Today I am thrilled to bring you the first ever Spotlight interview, the beginning of a longer conversation about creativity, travel and international living. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a cuppa and listen in. I’m so excited to share this brand new series with you!
Photography for the whimsical
This week, I am joined by Jenna Swan, the talented photographer behind Swandives.co. I met Jenna some years ago through a mutual friend here in Seville. From the get-go her charisma and joy were contagious, so it is not surprising that those aspects are also present in her work. It is that same optimism and lightheartedness that shine through in her photography.
Lockdown was beginning to ease in Spain and we were cautiously entering phase one, when I met with Jenna at her apartment for a bit of a catch up. The streets were still quiet in the heat of the afternoon and masked passers-by kept at a good distance. After over two months of hardly leaving the house, everyone still seemed a little nervous.
An excited Fred greeted me at the door with a friendly bark and a bit of tail wagging. From that moment, we considered each other introduced and quickly become best buddies. The three of us went inside and Jenna and I settled on the sofa with cool refreshments, while Fred lay on the tiled floor at my feet, enjoying being pet.
Jenna is from the Midwest in the United States, specifically from Wisconsin, but she currently lives and works in Seville, Spain, right in the city centre. As we settled down for our conversation she told me how she came to live here.
Growing up I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to study Spanish. I knew I wanted to study abroad, so when I was in college, I came to Seville for three months and fell in love with the city, the culture, the slow pace of life and just the beauty everywhere. So, I decided to move back and got a job with the same program after college, and I’ve been here ever since!
I think Seville has become a big part of my story.
The fan hummed away in the corner, the perfect tune for a rather warm afternoon in May, as we speculated on the probability of the summer-like heat being here to stay or if the weather would yet give us some respite.
What do you love most about living here? I ask. I know Jenna is as big a fan of this city as I am and I’m always curious to hear the perspective of another international friend living here.
“Um, not the heat”, she says and we laugh.
I’m not sure anyone likes the heat, I say, thinking of how much all the city’s residents complain to each other in mutual sympathy and acknowledgement as soon as the temperatures begin to climb above 30ºC.
No, she agrees before continuing. Well, on a surface level I just love how beautiful everything is. You just walk down any street and it’s just like… a beautiful façade or… the cobblestone streets… or how the light hits everything, the beautiful sevillian sun… and I’m like gosh! And then kinda the culture, too. I love Seville because it’s so strongly Spanish.
Like stereotypical? I suggest, thinking I know what she means because I’d felt it too.
Yeah! When you think of Spain and all the stereotypes people bring up, that’s Seville but it’s authentic and real. It’s not a tourist trap, it’s just what it is. The stereotypes are so uniquely tied to Andalusia but especially Seville, which is something I didn’t realise, because I always thought, oh, yeah, that’s Spain. But really it’s here, it’s Sevilla.
She stops to think about it a bit more and I begin to see her photographers’ eye come into play as she recalls daily moments that catch her attention with and without the camera.
I love the old grandmas at the mercado*. I just looked at a photo of mine the other day and it’s two older Spanish women with their sombreros**, sitting in the sombra***, at a typical Spanish bar and just smoking, and they just looked dressed up to the nines. I love that about Seville, how almost “over the top” the culture is, even though they’re not putting anything on.
The other thing that I really really love is just the pace of life here and the focus on people. People over time. Meeting with people is not something that’s pencilled in for an hour, it’s: we go get coffee, which will turn into lunch, which will turn into a copa****, which will turn into dinner… and you’re not on a tight schedule with people. That took a lot of time to undo in my brain but now it’s one of my favourite things.
She laughs at herself at the realisation at how things change. I smile, too, knowing that process of undoing habits is one that is probably familiar to most expats and travellers.
It’s not until she finishes her colourful portrayal of that daily scene that we both realise how much Spanglish is intertwined in her description. By now, we’re both used to using the first words that come to mind, whichever language they happen to be in. It’s not a problem if you understand both languages, but it seems to take more and more effort for us to realise we’re doing it. I suggest we just go with it.
Our shared experiences prove living abroad can be amazing, but it has its difficulties too. What has been her biggest challenge living in Seville or in Spain?
Just starting again, making new friends. I’m really independant and always have been, but I learnt that in a different way moving here, because I moved here by myself. I did have co-workers who I already knew from studying abroad but I lived by myself and I was kind of creating a whole new life here.
Also the language. I spoke Spanish before I moved here but having to make deep friendships was really hard when I felt like I couldn’t be myself in Spanish yet.
It was really hard but it helped me feel more self-sufficient. It taught me to be comfortable by myself. Sort of ‘I can figure this stuff out’. I made the friendships and I built a life which I’m really proud of but that took time, and having that patience was hard.
Attitudes, perspectives, language and even occupations. Lots of things change when you move abroad. From working with students on a study-abroad program, to English teaching and now photography, what did that journey look like? Has she always been creative?
I recently found a poster that I made in second grade where I put I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I didn’t remember that, and when I saw it a year or two ago, I was like ‘oh, this is something that, even if it hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind, something creative has always been an interest of mine’.
I look back and I’m like ‘oh, yeah, that has been there the whole time and I didn’t always realise it’.
Childhood memories seemed to hold the first key that would unlock an excitement for immortalising moments.
I would do photo shoots with my friends growing up. There wasn’t always loads to do in central Wisconsin. It was a little town, so we spent lots of time just taking photos, and doing photo shoots and videos and just toying around with different creative endeavours.
Thinking of stereotypical teenage years, I ask if they emulated fashion shoots.
I wouldn’t call it fashion exactly, but that was the idea. Just messing around and being creative; driving around town, trying different lighting, different settings…
As I talk to Jenna about her story and what it was that had brought her to where she is today, we uncovered several elements linking photography to different moments in her life, a narrative that unknowingly carried through over time.
One of my favourite things that I have is like an instant film camera but the pictures were literally 2x2cm. It’s the smallest thing! I found one of those recently. So that goes back to when I was probably ten.
Photography and artistic things have always been there, even when I tried other stuff.
As with many creatives, there came a time when photography moved beyond just a hobby or something to do in her spare time.
I remember finding a lot of joy in camera photography, with my family, my nephews. I think that is when I transitioned to something that’s not just me and my friends playing around in the backyard. I remember feeling ‘this is something people might want to see and look at’. Something that for me had more of an impact, a longer lasting value. I realised I do love photography and I could really do something with this.
So looking back, I feel like when I decided that I wanted to become a photographer full time it caught a lot of people off guard. Especially people that I know here [in Sevilla] because I never really talked about it. It was never like ‘oh, yeah, she really loves photography’, because I didn’t always. I didn’t take photos for a while, but looking back I can just see that thread all through my life.
Moving on from her photography journey to journeys of a more literal kind, we explore the subject of travel, one that has inspired us both creatively.
I know you love to travel, I say. Do you have a favourite place you’ve visited? Her answer is full of excitement and no hesitation.
Oooh. Two places. I love London. The first time I was there for 9 days. I was by myself so I thought that I might go crazy but I could have stayed there forever, I just loved it! Because there’s just so much to do, and also, I think, because everything was in English. So I could go to the movies, go to a show, or to a tiny museum that doesn’t have a lot of stuff but I could understand it all. Then the culture references, and a big art scene. That was cool for me, to see other artists in action.
And another place that I loved so much that I went back just for a weekend (because flights were like 20€) was Copenhagen. Just so beautiful. I love the northern culture, and hygge.
We stop briefly to debate the pronunciation of hygge. I had little to add because I’ve only ever seen it in writing.
I think it’s pronounced like that, she says and I take her word for it. After the short detour we get back to talking about Copenhagen and what Jenna loves most about the city.
Just the feel of the city, for lack of a better word. Everyone is biking everywhere. It’s so different from Seville, in the style of the streets, but at the same time there were parts that reminded me of home because there are certain parts of Wisconsin that are very German and Scandinavian.
I love taking photos of new places, just because it’s the kind of photography that sparks something in me.
Would you say travel influences your photography?
It does. I just love the idea that when you’re somewhere new it feels like a blank slate. Because I’ve never seen this scenery before, so taking it all in for the first time feels like I can do something new and different with it. Especially when it’s something that is so different from what I’m used to.
I mean, even travelling in Spain you can see so much, but going somewhere where the landscape is completely different, there is something kind of invigorating for me in that. It’s a new story that I can tell.
Being a bit of a story collector myself, I can fully identify with the excitement and inspiration that come from visiting somewhere new and the desire to tell the stories you encounter on your travels.
Even without the camera, I think travelling allows you to see things through a different lense. Even if it’s just while you’re there, you can get a different perspective on things. I think just that practice of stepping outside of myself a bit inspires. That experience in itself makes me want to create something new.
Now that we’re getting into the territory of creativity, I want to find out more about her creative process. Is there a particular place where she feels more creative?
I don’t think there is a specific place for me that is like my ‘creative place’ but going out for a bike ride or a run, even within the city, that is something that clears my mind and makes me want to be creative, it makes space for ideas.
Also, something that I haven’t seen before, like a show, or a movie. If I’ve gone on a trip to somewhere new, especially, or maybe even a new alleyway in town, a different art gallery… I think that gets me inspired. Appreciating that beauty, that story, or that whatever it is, makes me excited to put something else out there, to make something beautiful myself or to tell a story myself.
I don’t think it’s as much of a place as it is experiences. Activities that get me into a more creative headspace.
What do you do on a normal day that contributes to your creative work?
A thing that I’ve been practising is choosing to be quiet. She giggles at this thought as it’s clearly something that can prove to be a challenge. So not choosing to have any music or podcasts or audiobooks, or TV shows or anything going on in the background.
That’s what I think is hard, in the current way our world operates, there is just so much that we can listen to and watch and read and scroll and take in. That is hard for me, I have to set those boundaries because I err on the side of always listening to something. So stepping away from the noise, the input and the opinions and, even at a certain point the art or the photos or the stories. You need space for the mind to wander.
Then another thing I am trying to practise is just doing something every day, too. Even if it’s just ten minutes of doodling or editing photos, or taking my camera with me on a walk.
Once I’ve started it makes me want to be more creative.
So, ‘Photography for the whimsical’. I love that, by the way. Want to talk a little about how it came about?
It was a little spontaneous, actually. I was like ‘ooh, I like that’.
She laughs. I guess sometimes things are just that simple. Surely there was a little more within the concept, though, I prompt.
I think of whimsy and that word is part of my personality. I’m just a positive and kind of a whimsical person. I get excited about small things, insignificant things, and I like to live with a sense of whimsy. It reminds me of tenderness, too. Not being hardened to things, the big and the small. That’s what I want my photos to represent, a sense of whimsy in people. I wanted to inspire that.
It’s part of me. To be able to share my photos, I’m sharing a part of myself. Even if it’s a photo of a door, I’m sharing that piece of who I am.
Fred seems to agree as he barks a moment, the one time he’s contributed anything to the conversation. He’s been on his best behaviour for the whole chat, something Jenna says is unusual with new people, and I feel flatterred by the fact we seem to be getting on quite well.
That’s what my photography teaches, just whimsy and optimism and a little bit of beauty in the mundane.
Phone or camera? I ask and the answer doesn’t surprise me.
Both. I take photos on my phone every day, just because it’s handy, it’s there. That’s something that I try to do when I don’t take my DSLR out. It’s so heavy, but that’s another thing I was thinking. I need to just put it in my bag and take it with me, because even if I just take two photos while I’m out, one of them might be the one that gets me really excited about what I saw.
Ok, so the last thing I wanted to talk about was community. It is one of the pillars of creativity I’ve touched on in previous posts and one that I believe can make a real difference when it comes to encouraging us to create. What does community look like for you?
Yeah, I think personally it’s my family. It’s the friendships, especially here in Seville although outside of Seville too. I think it’s very much in the day to day people. I’m very much a face to face person and so, I obviously have community online as well, but my community is a lot of my friends and my family.
We pause briefly to compare which tools we use online but then we touch on a deeper subject that relates back to the concept of community.
I’ve been getting better at using Instagram. That’s been something fun to remind myself of about Instagram. Yes it’s a tool, it helps with sharing my photos, but at its core it should also be community and that’s what I want to use it as.
Hopefully in some ways it can be a deeper community with people but even if it’s a less profound type of community, it’s a point of connection with people and I think there is a lot of value in connection.
Whether it’s with your friends with whom you share deep and personal things or its connecting on the thing your dog is doing or what you’re missing during quarantine. I feel like, when human contact isn’t available, human connection is and I’ve come to appreciate that and feel more and more comfortable with it. I think especially being in lockdown here, it’s all you’ve got.
When human contact isn’t available, human connection is.
So, who or what would you say has helped you persevere and not quit with your photography?
My friends! My best friend, she’s my cheerleader, and checks in on me and knows just the right way to call me out. Encourage me and call me out at the same time. I get that from other friends, too. That will always be encouraging when they say like ‘ You said you were going to do that. Are you going to do that?’
Yeah, accountability. That is so important.
Right. And then honestly all my education has been really helpful for me. Especially when I was really really just starting out in all of this (I’m still starting out really) but they’re making me feel like I am a photographer and I can do this.
I don’t know many photographers here in Seville, I don’t know that many people who are working for themselves or doing creative things, so I don’t feel like I have that community here. Stepping in to some of those spaces online, I feel like this is within my reach and they make me feel like I am part of the community there, you know? So I think that was really helpful, too.
So, just to finish, one last question. What’s your next step or your next goal?
My print shop! I’m going to open a print shop.
Wonderful. Thanks Jenna for meeting with me. It has been great getting to know your story and your photography a bit better.
If you would like to learn more about swandives.co and Jenna’s travel photography, you can follow her on Instagram @swandives.co
And if you enjoyed today’s interview, feel free to share and comment. Stay tuned next month for more exciting content like this.
*mercado: local indoor market with stalls of fresh fruit and veg, fish, meat, and also some tapas stalls.
***sombra: shade. The ladies were sat in the shade.
****copa: to go for a copa is to have a drink. Like a cocktail or similar.
All photos in this post belong to swandives.co and have been used with permission.