Martine Syms and Daisy Zhou Discuss the Nuances of an Artistic Life

The fine-artist-turned-director of The African Desperate sits down with her favorite cinematographer for an intimate conversation.

by W Staff

Film still from The African Desperate, by Martine Syms, featuring Cinematography by Daisy Zhou.
Film still from The African Desperate, by Martine Syms, featuring Cinematography by Daisy Zhou.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, the artist Martine Syms and cinematographer Daisy Zhou sit down for a conversation on Syms’s latest project, a film called The African Desperate for which Zhou was the director of photography.

Martine Syms: What was the first image you made that caused you to think, “I’m good at this”?

Daisy Zhou: I think it was on my mom’s Olympus point-and-shoot, when I was 12 or 13. I was in the backyard and I discovered that I could take a picture—it was of a soccer ball in the grass. And I just thought it was, like, the coolest picture! It was a little out of focus, but it really sucked me in. What about you?

Martine: The first photo I can think of showed two Barbies. I had a Black Barbie and a Black Ken, and I was really into making clothes for my dolls. I put them on my couch and was shooting them with a point-and-shoot. There was something I just liked about knowing I had set this thing up. When I was around 13, I would ask my sister to dress up like it was the ’60s; I’d look around the area we lived in to see if anything looked period-esque. I didn’t have the language then, but I knew I wanted it to look like an old photo.

Daisy: Did you make films that way as well?

Martine: Yeah. In quarantine, my first priority was digitizing old tapes that I had. I found one where I had my sister read dialogue in our shared bedroom. I was being really mean to her, honestly. I’d say, “Start over,” and then I’d be like, “You keep rushing that line.” I was bossy as shit.

Daisy: That’s so funny, ’cause you didn’t do that on your actual movie, as a director. But I feel like your first movie, Artbound, and The African Desperate are so different. I’m wondering, what are you eyeing? What are you reaching for next?

Martine: I’m always interested in how people find a way through their conditions—how they find transcendence or joy. I’m fascinated by emotional journeys like that. I am writing a new film; it’s something I was writing before I wrote African Desperate. You can expect more art exhibitions from me soon, but also films. I don’t think I have to choose between the two art forms. Honestly, I like working with actors a lot, so it’s really exciting to me, the idea of continuing to do that. I’ve also done acting classes in the past, ’cause I like to meet people that way and work with them.

Film still from The African Desperate, by Martine Syms, featuring cinematography by Daisy Zhou.

Daisy: I’ve always been curious about acting class—thinking of your body as an instrument, or a receptacle, and being one with your senses.

Martine: Yeah, and the emotion does have to be true—it’s not in a cheap way, where you just think of your saddest moment to start crying or something. You have to really feel what your character is feeling to tell that story. When I was younger, I was more concerned with the intervention of the camera, happenstance, and where that meets what’s already happening. Now I’m just really excited to keep working with performers.

Daisy: Have you seen the Val Kilmer documentary, Val?

Martine: No, I haven’t!

Daisy: It’s really good; he’s a beautiful person. But there’s one scene I keep thinking about: He’s a young kid and he’s in acting school. The teacher goes, “Okay, in this scene, you’re supposed to act like you want to die; you’re suicidal.” And Val Kilmer says, “I don’t think I can do that, because I’ve never felt that way before.” And this teacher just explodes at him. He’s like, “Yes, you have! You have felt every single feeling that you’re supposed to feel in your life.” I was so moved by that. It made me think, what makes you an artist and what makes you a human being is to know that, no matter what you’ve been through, no matter where you come from, your experience is worthy. You have to be able to see your own life that way, as worthy of telling.

Film still from The African Desperate, by Martine Syms, featuring cinematography by Daisy Zhou.

Martine: Is there something you’re most proud of in your journey as an artist so far?

Daisy: I’ve been thinking a lot about my younger self lately. I’m mostly very proud of who I was when I was 16 or 17. I wouldn’t have known it then, but I was really fucking creative, in a relentless way. I was always making shit. I had this really thick journal, and on every page, I would make paintings and collages and writing. It was natural, and it felt good. I remember at that age, I was like, “Oh, I’m always gonna be like this.” Now I think, “You know, that’s not how it turned out.” But it’s still innately a part of who I am. So I’m proud of the photos, the films, the writing, and the paintings I did as a teenager. I’m also proud of the stuff I did when I was in my early 20s, when I thought, No one knows who I am; I can only go up from here; let’s just make some shit. These are really interesting times to not be afraid to fuck up. What about you?

Martine: I’m just proud to keep making stuff, really. I will just, like, eat shit—I’ll run into a wall in order to make something! [Laughs] I’m trying not to do that as much as I used to, but I do have an innate need to make stuff. It’s such a core part of me and it really does feel like a gift, so much so that there have been times when I felt kind of like a burden to myself—

Daisy: Like, Why am I such a freak?

Martine: Exactly—like, What the fuck is your problem? But it doesn’t matter in the situation; I still have that relentlessness you spoke of. It’s just something I trust now. And, in a way, that makes me feel really free. Because no one can take it away from me.