WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE INCREDIBLE WOMEN IN MY LIFE, Sybil Steele always comes to mind. I met Sybil a few years ago when she was living in Byron Bay. Sybil is one of those people that you just gravitate towards. Brave & adventurous, accomplished but still hungry for more. She is the type of person I love to be around, the countries she has lived in sound like a bucket list of a full life’s vacations, but they are the places she has built a home for her & her family, all the while working her own business’ - Not easy in a culture you know, let alone the determination & lioness bravery is takes to do it (multiple times!) in foreign culture. Every interview I ask everyone to describe what they do in a short paragraph, Sybil described herself in this perfect paragraph ‘I am an independent, modern gypsy, wearing 5 different hats and loving life, doing what I love, living where I want, and working with people and brands I care about.’
This independent, modern gypsy is a; Photographer, Director/Producer, Entrepreneur, Women’s Activist, Mother. So strap yourself in, here is her story…
PHOTOS: Amber Melody, David Hauserman, Paul De Luna
NAME: Sybil Steele
COMPANY: Sybil Steele (and a big 2016 New Venture in the works)
TITLE(S): Photographer, Director/Producer, Entrepreneur, Women’s Activist, Mother
How would you describe yourself in 5 words? Organized, Multi-tasker, Socially conscious, Fun Loving, Risk Taker
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today? It has been a wild ride! I grew up in California, Washington DC and Tokyo as my dad relocated a bit for work. At a young age I was able to experience and adapt to different cultures and schools. As hard as it was I believe it helped to pave the road for where I am now, which is the capacity to move anywhere, anytime with enthusiasm for new challenges.
I went to college for Political Science and Women’s Studies originally and switched to Applied Arts with an emphasis in Interior Design. Once I was done with school, although I loved the idea of an Interior Design career, I traveled a lot with my husband who had a production company for surf films. I ran his business for him while he focused on the creative and learned a lot about business, the hard way. From managing employees, budgets to company infrastructure I literally dove in blind and now from years of these skills (going on 18 years), I unknowingly was building blocks to my own career in a creative and entrepreneurial realm. After having two babies back to back, I started to style shoots which I did a little bit of while running our family business (but his career) to satisfy my creative self. After a year or two of styling I decided to take up photography.
We had relocated from California to Bali with our young family and it was a great place to practice, as I had a lot of friends who were designers residing there creating lines. One jewelry designer who was already quite successful in the US, asked me to photograph her campaign after my first 6 months of playing around. Although I was terrified and her jewelry was quite intricate and detailed, I did it anyway. Eventually I would go on to photograph 2 more campaigns for her company. Eventually more and more clients called and I also got into producing and directing as a natural part of the production process just by clients asking me to.
A couple of years later and living in gorgeous Byron Bay, I was able to meet a whole new network in Australia and again learn to take it to the next level. Now I photograph, produce, direct and work on women’s charity events and films. There is no shortage of diversity in my job and I get to work with amazing people and clients as well as travel all over to do my job. There was some point during those last 5 years where I had to say to myself, “Ok, you are a photographer”. Run with it.
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is you elevator pitch on what you do? I am an independent modern gypsy, wearing 5 different hats and loving life, doing what I love, living where I want, and working with people and brands I care about.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago? (If not, what did you think you would be doing?) Absolutely not, if someone told me I would be a photographer and paid for it I would have laughed in disbelief. I’m definitely not technologically gifted with all the details of equipment etc. but I do have ideas, and know how to bring them to completion from a seed of an idea to a final product or event. However I am working on women’s issues as well through media and events and I knew I would be in this field as well, I just wasn’t sure in what capacity.
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’? Success is happiness and gratitude to start. It also begins and ends with giving back to the world in a positive way.
What do you still want to achieve (personally & / or professionally)? I feel like I’m only in phase 2 of my production journey so I am completely revamping my portfolio and business model. It has taken a lot of soul searching on what excites me, where I will stay focused and what I truly care about. I’m excited to see where that leads now that I have relocated to a major international city (NYC). My past two homes in Bali and Byron have been for family reasons/lifestyle and not for career as the deciding geographical factor. Personally I am always thinking about how I can improve myself in all aspects of life but with self love, and acceptance as well.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in? I went to college for political science, women’s studies and applied arts, so yes. The business aspect of it all came from ground experience. I think business skills are an incredibly valuable asset and that industries, whether a designer, artist or musician should have a good handle on those skills to negotiate, stay organized and be solution and goal oriented.
What has been the most rewarding things in your career to date? Finally moving to NYC! It’s been a dream for years and when I least expected it, I ended up here. I think it will be a game changer for my creative direction and inspiration. Also raising funds for women’s shelters and traveling to Ethiopia to work on women’s water issues have been pivotal points in my path and allowed me to see the bigger picture and how this all ties into together.
Tell us about your workspace (Office / café / couch / aesthetic) what inspires you about your workspace? Space, organization and visuals.
I like a big broad desk and I lie out all my clipboards visually even in a roving global office. They are each titled and hand- written, not typed. There are up to 5 boards at any given time.
1. Master To Do list
2. Calendar for the month and year
3. Business/Financial reminders
4. Creative Projects
5. Personal pertaining to kids, health, goals etc.
Beyond that I lie out index cards for steps in motion for the broader projects within these that are segmented into parts like A, B, C so I can tackle chapters within those projects without feeling overwhelmed.
Next to me is always one index card for the day detailing out every movement of my day. They are really meticulously written so much so that my kids have adopted the routine and have whiteboards in their rooms detailing out every step of their day from when they brush their teeth to when they get dressed ha! Sorry kids.
When I’m not on set, it takes a lot of organizing to play the roles of photographer, producer, businesswoman, mother, wife and all the stuff in between. 3 highlighters designate different tasks for me as well. And a bottle of whiteout. I love whiteout-ing something on my to do list, I can’t stand a scribble. I’m crazy I know, but when someone asks “How do you do it all?” well just imagine me in ugly clothes with a bun, as a crazy lady in a room full of clipboards, index cards, white out and highlighters. So glamorous right?
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey? Learning and making mistakes on the job but I know that is a huge part of getting better. I have no regrets, it’s a favorite mantra. Keep moving forward.
When was the last time you where overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work / work load? When a creative project you have finished is bending the wrong way and you are trying to wrestle it back and must finally relent and let the emotional attachment go. Take the lesson and again, move forward.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this gotten more or less as you progress in your career? I do and I am currently putting the pressure on to take it next level but I also realize that career pressure can be created by comparing yourself to others or finding happiness in achievements and that CAN be a form of deep inner dissatisfaction. While I’m in a new phase of driven, I know the true meaning of happiness stems from things like doing what you love, having a loving support network, friendships, life experience and laughter.
Career is good but you don’t go to your deathbed crying about wanting to work more, do you? I’d like to die knowing I had a life full of love and made a difference in other’s lives. My friends, relationships, family and the state of women’s social issues are all much more important to me that being the best or acclaimed. If I were younger, single and didn’t have a family and other goals I might think differently and I would be more competitive in my career goals.
If you are a business owner – and you often can’t just check out / have a week off when you are dealing with personal things – how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough? I usually can check out for personal times unless there is a shoot planned that week and honestly unless it was something really awful, I would keep my word and go to the shoot. Work for yourself and you can do whatever you want, within reason!
Has your career affected your personal life / relationships? If so how? Yes, currently I don’t see my husband much, and we are trading off time with the kids while each pursuing different career objectives but he’s super supportive of my ambitions so it’s not a major hiccup. I believe modern day marriage has to be about supporting each other’s dreams without a sense of ownership over each other. Besides love, fun and respect together, you don’t need to be together all the time. I believe in independence. I feel I’m showing my girls (age 9 and 11) that women can work hard, and follow their dreams. When I’m home, I focus a lot on motherhood and they are like “Oh yes mom is home, a home cooked meal! Lots of cuddles! Table manners enforced! Clean rooms and hair” ha ha. Dad is all about good times, pizza, basketball and knotted hair. I’m kind of the bad cop though I have to admit.
Has your journey at times felt lonely? How? Definitely! Sometimes you are stuck for answers and not sure who to talk to. Someone with a fresh perspective. It can’t always be your partner or friends, it has to be someone near to your field as you can relate a little bit more when it comes to situational issues. A general pep talk is good but experiences close to yours are very helpful. It’s also ok to feel lonely…it’s a time of reflection and going in really deep within yourself to reassess your values and realizing what might be wrong.
What causes you anxiety / sleepless nights? Just coffee during the day. I quit coffee about 6 months ago. My anxiety and fight or flight stress went away instantly. People say how could you quit coffee? But it was that or champagne. I kept champagne.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently? No, it’s been exactly the way it’s suppose to be but through maintaining principles that are important to me and allowing myself to grow from obstacles and challenges. No regrets!
What advice would you give your 21 year old self? Work hard, stay positive, treat people well, learn your lessons, check your ego.
Who are some women in business you admire & why? Zainab Salbi who is the founder of womenforwomen.org. Zainab has had such a unique life and is an Iraqi author, women’s activist and humanitarian who has channeled her experiences into helping women worldwide in a majorly significant way. She’s my ultimate hero.
Angelina Jolie for her humanitarian efforts mixed with a big family and creative roles. Regardless of her considerable resources, she walks the walk and get’s it all done with grace, beauty and true compassion for what people in humanitarian crisis are subjected to.
Lynsey Addario, the documentary photographer on the front lines for the NY Times to Sheryl Sandberg who invests so much time into empowering women. And women like you Samantha, and my friends like Lauren Hill (surfer, activist) at the top of their game in life who know that empowering women is a huge responsibility and gift. Anyone who inspires us to break through expected social norms of being a women, redefine the rules, or helps in their local communities to shelter and counsel the many women who have been abused and disempowered.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with? Humor is a very important one. Intelligence and knowledge, people who have unique perspectives and insight into matters you might not know ever existed. Adventure, everyone must have a sense of adventure. Honesty and a frank rawness always helps but most importantly I like the do-ers. People who keep it moving and are motivated. There is a sense of positivity in the doers, no challenge is too big whether in a creative or business realm.
Work life balance… Does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it Plan it, don’t expect it. Carve out times for yourself to work hard and play hard. Whatever works for you. I’ll work work work and then take a month off to readjust myself and re-prioritize. That’s freelance but that’s what I do so it works for me.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit? Yes! When I did a shit job. You can’t quit, it’s not really an option. Just make sure that you are doing what you love when you feel down. It’s ok to switch careers, if it’s for the right reasons.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do? I don’t really know…we move a lot and live everywhere and I think some people must think “Oh it must be nice” but in reality it’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears to do all the hard yards to gain entry to foreign countries for long term stay and make it work where you want it to work. I spend 30% of my time on boring admin stuff that allows us to do what we want in different countries with different rules, regulations, networks and laws.
I don’t think there is a moment that we aren’t working hard on career, life, fun, relationships etc… it all gets a lot of love and attention and I think you get back what you put in. Life is good because we chose it to be and put in the hard yards.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry? Find a mentor and shoot a lot. Don’t always look to the money jobs to start, roll up your sleeves and be a team player and reliable and it will pay off. Say yes to jobs even if you feel they are out of your league or you have to wear a different hat than usual! You’ll learn the most at these times.
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what? It isn’t work when it’s fun and you are doing what you love. Sure it’s “work” but it’s not the same as going to a job you don’t love and working for people or a company you don’t necessarily believe in. And practice as much as you can and be nice to people, get out there and network. Stay true to your word. Surround yourself with people smarter than you, who can help to elevate your skills and bring to fruition your vision. Surround yourself with people you can enjoy collaborating with.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be? I would like to fuse women’s fashion with women’s empowerment and instead of women seen as just beautiful, to instill in the photos and productions a sense of intelligence, women’s history, social issues, strength and beauty. At the end of the day I would like a body of work I am proud of and the stories behind them purposeful and hopefully thought provoking.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)? I think it is important to have a network where women support each other instead of compete against each other. Intelligence and education are our main tool, not beauty and fashion. Fashion elements are just icing on the cake for a woman as men’s fashion can be so boring. We can celebrate and express who we are through fashion. I’m excited to be involved on this project because making a difference is the best asset we have and it’s an honor to be featured with such a community of amazing women.
What are some of your favorite quotes? 'Throw your dreams into space like a kite and you do not know what it may bring back, a new life , a new friend, a new love, a new country.' - Anais Nin
'Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.' - Timothy Leary