Helen coetzee for helencoetzee.com and studio3

river bennett ( photography river bennett)


I knocked gently on the door and as the door swung open there before me stood Helen Coetzee - Photographer and owner, alongside her husband, of creative space Studio3 on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, not to mention mother of two teenage boys. Her smile so warm and unassuming, her home so welcoming and her built in studio powerfully urging its guests to create. 

I wanted to know who this woman was and why did her photography work and ventures speak to me on another level? 

When I was a little girl ... I loved to dance, hang out with my childhood best friend, and, I’m told, I talked ... a lot. I’d recite poems & stories in Croatian to whoever was within earshot, regardless if they understood me or not! I had no qualms speaking often and loud (I drove everyone nuts ... especially grown ups). I still love to chat to people across the board ... nowadays I’ve learnt to listen more.

My parents immigrated to Sydney from the Dalmatian Islands in the ‘60's.

Dad fell in love with Sydney the day he sailed into the Harbour, one grey July day ....

I grew up on the Lower North Shore.

It was not always easy, being from immigrant stock ... in a city that had never heard of garlic or prosciutto. Back in the ‘70's it wasn’t cool to be European, & I was reminded of that at school daily. We were fortunate that my parents really embraced this amazing city. Even though at times, I had felt like I was on the outer circle.

A snapshot of my childhood.... Loads of relo's at our house, Dad playing the guitar ... and the smell of something delicious simmering on the stove. Sharing time with family over a meal, and music are my absolute daily staples and I’d say they are key to my equilibrium.

I loved my folks. My Mama was strong and feisty. She never feared speaking her mind. She is a giant in my world still to this day.

I believe I have such great women in my life because of my strong connection to my Mum. She is wise beyond words, and I love that she is mine.

Without her, I’d be a mess! She has been beside us the whole way helping us raise our boys and colouring their lives with her culture, her beliefs and stories from her childhood.

I absolutely adored my Tata ('Dad' in Croatian) as much, if not more than he adored me.  Always quick to see the best in others, always ready to have a giggle, have a dance or sing a song.

He himself was an orphan - a street kid in post-war Europe (sad start really). He always dreamt of a better life and I love that his hardships never tainted the person he became. He was such a divine man. The sort of person that brings a smile to your face,

He was passionate about his work, one of the biggest things he would always say is:

"Do what you love, no matter what that is. You work 5 days out of the 7. Do that which moves you, the thing that makes time disappear…”

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, or wish with every fibre of my being that he was still here.

And then, there are those moments where I see Tata is close. I see him in my boys in many ways. Still, I’m pretty pissed he left so soon (21years ago).

My Dad’s impact on my life was huge. There were plenty of dark days after he died - it was a huge loss for me. I don't want to sound like everything was roses because it wasn't. I made some shit choices back then, and I struggled. It was my closest friends who shed the light in my darkest moments.

When I met John... I was living out of a suitcase.

I had signed up with a modeling agency in Sydney. I found I could travel with ease - which is precisely why I pursued it.

I shot loads of commercial campaigns - nothing glamorous just beer ads, chocolate ads and catalogues. It allowed for me to travel and see the world within my industry.

I met many amazing people in my roaming the planet - crazy, beautiful, creative spirits; incredible vistas and magical moments I cherish to this day.

I forged friendships abroad that have remained strong over two decades.

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to head off on an adventure, be fluid and open to the whole experience.

I was in my twenties and felt I had a charmed existence.

Then, one spring in Munich, this tall South African appeared in my realm.

Seriously - in the weeks and months that followed I would pinch myself (actually, literally pinch myself) because this all seemed like a dream.

This gorgeous, passionate, creative, think-outside-the-box, hilarious man was sharing my days.

I had met one of the coolest people ever!

We were inseparable, with the exception of having to be in different countries at times (with visas etc ...)

We went from cruising between Capetown, Hamburg, Sydney and all the places in between, to … ‘you are pregnant’!  Yep. Big shock.

You see I was told in my late teens that having babies was near on impossible for my body with all the dramas I’d had with endometriosis etc. So you can imagine how surprised we were.

Both of us agreed we would settle in Sydney to have our baby. We spent the next 6 months in Capetown, and if you've ever had the privilege to stay in that city you will understand how amazing life was there.

We then set to work on getting John a spousal visa. It was not easy, but finally after a mountain of paperwork and hundreds of questions we booked our flights back to Australia.

John got a job with my cousin and picked up a trade in carpentry. This knowledge was key down the track for our warehouse.

When I became a mother ... I never knew I was so strong.

That I could love someone I’d never met so deeply, so profoundly, immediately! I was lucky to have had really empowering water-births, that had great impact on how I saw myself on a primal level. I highly recommend natural birth, and I highly recommend trusting your body’s intelligence (totally underrated).

I never knew I would learn so much about myself.

Raising boys is... this wonderful, chaotic madness.

I love their authentic nature. I love the simplicity. Feed them well and get them outside, and often to shake all that energy loose!

Surfing, skating, swimming, running, bush-walking, climbing, yoga, signing up for a team ... I promise: good food and movement is the key to everyone’s sanity in a house of boys!

I want my sons to always know...

- They are loved without condition.

- To always trust their gut instincts

- Speak their truth

- Question things

- Be Kind to self

- Be Kind to others

- Do what you love

Our house is... the result of a leap of faith in the aftermath of a crazy idea.

A dirty, forgotten factory with windows ... lots of big windows!  

Having John as my partner-in-crime makes for marvelous creations.

His feature walls and design of Studio3 is genius. We have had so much fun with this project.

Minus a budget, we were pushed to be more creative and more resourceful - 95% of this space is fitted out with recycled materials we found at Kimbriki tip, the side of the road, skip bins, friends farms etc. .... It’s was so nice to tap into this, and feel really good about being kind to the planet. It’s amazing what you can achieve, working with what you have, rather than being full-on consumers. Our rooms are bespoke, and completely ours. Every texture or piece of furniture has a story. I think it makes for a really nice energy. Visitors often comment on how at ease they feel. It’s such a treat to hear that.

We have no television either so this allows for the living area to be moved around. TVs anchor a room - plus, our tribe is so much better for it. Our conversations aren’t drowned out by the drivel coming out of a TV! This allows for more real time, which is often lost in this digital age.

My love for photography ... goes back as far as I can remember.

I loved B&W images you'd see in National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and out-takes backstage at some festival, Hollywood portraits, Street photography, any photo journals .... you name it.

I was fascinated by the very nature of this medium. Catching a split second, and being able to observe that precise moment, delve into it well after the shutter released.

Working with light to expose what you see.

It must have been obvious to my parents, because they gifted me my first SLR camera for my 15th birthday - it was a big moment.

My biggest creative high... I love shooting real stories. Real people. I am a photo journalist by nature. I relish being around people. Everyone has a story to tell. I am so lucky to draw in the sort of work that allows me to be fluid and candid as my style dictates - working with such a broad spectrum of people. People living in adversity, like the homeless, the sick, the dying to kids who have parents in prison to people at the top of their fields, to Down Syndrome kids. I am completely moved by the stories. I am moved by the rawness. I am humbled when someone feels comfortable to be captured.  

Reality has become more fascinating to me as our society strives for flawless perfection. Air-brushed unrealistic versions of humans, we covet youth, greedily devour details of a celebrity’s every move - all very saddening and superficial .

You'll find me catching the grit, or the beauty within a moment that is not manufactured. The most powerful images, the most beautiful, are when the subject is honest and open. You can see it in the eyes, you can feel it when an image stirs something inside you. That’s what sets my heart on fire.

Thoughts on Travel?

Travel is important, because it opens your mind and all of your senses.

As an Aussie, I think we are so lucky to be here in this vast land with big skies and long stretches of coastline.

We must head abroad and get a sense of all the other cultures, textures and flavours.

When I travel I find it stirs up in me that child-like sense of wonder, which, as a grown-up, gets harder to tap into.

Going to a place you've never been, seeing how others live/survive, gives perspective you cannot access any other way. Best schooling I’ve ever had.

My greatest indulgence?

Sharing time with my people, my tribe and cooking something wholesome and delicious. We are mindful here about what we cook and how we cook our food. Giving our bodies nutrition is paramount. I am lucky to work with some great foodies too, so I learn heaps and I am inspired in the kitchen. John is the chef here at Studio3 - perhaps my answer should be that my absolute indulgence is eating his cooking!!! Seriously good.

Nights in or nights out?

Nights in AND nights out!

Chilling at home in trackies is just as important as making the effort to get out, grab a bite somewhere, catch a film, or a live gig. I love going out and tapping into the pulse of this city.

Life in my 30's ....was a wonderful pathway to my 40's. I’m enjoying my 40's – it’s as if so much falls away and you realise what’s important and what’s not. I’ve found my voice in my 40's.

I feel so blessed to be here, I am enjoying getting older. I believe it’s an absolute privilege.

I keep perspective on life when... I shoot stories that are challenging - the heart stuff, jobs that require me to tap into compassion and gratitude. I appreciate them so much.

I can only speak from my perspective.

So, I have no hard and fast advice.

But .....

What I have found, is that there are days as a Mum that I question myself, and if I handled a situation well enough. Did I act in a manner that was appropriate? Or did I react? Some days I ache from the challenges of being there for my boys, and trying to pump out a deadline for a job. And then of course there are those wicked days when everything falls into place.

All of it is good.

I ask the boys frequently: "What are you grateful for?" A simple, powerful question that always puts a really nice vibe out. I ask myself every day.

I am honest with my boys, I don’t insult their intelligence by veiling things. I want them to see the struggle that comes with living this life as we define it.

Creating a reality that doesn’t look like the one we are conditioned to believe is the right way, because living my life's purpose is the best way I can teach my children well. I feed my soul by using all the creative energy I possess.

There’s no question that this is how I am able to be the best person I can be (I speak for John here as well). Mind you, the best I can be isn’t a constant feature! I have splendid freak outs and spectacular failures with alarming regularity.

Any advice on working in the creative industry.....

If you have an idea or pull towards creating something, I say START. Start it. Go do a course, research it, immerse yourself in it. Be passionate about it.  No excuses. If you are following your heart there’s a way ... always.

Plus life is too damn short to waste, and too long to do something day in, day out that crushes your spirit!

Lastly, I surround myself with friends. The crazy diamonds that allow me to be, that inspire, challenge, and support. I’m talking the gems that can be spontaneous and delight in hilarity.

If success and wealth were measured by the people in our lives, I’d have to say I would be the richest !!! Sharing time with people whom I love, is, in essence, what recharges me, and weaves a wonderful story of my own...."





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