By Aisling Ayers, Photos by Sydney Gawlik, Portrait by Charles Reagan.
Photographer Sydney Gawlik talks about how the pandemic has affected her life’s work.
Attached to a harness 40 feet above the crowd, Sydney Gawlik climbs a festival tower with her camera hanging from her neck. It’s pouring rain on the Cage The Elephant outdoor concert, but it only amplifies the energy of the thousands of people below.
“It was just this beautiful moment where you get the bird’s-eye view of all of these people, and the rain just adds a level of mysticism to it,” she reflects. “Especially now, imagining that many people together in one place feels like another lifetime.”
Last year was a whirlwind for the photographer and videographer. Traveling from concerts to music festivals, Gawlik spent her nights capturing big-name musicians, like Billie Eilish and Kacey Musgraves, in their element.
“I’m definitely not a super bright photographer—it’s much more the contrasts,” Gawlik says. “[I like] playing with darkness because I think that’s very reflective in humanity. We have this public persona of who we are…but we also have these elements of hurt and tragedy. But that’s part of what makes us human.”
After returning from a tour with Hozier, she planned her income for 2020 around festivals like Lollapalooza and Shaky Knees.
“I had gigs lined up that were going to feed me for months to come,” Gawlik says.
In early March, South by Southwest was canceled because of COVID-19. That initial cancellation began a steady wave of disappointment, followed by panic.
“It was really easy to just be like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I don’t know how the year is going to work out,’” Gawlik says.
[I like] playing with darkness because I think that’s very reflective in humanity.
When the shows halted, she had to tap into her love for visual storytelling. “It’s always been about people and…telling a story,” says Gawlik. “Music was kind of the first foot in the door of being a photographer, but that’s definitely changed during the pandemic. Right now, there isn’t music, so you have to find that inspiration from other places.”
While wondering how to continue her career during COVID-19, Easy Tiger, an Austin beer garden and bakery, asked her to capture their journey adapting to the pandemic. As she created the documentary, she pivoted her own abilities to tell a different type of story.
Harsh Realities & New Avenues
After the assignment ended, Gawlik was suddenly faced with the reality of spending time at home alone with her thoughts.
“My mental health had really degraded because I put the work cap on and work was the most important thing,” Gawlik says. “Then you have a pandemic that is essentially colliding with your line of work.”
In college, Gawlik began her career running camera memory cards back and forth for photographers at Austin City Limits. The ACL photo director at the time, Cambria Harkey, then plugged her into the festival photographer scene. Five years later, their shared love for capturing people’s stories has led them to start their own visual storytelling company, Amor Fati, during the pandemic.
“You can’t monetize the visuals of women and not have a woman behind the lens,” Gawlik says. “We are really trying to be very intentional and very relational and really connect with who we are capturing.”
The pandemic has allowed Gawlik to focus on her passion for visual storytelling and capturing human emotion through unexpected avenues.
“It’s really about who’s behind [the lens]and what you’re trying to say,” Gawlik says. “Because you can have the newest gear, the best lenses, all of the things, and if there isn’t substance behind that and there isn’t a story behind that, then it’s just going to be a pretty picture.”