AFDA | Interview | Director of Photography

Today is a special day for Stella Waithira Mbiyu. It’s her birthday, and we celebrate her 24th year on this planet. Stella was born and raised in the rural town of Ng’araria, which is located in Murang’a County, Kenya. Her major outcome for this year is cinematography and her minor is data & colour grading.


As the middle child in a family of six, Stella attended both primary and high school in Ng’araria. This often meant that one sibling would be in the same school as another, creating many cherished memories for Stella. ‘When we weren’t at school, we spent our time helping our parents at their workplaces, which instilled a strong sense of family and responsibility in us,’ Stella tells me.

When I ask her what book had the most significant impact on her life, she says it’s The Bible. ‘Growing up in a Christian home and attending Christian schools, the teachings of The Bible have always been a foundational part of my life.’ Stella also believes that The Bible provides guidance and wisdom for every season of her life, making it an ever-relevant and deeply influential text for her. ‘What continues to amaze me is that every time I read it, I often gain new insights and understandings, even from passages I’ve read before. Isn’t that incredible?’ Yes, incredible, indeed.

I ask Stella what she thinks makes herself – as well as others – unique. ‘I believe what makes people unique are their values and character. What truly sets me apart is my unwavering commitment to these principles, even when they are challenged. No matter the obstacles I face, I always find a way to reconnect with my core values and maintain my integrity. This steadfastness defines my uniqueness and guides me through life’s challenges.’


Stella chose to study at AFDA after she searched online for a top-tier art school in South Africa. The more she researched AFDA, the more this university stood out for her, and the practice-led filmmaking classes enticed her. ‘I watched numerous student films on their website and was amazed at the high quality – I could hardly believe they were made by students.’ Stella has ‘a deep love for storytelling through visuals.’ AFDA perfectly aligned with this desire to hone her craft.

What she likes the most about AFDA is the accessibility and dedication of its lecturers. ‘The lecturers go above and beyond to ensure each student has the opportunity for one-on-one conversations and follow-ups, whether the topics are academic or personal.’

Additionally, Stella also really appreciates the extensive range of equipment she’s been exposed to. Since joining, she’s learned to operate various high-end cinema tools, including the Arri Alexa Mini, Arri Alexa Classic, Canon C70, Tilta Nuclear M monitor, Teradek, and Da Vinci Resolve, among others. ‘This hands-on experience with professional equipment sets AFDA apart and solidifies its reputation as an outstanding film school,’ Stella adds.


What dream job would Stella like to have one day? ‘In the near future, my dream is to work on a feature film that explores themes of identity and belonging within the context of migration and diaspora. I hope to use my work as a platform to inspire and empower others, especially young women, to pursue their dreams and express their creativity.’

Stella cultivates her own creativity through journaling. ‘It provides me with a sense of peace and clarity in every season of my life.’ Also, before she starts shooting any film, she immerses myself in studying the specific genre and its conventions. ‘I also watch numerous films within that genre to gain deeper insights and inspiration. This combination helps me nurture and enhance my creative abilities.’

Observing people through the lens of her camera has taught her to appreciate the nuances of human expression and emotion. She learned that every individual has a unique story to tell; capturing their authentic moments can reveal profound insights into their character and experiences. It has also shown her the power of perspective; how shifting the angle or focus can completely change the narrative. ‘This has deepened my understanding of empathy and the importance of seeing the world from different viewpoints,’ Stella tells me.


Stella’s research question for her Honours thesis this year is as follows:

How do subtle variation in colour temperature influence audiences perception of character emotions in mainstream Hollywood cinema crime thriller narrative: A cinematographer and colourist perspective’

Why exactly did she choose this question? ‘Just like narrative, mise en scène, cinematography, sound, and music, lighting plays a crucial role in storytelling within film.’

She explains further: ‘Subtle variations in color temperature can profoundly influence an audience’s perception of a character’s emotions and the overall mood of a scene. Lighting is not merely a technical aspect of filmmaking; it’s a powerful tool that, when used effectively, can drive the narrative forward and add depth to the storytelling.’

This thesis also aims to explore ‘the nuanced ways in which color temperature contributes to the emotional resonance of mainstream Hollywood cinema from the perspectives of cinematographers and colorists.’


Studying in South Africa has been a wonderful experience for Stella. ‘I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge academically, and I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about the diverse cultures, traditional beliefs, and languages of South Africa.’ She is also honest when she shares what she misses the most about home: being around her parents and siblings. ‘I also deeply miss the traditional meals prepared by my mom,’ she adds.

When was the last time Stella truly felt lost, and how did she find her way back again? ‘Moving to another country is like stepping into the unknown, much like jumping without seeing where you’ll land—it’s a significant risk.’ When Stella moved to South Africa in 2019, she didn’t know what to expect. Initially, she planned to pursue nursing, but deep down, she realized it wasn’t her true passion.

The process of converting her academic documents to meet South African standards also took much longer than expected, resulting in a gap year for Stella. ‘That gap year turned out to be a pivotal moment for me. I saw it as a new beginning, and with the unwavering support of my family, I decided to pursue what I truly wanted. I believe I am destined for greatness, driven by my desire to impact both South African and Kenyan youth. This purpose, along with honouring my family’s sacrifices, keeps me motivated and focused on my goals,’ Stella shares with me.


After we finish our interview, Stella has a special request to ask of me. ‘Can you wait and post this article on my birthday? It would be a beautiful gift to my younger self and all the young women and men out there.’

She also sends me a heartfelt message afterward:

Thank you so much for this process. It has been truly beautiful to answer these questions. Reflecting on my life so far has been a profound experience, and I got a little emotional thinking about all the moments of gratitude I’ve had while answering these questions. Thank you for helping me tell my story, Vicki. The world is lucky to have you.’

Indeed, Stella is destined for greatness and greater things. She is someone who has extraordinary talent and potential, and she embraces her gifts. She is aware of the unique plan set before her, and she aligns her choices and decisions according to the purpose of her life. Stella has perseverance, faith, and a willingness to embrace life fully. She is already making a difference at AFDA, and I believe that she will leave a lasting legacy in this world.


An artist that Stella admires deeply is Lupita Nyong’o, an actress who also hails from Kenya. She won the Academy Award in 2014 for Best Supporting Actress in the film ‘12 Years A Slave’.

I hope people also perceive me as a young woman on a mission to inspire and impact as many young women and men as possible, embodying the belief that dreams are valid, just like what Lupita Nyong’o said in her Oscars speech,’ Stella says. ‘I see the people around me as a vital support system, helping to guide and uplift me throughout my journey in life.’

Watch Lupita’s speech while receiving her Oscar:

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