Step Studios director Courtney Sofiah Yates was driven by her emotions from an early age; a sensitive child who found photography and filmmaking in the 7th grade in her search for hobbies to distract from the negative experiences she had with her peers at school. As well as taking photos, writing poetry and reading, she was heavily committed to one of her first deep loves, playing tennis, for a long time.
Raised by a Black American father and a Malaysian mother, Courtney explains that defining the label-less “internal culture” of her family and upbringing is not a straightforward task. She adds, “My cultural background is also made up of the culture I live in today amongst my peers. I cannot separate my ‘outlook’ from the culture in which I live.” Regardless of her background’s slight ambiguity, it's these aspects of life with family and friends that have helped mould the young director into the “curious, ambitious, introspective and excitable” introverted extrovert she sees herself as today.
Courtney graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin, USA with a B.S. degree in psychology - an experience she found challenging but worth it for the loving and formative relationships she created. “My favourite experiences in that period of my life were falling in love, finding friends who made me feel good, and living in Copenhagen.” Soon after, she would find a job as a social media manager and then junior creative at a boutique agency in New York, deliberately pushing her career further towards opportunities for making this her full-time career. “Even when the path seemed really unclear or I felt lost, I tried to put myself in a position to learn. I learned a lot about writing, research and a bit about directing at my agency job – it was like a creative boot camp. I also still learn so much from my community of fellow artists and the resources we share with each other.”
From these early experiences of agency life in the Big Apple, Courtney learned many lessons that have stuck with her, but none more so than this: “The most important lesson I learned was to speak about myself and my goals with assuredness. No one believes you until you do.”
Putting her self-confidence to the test, her first professional project was shooting a look book and other photography for the jewellery brand, Tuza. “I have fond memories of that, working with my friends and feeling really confident. That time has such a specific quality in my mind that I’ll never forget. The first feelings of being a capable artist. I remember being on the bus looking at the retouched images and feeling really excited about the possibilities to come.”
The young creative says, “Many projects will shift your career.” And therefore, narrowing them down to a singular pivotal moment in her fledgling career proves quite difficult. “Every project I put my heart into helps build a more thorough picture of who I am as an artist,” she continues. “Whether it’s my new book, personal work about my family, or new branded films. But, if I had to pick one of the most influential ones, directing and photographing Naomi Osaka for Nike and seeing the photos on billboards in Tokyo felt like an obvious definitive point for me.”
Brought together by a mutual friend, cinematographer Charlie Owens, Courtney met Stept’s founder Nick Martini in February 2021 and the Nike: Empower campaign was quickly lined up within a week. Speaking of her hopes for the future work she will do with the LA-based creative and production company, she says, “I plan to tell some really emotional stories all around the world with Stept. I want to do that through unbranded narrative and documentary work but also through the lens of brands. I love being able to work with new tools and new teams through the Stept network. It’s a really wonderful support system.”
On her projects, one of the things that provides her with the most satisfaction is the ability to give people an image of themselves and “navigate” their emotions while photographing or directing them. “It can be a real opportunity for connection and pain alleviation,” she says. And whilst she does try to not become obsessed with what her contemporaries are doing, Courtney stays grounded and informed through researching the industry’s history, as well as spending time finding inspirations online. However, the flip side of this dedication to her craft is that she can struggle to find time for activities outside of her art and work.
Discussing what elements of the industry motivate and frustrate the director, she says, “I get riled up about colour.” She elaborates, explaining how she has many conversations within the vocation about the “sharing of resources” in the industry, as well as the “sustainability of our [Black and brown artists] presence in it.” She adds, “As black and brown artists in a commercial industry, we create sustainable support systems for ourselves. We are in this for the long haul.” To generate her own support system that will hopefully provide longevity and help for other BIPOC creatives, Courtney has curated an “explicit circle of photographers and directors with specific goals” - a group of friends that she admires for their resilience, sensitivity and innovation in their commitment to creativity and the craft.
To decompress outside of work, now living in Brooklyn, Courtney continues her childhood passions of reading and writing - as well as a sprinkling of meditation and weightlifting too. When she isn’t enjoying those hobbies or photographic printing, singing or cooking, she can be found watching films. “My favourite form of media is movies. Some of my favourite films are Finding Krista, Yi-Yi, and Love Streams, and my favourite directors are Edward Yang, Camille Billops, and Claire Denis.”
Recently, she also published a photography book, titled ‘Peering Into The White Room’. Describing this venture, she says, “It's a short photographic story that details, with strobe-like quality, the stages of grieving a dead lover. On its surface, a singular fashion editorial, Peering Into The White Room’s true nature is as a theatrical set of tableaus of charged, human loss, love, and desire. It is an outstretched hand to those who have experienced the loss of a past or current romantic partner and the unique qualities of such grievances.”
This book’s themes come as no surprise from a creative that is deeply invested in the emotional elements and impact of her work, both as a director and a photographer. It’s these visceral emotions of passion, heartbreak, loss and desire that fuel her creativity - and drive her to explore the reasons behind such feelings in her work.
“I am driven by my curiosity about why we feel the way we do. I am also motivated by love.”