Women's Month Series - Meet Aga Szydlik

Aga Szydik // Where do your shoes take you series?

 Meet Aga Szydik, one of the most interesting, daring, intelligent and creative women we've had the chance to meet. Despite the cliches of the word, she is truly inspiring in all her forms. Her life portfolio is nothing short of impressive, starting with her career in science where she has been an understudy to one of the most prestigious HIV researchers in the world, to her hobby that turned into a full-blown career as a photo-journalist documenting tribes and telling their story through sublime images.

We've had the chance to discuss this specific topic with her, diving further into her journey learning about tribes, cultural appropriation and how she is inspired by fashion derived from other cultures when done respectfully. 

Photography by Aga Szydlik

  1. Can you tell us about yourself and how you got started in photography? And more specifically how you branched into tribal/cultural photography?

I am a scientist and cultural photographer based in South Africa with a passion for travel and exploration. I grew up in Poland, and then moved to the USA, followed by life in Thailand, Indonesia, and India, then USA again and for the past two and a half years and finally calling South Africa my home (for now). 

Growing up I had a Zenith 35mm film camera, and then my focus was shifted to science. When I started travelling as an adult, I bought a standard Canon DSLR, later moving on to full frame cameras and exploring various formats (medium and full frame), techniques (analogue, digital, wet plate) and lenses (lomography, petzval and modern cannon glass).

Being a curious introvert, I preferred travelling off the beaten track, and my travel photography started to attract followers on social media. After moving to Thailand, in addition to travel photography, I began covering Muay Thai fights across SE Asia.

My first major recognition was in the extreme sports category by IPA (International Photography Awards). Tribal documentaries are of interest to me not only in their cultural aspect but also from a human migration and tribal origins perspective.

  1. How do you go about connecting with your portrait subjects? What have you learned about that topic over the years?

I do extensive research to learn as much as I can about each tribe, gather as much information on location/logistics of the trip and I connect with local guides upon arrival.

I immerse myself completely in the local culture, participate in the daily life, ask questions, and answer questions my hosts might have.

  1. What can modern-day societies learn from tribes?

    People from the indigenous tribes live their lives in harmony with their environment, taking only what is needed without wasting natural resources. There is no plastic waste nor food waste, plants, trees, and animals are respected and utilized in every possible way creating a very sustainable way of life. We have many opportunities to learn, respect and protect our environment from indigenous tribes.
  1. What is the best way to support these tribes in preserving their traditions and what questions should we be asking ourselves?

I strongly believe in ethical tourism, staying in local establishments, hiring local guides and engaging with them on all the subjects. Being curious and open, asking questions, as only then you can get a glimpse into a daily life and struggles of various societies.

As the ancient ways of life have changed, this has resulted in tribes now facing financial difficulties due to environmental changes such as drought, loss of ancestral lands and limited food resources, all putting a large amount of pressure on these tribes.

For example, San tribe in Namibia established cultural villages, in which tribe members interact and educate visitors about their culture by allowing visitors to observe their rituals, dance, etc. I have gotten strong positive feedback from various tribes about the revenue generated by their centres, which in turn allows for better education for children and money for food. 

Although I have never visited such a centre, I always make sure to support artisans, making purchases from the tribe, which I later use as gifts and/or travel memorabilia. I believe in the monetary compensation of the tribe and individual members for allowing me to spend time among them and permission to document their lives.

I believe, that we all have an obligation to be conscious travellers, give more than we take and always leave just the footprints and good vibrations.

  1. How much are tribes influenced by their neighbouring modern civilizations and how difficult is it for a tribe to preserve their traditions with the influence of modernization around them?

Cultures are dynamic and they co-evolve as we speak. We change the tribes and tribes change us, sadly, not all our influences have been of a positive nature. For example, the Mentawai  (Indonesia) have experienced government oppression and mandatory confinement into “government villages” in which members of the tribe are forbidden to wear their traditional cloth or practice their religion.

The Maasai tribe is no longer fully nomadic, as they are often required to use bricks and aluminium roofs to build their “bomas,” Navaho Nation members live in reservations, often faced with limited opportunities and resources.   Regardless of the changes introduced by modern civilizations, Maasai still gather every night to pass on stories to their children and preserve ritual dances. Young shaman deep in the jungle still sacrifice a chicken to read its bones and each Balinese girl must learn intricacies of the ceremonial rituals to appease the gods. It has been an absolute privilege to be allowed to witness tribal microenvironment often hidden and protected from external visitors.

  1. It has always been a trend in fashion to use tribal or cultural derivatives as a part of a seasonal trend or brand influence. In your opinion, how can a fashion label tastefully and respectfully do this without exploiting cultures?

I personally love fashion influenced by tribal cultures. Artists are continuously searching for inspiration to create unique work, which would express their views and evoke emotion in the viewer.  Every member of the tribe is an artisan inspired by their environment, just like a modern artist who is inspired by her/his surroundings such as travels, social media or a spontaneous trip to a local gallery or a chat and exchange of views with people we meet.  

We are all artists, and I think tribal influences, whether we recognize it or not, is ingrained in our culture in the form of a tattoo, fabric pattern, textile or bead work.

Matsidiso is the perfect example of an ethical brand, inclusive, actively engaged with the very community that is involved in the creation of tasteful, respectful, yet fresh and modern shoes. 

As a consumer, I strongly support local brands, local artists, local restaurants and markets. There is so much more magic and love in handmade products, as they are made with passion and care.

  1. How do cultures/tribes that are still in existence preserve themselves with modernization and technology moving rapidly? What are the key factors that make a culture strong and able to stay alive?

Strong community ties shared by all members of a tribe, feeling of belonging and very strong cultural pride are aspects that make a tribe resilient. Tribes are passing traditions, rituals and stories each night to their children, who from the youngest age are included in all daily activities and are nurtured equally by each tribe member.

Photography by Aga Szydlik

  1. You were voted one of the top 20 photographers in 2017, Can you tell us about the most current projects you are working on? What project has been the most rewarding to you and why?
There are a couple of projects in Johannesburg on the horizon; one of them involves the work with emerging SA artists, showcasing their work in context of culture and heritage set in the modern African city.
As far as the tribal work, I am currently in the process of doing research on a couple of locations in the Sub-Saharan region and a potential trip to Borneo to follow up on the Mentawai documentary. So, stay tuned ….
  1. Where can we learn more about you and keep up with your upcoming journeys?
Please do!
The best place would be to follow me on Behance, which is quickly becoming my favourite platform, my IG account and of course my website for all the behind the scenes shots. :)
  1. What are two of your favourite musicians you are jamming to right now?
Sting’s latest album with Shaggy, Jimmy Sax, mixed with African house and jazz
  1. If a pair of Matsidiso Shoes was your sole sister, what one would it be?

    First of all, I wish to express my gratitude for inviting me to be a part of your amazing journey, as for sure you are part of mine and I think I would need to have a very large number of sisters, so I would not have to choose just one.
Dineo Bootie is my edgy sister paired with a leather jacket.
Xolani oxford is the perfect addition to a flirty dress worn for a spring walk in the park.
The Ausi slip-on is my chic sister on the go….. I can just keep on going as I’m madly in love with each and every single pair ……

Aga wearing the Dineo Bootie in Orange


A huge THANK YOU to Aga for her time spent with us! It was nothing short of an honour and we hope you were as moved as we are by her amazing perspective and talents. 

1 comment

  • Andrea Schadewitz

    Thank you Matsidiso for bringing this gifted girl to light in your platform. NPI, wink… Beaitiful stories, insights and photos!


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