Sydelle Willow Smith, the first recipient of the Gisèle Wulfsohn Mentorship in Photography, is exhibiting her resulting body of work ‘Soft Walls’ – exploring the relationships between migrated African nationals and South Africans – at the Market Photo Workshop, in Johannesburg.
The Workshop in association with the family of the late South African photographer Gisèle Wulfsohn in 2012 established the mentorship to honor Wulfsohn’s memory and provide an emerging photographer with the infrastructural support to develop a body of work.
“Wulfsohn dedicated her life and photography to awareness, openness and respect; she worked on issues of democracy, HIV/AIDS and positive sexual identities, social inclusion and gender issues, and maintained a commitment to education and social change. The mentorship is aimed at developing emerging voices that are committed to similar issues,” says the Market Photo Workshop.
When I meet Smith during the hanging of the show, she says she can relate to the way Wulfsohn’s photography also had needed to shift between the contrast of assignment work and personal work in the townships. The emerging photographer is quick to point out that she is neither really a photojournalist nor a news photographer, saying that her work digs deeper and that her way of shooting has been influenced greatly by her anthropology degree.
While hard news stories might portray only the negative aspects of immigration such as discrimination and xenophobic attacks, Smith says that she with ‘Soft Walls’ instead wanted to portray also the positive side of life as well as its more real, softer nuances. “The work is about the idea that while nationality, borders, race … all divide, there are people who blur those lines, who renders those walls soft,” Smith says.
“I think it’s a growing part of South Africa. These people were keen to participate to show other South Africans to not be so xenophobic,” she says. At the same time, she adds, some didn’t want to participate because they didn’t feel that their experience in South Africa is positive at all.
“There is a lot of talk on the street. People are often openly xenophobic. They make fun of Nigerian accents etc.”, she says.
Instead of applying a traditional method of telling a photo story such as ‘a day in a life of’ a person, ‘Soft Walls’ explore moments, or fragments, from several different couples’ lives in the Cape Town area. For example, we meet South African nationals in relationship with other African nationals from Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
We stop in front of one of the photos I find particularly interesting. It’s of a couple sitting on a bench in what looks like a historic township area. In some ways the photo looks like it could have been taken 20 years ago, and it’s interesting that while Apartheid is officially gone, I feel an echo of it in this picture. And I reflect on the fact that perhaps it’s to these areas that many African migrants move, to communities where their mate’s ancestors where sometimes banished because of race or poor economic circumstance.
“I began photographing Dillion S. Phiri and Nokulunga Mateta-Phiri in the winter of 2012. Lunga was 8 months pregnant. Nationality is not an issue for Lunga, only when it comes to family members not understanding other African nationals – and she feels the problem lies in that people do not know each other well enough. In August 2012 she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Wandile, who is now 17 months. Her husband, Dillion was born in Zimbabwe, to a Zimbabwean mother and Malawian father. He feels that nationality does not bother him, as even at “home” in Zimbabwe he is considered foreign,” Smith says in her caption.
In another photo, we meet “Koura at Home in Maitland. Koura is 13 and was born in South Africa, her father is from Ivory Coast and her mother is from Mali, she has never left the country,” reads Smith’s caption. Although born in South Africa, Smith says Koura is often met with name calling and discrimination against foreigners.
Meanwhile, ‘Coach Dino’s picture speaks of happy endings: “Coach Dino: Dino Estevo was born in 1990 in Beira, Mozambique. His father was a FREELIMO Soldier. He came to South Africa to find a better life, after being a successful athlete and soccer player back home. He decided to leave home, as a war torn country like Mozambique had no money for sports. Through a series of events and scams Dino found himself sleeping under a bridge in Cape Town. One day, the owner of African Brothers Football Academy in Gardens in the City Bowl, Craig Hepburn approached him and a group of friends under the bridge and asked them if they wanted to participant in a game of football in Philipi. He decided to take a chance and participate. Craig offered him work at his academy and he has been coaching and working as a caretaker ever since,” says Smith’s caption for the photograph.
Sydelle Willow Smith was born in 1987 in Johannesburg. She attended the Market Photo Workshop, where she completed her Foundation and Intermediate Courses in 2007. In 2011 she graduated from the University of Cape Town with an Honors Degree in Social Anthropology. Dave Southwood mentored Smith under the Gisèle Wulfsohn mentorship, when she created ‘Soft Walls,’ which is exhibited at the Market Photo Workshop until April 2.