Sydelle Willow Smith, MSc African Studies (2015) St Antony’s College
“I challenged myself academically – having come from an Anthropology background – I gained a far wider scope of critical engagement and understanding through debates and learning from my peers who came from backgrounds such as International Relations, Economics, Political Science and Business.”
Sydelle is a photographer and filmmaker. She is the co-founder of the first solar powered mobile cinema in Africa – Sunshine Cinema – where she has developed a solar powered cinema that fits in a box, as an activist toolkit
runs media advocacy workshops using radio, photography and film with young people in partnership with The Children’s Radio Foundation focusing on issues of gender based violence, the effects of climate change, LGBTQI rights and access to HIV/AIDS services for young people across the continent. They host film screenings of advocacy focused content with the aim of turning solar power into social impact through grassroots engagements in partnership with various funders such as Open Society Foundations and brands like Red Bull.
has worked as a photographer and filmmaker since her undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town, where she focused on Social Anthropology, Film Theory and Video Production. She first worked as an editorial photographer after studying at The Market Photo Workshop, when she began documenting Johannesburg’s subcultures for Blunt Magazine in 2007. Since then Sydelle has worked for a wide range of publications, clients and brands, whilst continuing her personal projects focusing on aspects of memory, place-making and belonging viewed through a social justice lens, allowing her to better situate the struggles South Africa and the broader continent faces in a global and regional context.
After a BA (Hons.) degree in Visual Anthropology with a focus on participatory methodologies in a temporary relocation camp on the Cape Flats, she began working full time at her husband’s production company Makhulu as a director, videographer and photographer. She is now a partner in the company. During this time, Sydelle was awarded a grant to complete a 12 month body of work about foreign migrants and South Africans forging convivial relationships in 2012 called Soft Walls. The work led her to host a series of exhibitions and public engagement workshops focusing on xenophobia. She installed the work on aluminium boards embedded with augmented reality codes on a promenade that housed 1000 person foot traffic every day for 8 months – promoting dialogue amongst everyday South Africans about migration. After that project she was awarded a residency to complete a documentary film/photo project in Barcelona with African migrants from West Africa, called Making Neighbourhood. The project has been exhibited globally and the residency hosts an annual Making Neighbourhood participatory project focusing on new forms of community in its honour.
Sydelle came to the University of Oxford in 2014 to do a Masters of Social Science in African Studies, working with Dr Helene Neveu Kringelbach on a dissertation about the use of media advocacy methods amongst young people within the social movement, Equal Education, in Khayelitsha, South Africa. Her work involved a six week period of fieldwork through participant observation and a series of interviews with high school students, and media advocacy project managers in various international NGOs where she sought to understand the role of visual media training in young peoples’ lives within a context of a social movement forged out of particular struggle narrative legacies in a post-Apartheid context, highlighting the ways that personhood is shaped and particular narratives are constructed through the process of advocacy focused storytelling.
For Sydelle, the MSc degree itself was the most enriching academic experience of her life, and provided detailed insights and debate on issues facing African countries. The degree was academically rigorous and demanded a high level of original thought, and she felt challenged in every tutorial and lecture series. She gained a far deeper understanding of postcolonial dynamics from across the continent, and for the first time was challenged about South African notions of exceptionalism. This was coupled with extensive reading of contemporary debates around issues such as electoral democracy, the legacy of colonialism and the effects of international organisations such as the IMF on the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa that have fuelled her work as a visual storyteller.
The friends she made will be life long, as her class group – The African Legends – was very close during the Masters and they still maintain close contact on a regular basis. A whole bunch of her former classmates even attended her wedding last year, traveling from all four corners of the globe.