"[If money and time were no object] I would get lost for months at a time, wandering around the world like a fly on the wall…I would tell stories with the photos I gather to anyone willing to look and listen."
Experience a slideshow of Shannon Switzer's photos from across the globe.
There are two bugs that have burrowed their way into the life of Shannon Switzer: the travel-bug and the shutterbug. A bite from either bug can shape your experiences, but to be bit by both means your life will be forever changed. You don’t follow the ordinary path, you are always looking for new stories to explore and you are driven to make your images and your adventures mean something. Throw in a passion for the environment and documenting the human relationship with it, and you start to get an idea of what drives photographer Shannon Switzer.
“I credit my parents, Alan and Vicki, with introducing me to the natural world…I blame my godparents, Michael and Jeanice, for causing the travel-bug to bite [me],” Shannon jokes. Growing up in North County, San Diego, Shannon’s parents had plenty of opportunities to foster a great love of the outdoors in their daughter--exploring the ocean by sailboat with her father and horseback riding in the nearby mountains with her mother.
Shannon’s first travel abroad experience was a high school graduation gift from her godparents to Belize. But her experience wasn’t what she had hoped for. “I was expecting to find an “untouched” tropical paradise in the middle of nowhere and was disappointed to the point of tears when we landed on one of the Cayes to find people and trash everywhere,” Shannon recalls. “That was when I realized that nature, wildlife, humans and man-made objects are often inextricable parts of the landscape for better or worse.” It was a lesson that Shannon would remember when she started pursuing photography.
The travel-bug bite allowed the shutterbug easy access when Shannon went abroad to Australia in college. “It began with a desire to document all of the incredible things I was seeing,” Shannon says. “I loved making images that allowed me to share what I was doing with friends and family back home.”
As her adventures continued, Shannon kept her camera at her side to document the journey, teaching herself along the way. She’s sailed and surfed from San Diego to Costa Rica, studied chimpanzees in Uganda and whale sharks in the Seychelles and escaped a watery grave off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula after the captain of her boat lost his bearing during a violent storm.
Though her travels have taken her through all sorts of environments, the water is where she finds home. And where Shannon goes, her camera goes too. “Eventually I realized I could use photography as a powerful tool to help protect those natural places and things I enjoy so much,” she says.
Earlier this year, Shannon was awarded a National Geographic Explorers Grant for her documentary photography project on the health of the watershed system in San Diego County, and how it affects the health of the coastal waters. “I illustrated how the health of those water systems affects our own health as citizens who use it,” Shannon explains. “This includes anyone in San Diego who drinks fresh water, cooks with it and bathes in it, as well as those who immerse themselves in saltwater as beach-goers, surfers, fishermen and divers.”
“As I worked on the grant and told more people about it, I realized most people didn't even know we had rivers in San Diego and didn't believe that the pictures I showed them were taken of the watershed system here in our own backyard,” Shannon says. “The issues affecting our rivers and ocean in San Diego are similar to those faced by coastal communities around the world. So solutions we learn to implement here can potentially help further watershed conservation around the world.”
Shannon hopes that her photography gets people thinking. Often this means photographing scenes that aren’t ‘scenic’. “When I first began photographing, I deliberately included in the frame only the parts I thought should be there,” Shannon recalls. “However, I quickly realized this wasn’t an accurate portrayal and that I wasn’t telling the whole story.”
Her advice to photographers interested in taking a more conservation/story-telling path in their work is to: “Think about what it is you are photographing and why. Ask yourself: ‘Why do I want to take this picture and what do I want to say with it?’”
You can see Shannon’s work in National Geographic Traveler Magazine, Outside Magazine and Surfer Magazine.