Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a group of emerging image-makers, chosen from hundreds of nominations by international experts. Throughout September, BJP-online is sharing their profiles, originally published in issue #7898 of the magazine. Michael Swann is one of five Ones to Watch selected by British Journal of Photography to exhibit as part of Futures festival, which takes place throughout October.
“Photography for me is all about utilising the real world, re-contextualising and appropriating it,” says 30-year-old Michael Swann. “It’s a way of considering things I’ve learned or outputting my thought process into imagery, and it’s the perfect medium for exploring topics like philosophy and faith because it forces you to ground them in the world of perception.” Growing up in Birmingham, Swann attended a Roman Catholic primary school, and with a devout Irish Catholic grandmother at the head of the family, the presence of religion in his early years was strong. “I lost my faith when I was about 11, but never lost the fascination with the idea of religion, and in particular the role of the Virgin Mary and the female figures in the Bible,” he recalls. “Catholicism is an incredibly visual religion, and I think this defined a lot of my initial relationships with art and creativity.”
The work he is making as part of his MA in photography at the University of West England in Bristol is an extension of that long-standing connection to theology. His project, titled Noema, traces two instances of contemporary, collective and reoccurring apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the first in Garabandal (Spain, 1961-1965) and the second in Medjugorje (Bosnia & Herzegovina, 1981-Present). In both cases, groups of children had simultaneous visitations from the Virgin on an almost daily basis, which involved conversations, messages, miracles and warnings. He shot the project across two years, visiting Garabandal twice, and Medjugorje later for one extended trip.
Noema is an attempt at using photography to express the ineffable, or the phenomenological – “the experience of experience,” he explains, “what it means or feels like to see” – and mixes different types of images together, including black-and-white photographs and red scale images depicting parts of his explored landscapes, details of the stone structures of churches and statues, and video stills. “I shoot in both black and white and colour while on location, and I treat that fairly intuitively. When I began working on this project I knew that there had to be a human presence, but taking straight portraits of the visionaries, witnesses or believers seemed a bit fruitless. Instead, I wanted to include images of the seers while seeing, at the point when they were in the presence of the Virgin. I made stills from the footage and rephotographed them, closely cropped, on a screen, therefore adding a layer of pixels and digital degradation to the images and highlighting the separation between the viewer and the experience.”
Atmosphere plays an important role in his work, and so embracing grain, over and underexposure and various states of image decay are all integral techniques. That’s a sentiment that Aaron Schuman, who nominated Swann for this year’s Ones to Watch echoes. “What I love about his work,” says Schuman, “is how he is able to infuse his very intuitive, quiet and subtly observational images with a real sense of atmosphere, weight, presence, or what he describes as an ‘aura’ – something that is not necessarily visible within the frame (or otherwise) but nevertheless permeates throughout it, gradually seeping out from the photograph and enveloping you as a viewer.”
Alongside Noema, Swann has worked on a number of smaller projects too, including Melancholy & Resistance, shot in Sicily back in March of this year. He and his partner had travelled to Italy the day before the country announced it was going into lockdown due to Covid-19. They had five days there before they could get an emergency flight home and Swann used the time to make pictures. “I had taken László Krasznahorkai’s book The Melancholy of Resistance with me and I was struck by the story in comparison to what was going on. It’s about a small Hungarian town that has been feeling an ominous change looming, and the feelings of anxiety demonstrated in the opening chapter felt really appropriate to the atmosphere we were in. I photographed what caught my eye, with the book as inspiration.” A series of silent, sun-bleached moments on roadsides and in nature are the result.
When he’s not working on larger projects, Swann tries to keep himself producing work, saying that “short series’ like this tend to be like sketches for larger future projects, or chances for me to experiment with different ways of making images.” Looking at the bigger picture, he believes there are still some unanswered questions from his original thinking behind Noema worth investigating further. “Tracing lines of inquiry to do with religion, faith, philosophy will definitely be present in what I do next.”