Skip to main content

Words Luke Das

Photography Michael Swann


Michael is a Bristol based photographic artist. His ethereal series Noema is a visual exploration of apparition sites across Europe. The photographs embody the aura of each location, which believers consider to be the manifestation of the Virgin Mary.

Luke interviewed him on the project, the importance of the locations, his visual approach, and future plans for the body of work.

Can you explain the origin of your piece Noema and your initial steps in making the work?

The thought process behind Noema really started while I was studying Photography at Falmouth University. At the time I was particularly interested in Abstract Expressionism, and I was trying to consider in what way photography could achieve the same thing as artists like Rothko. He describes the process of making and viewing his paintings as a ‘religious experience’ and I was fascinated by this idea of using art as a vehicle for a spiritual experience. When I started my masters at the University of the West of England, I felt like I needed to go back to that line of thought. The piece is really an attempt at representing something metaphysical, through a medium that is rooted in the physical world.

Noema was photographed in two locations where groups of children had reoccurring apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Garabandal (Spain) and Medjugorje (Bosnia and Herzegovina). The project follows my search for signs of the Virgin’s presence at these sites and tries to capture something of the aura and mysticism that is present within the landscapes.

Why was it important to visit these specific places?

There were a number of reasons why I was drawn to Garabandal and Medjugorje. Firstly, the stories overlap; in both cases the visionaries were multiple and around the same age, they received visitations regularly, witnesses reported similar states of ecstasy, and they received messages and warnings from the Virgin. Also, both apparitions began in mid-late 20th century, so the context of prior conflict (in particular the Spanish Civil War and Second World War, and later the Bosnian War), and the perceived threat of communism to Catholicism, at the time, provided interesting comparisons between the sites.

I also chose these two locations because the cases are contemporary, most of the visionaries from the two sites I chose to focus on are still alive. In Garabandal, I met and spoke with people who were witnesses to the visions, people who lived in the village at the time, or who travelled there in the 1960s to see the apparitions take place for themselves. And in Medjugorje, you can still go and see the apparitions happen at certain points in the year. Through this work I was keen to highlight that apparitions like these still happen today, they aren’t just something that we hear about from hundreds of years ago, and they’re not the only ones that have occurred in the last fifty years either.

In Spain the majority identify as Catholic today, although much like a lot of Europe, there is a growing separation between those that practise the religion and those that don’t, but up until the late 1970s, Catholicism was Spain’s official religion. In rural communities like Garabandal religion is much more important, and the traditions are upheld to the extent that the church in Garabandal even gives mass in Latin. In Bosnia, the major religion is Islam, but the area around Medjugorje and Mostar is more Catholic than most other parts of the country. The relationship between religious and ethnic groups in Bosnia is, of course, one that has a turbulent past. 

From Noema ©Michael Swann
From Noema ©Michael Swann

Given the religious nature of the subject matter, did you take any precautions to ensure that you represented the theme respectfully?

The aim behind Noema isn’t to give any concrete answers, analyses or opinions on the apparitions, instead I wanted to create a body of work that was equally as valid and interesting regardless of your stance on the subject or your existing belief system. For this reason, I went about making the work avoiding the desire to formulate my own assumptions or judgements about the apparition stories; the work is purely about the spaces themselves, the auras they possess and what I found within them.

Spending time in both places, I made sure to respect them for the places of worship they are, and as a result I met some great people, particularly in Garabandal where the closeness of the community and the size of the village makes the experience of staying there very social in a way. I wouldn’t consider myself a socially forthright person by any means, but I do think it’s important to communicate with people in such circumstances, to listen to their points of view and really understand what the significance of these sites are for the people who travel there.

I also think authenticity is important when approaching a subject surrounding faith. I have a history with Catholicism that has shaped who I am today and an interest in it that is genuine. I find it enigmatic and as such I am always asking questions and seeking answers, albeit answers that I know will never come. That mystery is what I wanted to communicate in this work, and really, that mystery is representative of my own relationship to the apparition stories and to Catholicism as a whole. 

The photographs have an eerie appearance and I had a physical reaction to them – I felt a prickle down my skin. Have others responded to them in a similar way?

I’m glad the work provokes a physical reaction. The atmosphere was something I really wanted to get right, and when it comes to exhibiting the work, I have given a lot of thought to this aspect of the piece. There is a heavy focus on individual experience and phenomenology in the thinking behind the work, and I hope that I can provoke that physical response in the exhibition format.

From Noema ©Michael Swann

Your photographic education is extensive. Have you noted a development in your approach from graduate to postgraduate practice?

I graduated from my BA (Hons) at Falmouth in 2012, so there were eight years between that and starting at the University of the West of England for my MA, and in that time there was definitely a big development in my style and approach. I was working with pictures constantly (as a Picture Editor and Designer in Television Media, and as a writer and styling assistant at a menswear fashion magazine), so while I wasn’t researching and developing extensive bodies of work, my focus on photography was consistent. These industries certainly advanced my appreciation of the medium, and while I wouldn’t say that this influence was entirely obvious within Noema, working in Television probably had a strong influence with regards to atmosphere and developing the right visual style for the subject matter. Plus, I was still shooting constantly (albeit less with intent), developing my aesthetic and my technical abilities, which I somewhat threw out of the window while making this work!

The West Country has a remarkable tradition of photography. Do you find inspiration from the immediate scene around you?

Yes, especially from photographers who work with landscape and nature in a way that encompasses the mysticism and mythology of the area, like Susan Derges, Garry Fabian Miller and Jem Southam. I guess I hadn’t realised the significance of all of my photographic higher education being based in the South West until now (first Cornwall, then Bristol), but I’ve always been fascinated by the landscape here, and the spirituality of places like Dartmoor and Tintagel. 

The South West is a really great place to be based as a contemporary photographer, not only is there a rich history of amazing work here, but the future is bright too with so many great university courses and opportunities around. Immersion in a community is important for me in the development of new work, as I’m sure it is for most people, because I feed off the inspiration and interaction with other artists; seeing the work of those around me come to fruition is motivating, as is just being able to talk through ideas or have a conversation with people who share the same passions.

From Noema ©Michael Swann
From Noema ©Michael Swann

What is next for your photography and are there any personal aspirations that you would like to fulfil?

Aside from working on the exhibition format for Noema, I also have a dummy of the work I began work on prior to the lockdowns earlier this year, so those are the next steps for this project at least. Getting the work published would definitely be an aspiration, and I think the series lends itself quite nicely to the format.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve started reading and developing ideas for a new project that I hope will evolve into my next substantial body of work. There are certain themes and ideas from Noema that I feel I want to expand on or use as a springboard for what I do next, but it’s at a very early stage at the moment. I think it’s safe to say my work will always centre on themes of mysticism, phenomenology and religion to some extent though.

Thank you for answering my questions and I wish you well with your new projects!

Luke Das

Luke is a educator, writer and photographer with an interest in traditional image making techniques. His works pay homage to photography from the past and present.

Michael Swann

Michael is a photographic artist based in Bristol. His work explores aspects of religious belief, mysticism and phenomenology and aims to understand how photography can be used to communicate such themes. Michael has recently been selected as one of BJP’s Ones to Watch for 2020 and for the Futures Photography talent platform.

Loupe Issue 11

In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores belief through worship, mourning, loss of faith, superstitions and the possibility of other worlds.

Only £6


Keep up with the conversation

Subscribe to your newsletter to keep up to date with all things Loupe