot of the time they are people that I just meet in the moment and that I spend an hour with and I ask them quite raw and honest questions. I think that a lot of white South Africans agree to be part of the project because these are questions that they have themselves and that they haven’t necessarily had a platform or an outlet for to engage with. I think that’s why they do it.
I think, some people also do it because they see it as a kind of catharsism – by acknowledging their privilege, they therefore let go of their privilege which obviously is not the case. But I think that some people do participate for that desire – to be admonished of that historical privilege.
So, I think it’s twofold but definitely I think that the amount of engagement and the amount of interest and the fact that most people I have asked to participate in the project have not said ‘no’, just shows the wide range of people looking to converse about these topics on a broader level, at a more public scale.
Do you think your collaboration with participants was successful? How will you build on the relationships with participants in the future?
This project is different to some of the other projects I have done where I have maybe only focused on five or six families and spent two years photographing them, like the soft walls project I did for the Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship. A lot of the people that I interview for this project I only have a day-long interaction with. But what sort of keeps the accountability going from my side is the use of social media, of facebook and instagram, because I share the posts and then their friends see those posts and they share them and then the people see them and they get engaged with directly. So, there is a constant flow of people speaking directly to them through participating in the project which is a very interesting way of working, I find.
Furthermore, I will plan to do a book of the project, funding permitting as I said, the public exhibitions of the project as well. I have told every single person who participated in the project that if they want to remove themselves from the project, they can do so at any time. So far, that hasn’t happened. I normally send them their interviews and their photo very soon after we’ve met so that they can tell me if they want to remove themselves or not. Out of 35 people I have interviewed, only one person has done that.
To talk more about the medium of your work. What are the merits of using photography and interviews as an effective way to co-produce knowledge?
I think that the previous answer speaks to this in terms of the flow of the transaction because I am putting it online. Because there’s people who are online, they are seeing themselves online, they can comment, they can ask me to remove it, they can engage the people, writing comments on their quotes. It is a very interesting way of co-producing the work in that sense but at the end of the day, I am the director of the project, I chose whose interviews, whose photos I include, I edit their interviews down to a compressed format. So obviously, I am the creator of it but they do have a role to play in that process through what they give to the portrait, what they give to the interview, what they give to the people leaving comments on the facebook threads and the instagram posts.
Were there any unexpected outcomes within the project or are there things that you think could be improved?
I think in every project you learn, you improve, you grow through the process. I have done this project for the past 3 years in my personal capacity, self-funded the majority of the time, the only funding I received is the wellcome fellowship from maHp as well as a small grant from the national arts council. I have done the project on days off, I have done the project inbetween takes of shoots, I have done the project whenever I accessed spaces of whiteness – which as a white South African I do on a day-to-day basis. I think that in terms of improving the project, scope for international exploration of these themes is definitely there. Looking at this kind of idea around settler colonialism and belonging in places like Australia, places like Canada, New Zealand, America. This is a world-wide conversation that needs to be had around whiteness. So, I hope to take it further.
[Regarding] unexpected outcomes of the project – I guess that one of the most surprising things I found was that I didn’t include people of color in the project because I didn’t feel like it was up to them to explain the effects of whiteness anymore. I felt like this is something that white people needed to talk about and really engage with honestly. Because part of whiteness is you don’t have to engage in it because this is the privilege that whiteness has afforded you. And it’s been really interesting to see how many people of color comment on the posts on Facebook and share them and send me messages, saying, ‘This is really interesting for me because I am accessing conversations that I can only imagine would happen around dinner tables of only white people.’ I think that there’s something really interesting in that but at the same time I think it’s necessary for me to collaborate in the book process of this with a person of color writing about the photography. Because I think that if I just create this platform for whiteness with only white voices, obviously that’s further creating whiteness. So, definitely needing to diversify the outputs of it, is something that I am looking into now.
My last question for you would be: What is the overall message that you want to send out with the project? What do you hope that people inside and outside the project take from it?
The message of the project is that photography has been used as a colonial tool of othering and constructing a gaze in Africa for many many many years. And in order for power dynamics to really shift, the tables need to be turned and people need to be asked these difficult, probing questions about themselves, about their sense of place, about their sense of privilege and how they come to terms with that and how they navigate that. In order for real transformational change to happen, I really do believe that we need to be having these conversations. And while social media has been a very useful tool for me to place out into the public realm, social media also becomes a very dangerous place in terms of the attention deficit of how people engage it and the flick-through-trolling of oversaturation.
So, that public level of putting these photos into public spaces, everyday spaces, shopping malls and alike are really to want more white people to see and hear from white people about these topics. Because these are things we can’t ignore any longer, these are topics that need to be discussed around reparations, around effects of apartheid, around land, around inequalities. Because for the most part, white South Africans don’t have to do anything to live in the new South Africa and the time of just sitting back and being comfortable cannot continue in this way as we’re seeing in the political space, in the public space more and more. We need to really assess where we’re going forward as a country and in order to do that we have to address these racial and class inequalities that the country faces still to this day.
About the author: Esther V. Kraler is an MA student in Ethnic and Migration Studies at Linköping University. She completed her BA in Transcultural Communication at the University of Vienna. With her work, Esther wants to tackle the unspoken, to shed light on how who we are and what we do is influenced by structural and personal realities and to support alternative possibilities of knowing/being/feeling in the world. She is currently an exchange student at ACMS, and is also a maHp intern.