Sometimes the rush of a life lived on the fringes offers an undeniable siren call. The confines of a daily grind feel like a forfeiture of precious time — so bold adventurers decide to break free, reach out into the unknown, and embrace the path less traveled. Danya Schwertfeger heard this siren’s song and barreled towards it. He’s a Mad One.
Schwertfeger was born in Switzerland, and lived in four different countries before he hit his teenage years. A walk on the beach with his father pushed him toward a career in photography and videography, but at first he was reluctant to embrace the globe-trotting life. He tried to live with the nine to five, but the call of adventure was just too loud to ignore.
Now, Schwertfeger whiles away his days as a surf photographer while living out of his van in Portugal. His devotion to his art and vagabond lifestyle has enriched his world immensely. We sat down with Schwertfeger for a chat about what it’s like to become a professional photographer in the age of Instagram and the joys of the van life.
First of all, surf photographer is an awesome job title. How did you land that?
When I was about 11, my dad and I were just taking a walk down to the beach at the Buddhist center where I was living. He handed me his camera and he was like, “You know, Danya, there are people who are actually making money by just pressing this one button.” In that moment in time I was like, “Okay, you’ve got my attention now. You press one button, you make money? How does that work?” That’s sort of how it started.
Around the same time, my mom ended up buying me my first digital camera when we went to Singapore. I started playing around with that. I didn’t think it was going to turn into a job because so few people manage to make it happen and earn their wages with that.
It sounds like you’ve been traveling your whole life.
I guess I moved around quite a bit. I was born in Switzerland. By the time I was two I’d already lived in the States and Switzerland and was moving down to Mexico for a few months. We headed back to Switzerland just before my third birthday. By the time I was 11 we ended up going to England. Yeah, travel has always been a part of my life and probably always will be part of my life. I don’t really feel like I can call any one place home because at the end of the day we are born on this planet and this planet is our home. Wherever you go, wherever your bags are, that’s home at the end of the day.
Borders are just lines drawn by foolish men, as they say.
That’s it. Yeah.
You said you didn’t think you could turn photography into a career. When did that change?
When I was around 14/15 I started taking pictures at the local skatepark. My dad was always encouraging me to go and sell my pictures to the kids. Even if it was for like 5 bucks or something. He’d say, “just sell your pictures to these people.” But, I was growing up in this Buddhist environment and it was all about give and take. Somebody gives you something, you exchange it. That’s sort of how everything works in those places. So when I took pictures for the Buddhist center and they in return gave me something else — maybe it was just an incense or a stapler or something. It was nothing major.
You can’t live off incense and staplers…
Yeah, that’s it. I couldn’t really make money out of it because I just didn’t believe in it. When I turned 16 I ended up moving back to Switzerland to take a job as a sales assistant selling shoes in a sports store. About three months in this guy from my school hits me up. He was a model. He asked me, “didn’t you used to take pictures?” I was like “yeah, yeah, yeah.” He ended up convincing me to take some pictures of him. He told me, “dude, you’ve got to take this up. You can’t just let your dreams go for a sales assistant gig. What are you doing here? You have so much more talent.”
He kicked you ass into gear a bit! What was the next step?
Exactly! I ended up having a girlfriend in England so I moved there. She got me into the college, which was really good — even though she dumped me right after I got there. But, yeah, I started a college degree in photography and that’s when it really took off.
How did you get your first gig?
When I was about 17, I got a text over Instagram from this girl who I followed but I didn’t know. She said, “I’ve got a friend of mine. He needs a photographer and maybe you can work with him. He works down in New Quay.” So I got the train down and I met this guy. It was super dodgy. It was just this really, really weird part of town. I don’t know. I had no idea what was going to happen to me.