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.
When I turned up and he sparked up a spliff and he said to me, “this is your interview! What can you do for me?” I just handed him my portfolio and he was like, “Okay, you’ve got the job.” I started working with this guy and that’s how I got into filming and taking pictures of all the pro surfers in the UK.
Wait, this was while you were just starting college, right?
That was the first year of college. Then the second year of college I didn’t have to go to because I was actually working. They just had me coming back every so often to give a speech and tell my story, how I got the jobs, and how I do it. But, yeah, that’s how I ended up actually getting paid and starting to make a wage for myself and racking up my own story.
Had you already been surfing before that? Or did you take up surfing for the gig?
No, no. I wanted to surf all my life. When I was about 14 I ended up going down to my dad’s in Plymouth and I started surfing there. I was totally awful at it until about two years ago. I couldn’t get my head around it. Like everybody else, I wanted to be on a shortboard and I tried that straight away. Obviously, that didn’t work out for me. When I was about 20, I had to go back and start riding foam boards.
You’ve got to do the fundamentals, man.
That’s it. Yeah, start at the bottom and work yourself up. Surfing and taking pictures of the surfers was really helpful. Through that time, you learn a lot from the way they talk and the way they look at waves. You know exactly what’s a good wave and what is a bad wave. That definitely helped me be a better surfer.
You can sort of align that with photography as well. You’ve got to start at the bottom and just take pictures and take pictures and take pictures.
There’s also lot of bluster in photography with people thinking they can do it themselves without really putting in the time…
This is very true. When you go for a job and the client says, “why do I have to pay you $1,500 for this? I can pick up a camera and I can shoot pictures.” And that’s very true. I sort of remind them to think about the amount of effort that has gone into me learning how to take a picture and learning where the light is for instance. I think that’s a very hard one for the average person just to get their head around what they’re actually paying for? At the end of the day, it does look like you’re just literally pressing a button but there’s a lot more than just pressing a button.
Just the post-production alone…
It’s a lot of effort for sure. And the waiting around, there’s a lot of that.
Is it worth it?
It’s worth it once you have that shot in your mind and you know how much effort you put into it. If anybody else knows or cares, that’s a completely different thing. At least you feel content with the image you’ve got and you know you got that. That’s the raw image. I think that’s a really good thing.
What led you to the decision to ditch the apartment and live in a van?
Well, I guess that’s exactly the point — ditching an apartment because it’s rooted to the ground. You’re fixed. I love going home and feeling like you have a home. When you’re working away you then go back home is a very beneficial thing. A lot of the time I felt like my home wasn’t really where I was.
I think getting into a van has been on my mind for a long time. But buying a van with everything you need is quite an expensive thing to have. Spending €9,000 ($10,250) is a real amount of money, you know? But, If you calculate how much you would be spending on a house or on an apartment in a city, you realize you’re saving money in the long term.
Plus you get to change up your location pretty much at will.
If you’re going to be living in a city, chances are you probably won’t have the best view. The thing is with a van, you just park it up and you have a good view. If you don’t have a good view, then you’re probably in the wrong spot.
What other benefits have you found living the mobile life?
This morning I was on the beach shooting a surf advert. When I was finished, I went back into my van and I laid in my bed and I’m at home. You drive your van and you’re at home at all times.
I do enjoy that feeling of it’s yours. Whenever you feel like there’s something missing or I want to add something or I want to take something away, I just do it. I think that’s a huge part of the van life that I was chasing for all these years. It’s just having your own thing. If your cupboard isn’t really what you want, then you just take it away and you make a new cupboard and you stick it back up. I love that.
It sounds like you’ve taken to this kind of life. Is there anything you miss?
You know, I miss a warm shower every so often. I miss a kitchen that has more than just two burners.
At the end of the day, it’s never perfect. You can never look at anything and go, “Oh, this is perfect. My house is perfect. My life is perfect.” I’m living in a little Ford Transit with my girlfriend. It’s two of us. It’s been awesome. I’ve got a hammock and we stick up the hammock outside and you can just chill and do your work with freedom. You have the best views at all times. It’s the office view everybody wants to have every single day. I love it. It’s absolutely amazing.
Yeah, I feel like if you wake up with a smile every morning, you’re doing the right thing.
For sure. That’s it. You crack on. You’re living it. As long as you’re not harming anybody else, what’s the problem then?
You try and focus on sustainable travel and environmental issues in your work. What sort of changes are you seeing in the way the world is shifting in its perception of plastic, carbon, methane, and the relation it has to travel?
Well, it’s a bit weird. I have a van. It’s a bit hypocritical of me to say, “Don’t be driving too much.” I am pumping out fuels every day. I’m aware of how much fuel I do use. I try and keep it minimal.
The thing is right now a lot of people are thinking about plastic and plastic pollution. A lot of things I’m seeing at the moment, especially in Portugal, is a lot of people are aware of the environment and are trying to keep pollution down to a minimum. But, when you go down to the beach, it’s still a bit of a trend to leave your stuff there. It’s just being lazy. It’s not necessarily intentionally polluting. It’s just, ‘I can’t be bothered to just pick up that plastic or rubbish that I used.’ I think that’s a real shame.
You see it a lot around the world as well. If you go to Indonesia, for example, it’s still fashionable to just chuck your bags out of the window while you’re driving because once it’s out the window, you don’t have to look at it again. I think it’s a huge movement right now as to actually make that change in people’s minds to actually be almost disgusted at a person who does that, you know?
When I was in Indo I took a boat out in the Sunda Straits, out of Krakatoa. And I remember on the way back the guys had brought their lunch in a plastic bag with plastic containers. And they just chucked it right out of the back of the boat. It wasn’t malicious or anything. It’s just … that’s the culture. Then about 30 minutes later, we’re chugging along and the engine putts out. Guess what? There’s plastic fucking bags on the prop. So the boatmen are sitting there so pissed off. They’re unwinding the plastic and cursing the whole time, “This fucking shit. Damn it.” And it’s like, ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ What blew my mind is that we offered to take the trash back to shore and throw it away properly and they just threw it back in the water.
That’s it. You see that a lot. When I was on a boat in Indo they were throwing out whole nets, 10 meters long, just chuck it out into the water. It could get caught up in a propeller — but the other part is that a lot of fish are going to swim into that and they’ll die. And because of that they won’t be able to fish anymore. You have to say, ‘please, think about it and work on that.’ I think it will take a lot of work and effort of everybody around the world to help and teach people. I’ve tried talking to people on the boats as well and they were just looking at me like, “Well, what’s your problem? Just chuck your rubbish out. There’s a huge ocean. We can’t even see the end of it. There’s plenty of space.” I think to change that mindset it’s going to take a lot of time.
There’s a short-sightedness we all need to overcome, especially when it comes to what we see as disposable.
For me, that’s quite an important thing. Chances are, in the next 50 years, you’ll probably get away with chucking your rubbish anywhere. Your kids probably won’t get away with it. We’re seeing a lot of it right now in the ocean with all the animals being washed up on the beach and their stomachs are filled with plastic. It is a huge problem.
Also, just the idea that a little bit of self-sufficiency is hugely missing.
In our society right now it’s all about just buying and throwing away. You know, I can only really make the changes to myself and what I do and what I put out there. All of the insides of my van are either recycled or I found them. All of my wood that I’ve used is either out my granddad’s garage or I’ve collected it somewhere in Zurich. I just went round and collected old bits of furniture and stuff and made something new out of it. I think if more people did that, we’d be in a better place.
Here’s an example — my lanyard got bitten by some dog the other day and it just broke. I took it home and I stitched it back up again and I’ve got a fixed lanyard. Now that lanyard actually has a story to it. If more people actually did that, we’d be on a better path. Even just more people learning how to sew and mend things. If you’re fixing your own stuff, you’re making your own stuff, it gives you so much more freedom. You don’t always have to rely on the shop nearby to buy a new lanyard or to buy a new whatever. You can just fix it up and you carry on going. That’s part of the van life. I think it’s a huge positive.