Noema – Michael Swann

I was born in Birmingham, UK, and grew up there until moving away to Falmouth for university at age nineteen. After university, I moved to London where I worked as a picture editor and then a graphic designer for about six years, before moving to Bristol in 2018 to study on the Master’s course at the University of the West of England. I completed the degree this summer and am currently still based in Bristol where I have a “day job” as a jewellery photographer.

For me, photography is both work and a hobby; when I left university the first time, I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a freelance photographer and I was more interested in working with other people’s images – in picture editing, education etc.

For a while I worked for a fashion magazine before switching to TV and media, working for the BBC and Sky. Both of these environments greatly inspired my work, especially when it comes to crafting atmosphere or building a conceptual narrative. All the while I was photographing, but not really for anything in particular and this was why I decided to do the Master’s. I felt the need to rebalance my relationship with photography and pursue a creative project of my own that I could invest time and energy in.

I’m very lucky in the sense that my jobs have always involved working with imagery, keeping it at the forefront of my mind in one way or another and constantly reminding me of why I love the medium. 

What’s your story?

When I look back, the first time I think I started using photography in an artistic way was during art classes at school, and it was the work of Francesca Woodman in particular that made me view photography as an art form rather than a means of documentation.

It was during my time doing a foundation course that I began to really explore the breadth of photographic potential and find my place within that. During my time on that course I also became obsessed with the visual style and storytelling methods of David Lynch, an obsession that set the tone for the rest of my photographic education. After that I studied on the BA course at Falmouth, which is a very creative course, and pushes the research and concept side to making a body of work.

In my work I try to approach topics that don’t present me with an immediately obvious visual path to follow; part of the enjoyment comes from researching something and letting image ideas come up within the reading or thinking.

I’m particularly interested in themes around philosophy and religion because they’re open to interpretation – there will always be more questions than answers. Photography is at its most engaging when it refuses to give all the answers.

Let’s talk about your project ‘Noema’.

‘Noema’ follows my search for signs of the presence of the Virgin Mary in two locations where she has reportedly been seen, Garabandal, Spain, and Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

It combines images made at these two apparition sites with appropriated images taken from video footage of the visionaries while they are in a state of ecstasy – in other words, when they are in the company of the Virgin.

In 1961, four young girls in Garabandal began having simultaneous, frequent visions of the Virgin which lasted for around four years. During the visitations, the visionaries were completely unconscious of their surroundings and would lose all sensory connections to the real world – this was tested by witnesses who would burn them with cigarettes, pinch them or flash bright lights in their eyes to see if they reacted.

Similarly, in 1981, six children in Medjugorje also began to have daily apparitions of the Virgin Mary with similar ecstatic qualities. These visions latest for many years, and some of the visionaries still experience them regularly today. 

With this project I wanted to explore the idea of a religious experience from a phenomenological perspective, focusing on the landscapes of these apparition sites and the auras they possess as a result of the events that occurred there. 

Were there any moments or experiences that stood out to you?

I think the biggest moment of realisation for me during this project was when I realised exactly what it was I was trying to achieve with the project.

This came shortly after my first trip to Garabandal, where I’d made about ten rolls of film in a very straightforward documentary style. The images were nice, but nothing more than that. They certainly didn’t delve deeply into anything mystical.

I was pretty dejected for a while after that, but a few weeks later I decided to go back through the negatives and just experiment a bit, by cropping in super tightly on details, or messing around with the colours – the film I used, Kodak Portra, makes everything look romantic, which isn’t a look I was aiming for particularly. Anything that might pull new ideas out of the images I’d made and help me see new perspectives.

This was where I first started working with the red images, and seeing the image of the hand outstretched in this way made everything fall into place. I felt as though I was getting closer to visualising something mystical, so when I visited Medjugorje and then eventually went back to Garabandal, I had a really clear idea of what the project needed to be and how to make it happen.

Recommend us something.

This year I began reading László Krasznahorkai, an author I’d been meaning to read for a while but had always been slightly fearful of – open any one of his books and you’ll immediately see why!

His writing style is truly unique, and I’d recommend his novels ‘Melancholy of Resistance’ and ‘War & War’, both of which I read during lockdown and greatly inspired me, so much so I created a short series back in March while reading ‘Melancholy of Resistance’, responding to the beginning of Italy’s lockdown and the idea of everyday fear of others, isolation and resistance.

Music is probably my biggest love outside of photography, and my favourite release so far this year is Moses Sumney’s ‘græ’. Moses has an incredible voice and a really interesting style when it comes to songwriting, I love the flow of the album as it moves from stunningly sweet quiet moments to intense and energetic passages. 

Over lockdown I had loads of time to catch up on film releases too. One film I’d really recommend is ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’, which is about a seventeen year old girl seeking an abortion in the US. It’s heartbreaking, uncomfortable and incredibly powerful. I think it should be essential viewing for everyone, but especially young boys. Plus, the acting and the script are both flawless.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you .

When I was fifteen, I came across the album ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and it has influenced me exponentially ever since.

I always seem to unconsciously end up making work that could easily be soundtracked by that album, and perhaps that’s partly due to the fact that the album itself spans everything from euphoric, joyful sections to haunting, desolate drones.

Music plays a big part in the way I photograph projects; during the production of a body of work I make a playlist of tracks that I feel would effectively represent the atmosphere I’m trying to create with the work. This way, if I ever feel a loss of inspiration while shooting or editing, I can put on my headphones and the music helps to put me back on track. I’m sure that at least one track from ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists…’ will always be on those playlists.

michaelswann.co.uk / instagram.com/mike_rt_swann