Hilary Swift is an accomplished photojournalist who has covered some of the world’s most important stories in the world of politics, social issues and breaking news. Her work routinely appears in The New York Times, so it’s only fitting that her first solo exhibit, titled “Time In-Between,” debuts this Thursday at the Quin Hotel in New York City. We spoke with the artist about her exhibit and her work in general.
This is your debut solo exhibition, and in New York, nonetheless. Is it more special to you that this debut is in New York City?
I grew up in rural Vermont. New York City always seemed like the place artists went to live in small places and probably fail. Having been here for two years now, and having lived in small places, this solo show feels a bit surreal.
This exhibit focuses solely on those moments you’ve captured in New York City. What is it about this city that you find so distinct and powerful as a photographer?
I travel around the country a lot for work and what I am always surprised by when I come back is how so many people from so many different backgrounds and beliefs can come and live next door to one another in peace. There’s a unity in this city that you don’t see in other places and I think I’ve been paying a lot of attention to that.
What do you hope viewers of the exhibit will walk away with from viewing your work?
When putting this together, I wanted to be aware of the audience. As it is a show at the Quin, I know a lot of folks coming through are visitors. I wanted to show them something that they may not see in Times Square or Central Park… or to encourage them to look a little closer when they are in those places. I hope people will learn a little more about the city and its diversity.
Is there one photo in particular from this exhibit that really resonates with you most especially?
I think that the photo that’s gained the most attention is the raccoons in central park, which I shot on assignment for The New York Times but what I think I’m really excited to see installed is a series of nine square images. The images were mostly taken while walking around and exploring the city and I think it will show a good amount of diversity.
You have this great ability to really capture people in the moment, which is evident in this exhibition of work. Describe how you so beautifully bring these moments to life in your photos.
I like to get to really know the people that I’m photographing. Even if it’s just for a few minutes I love to learn about others. I always try to be conscious of how the person I’m photographing is feeling. If I can push boundaries and get really intimate photos, I will. But if I can feel someone is really uncomfortable, I’ll put down my camera for a while and just talk. Sometimes I miss moments this way but it’s more important to me to be respectful and have someone’s trust than to get the most amazing photo.
Your photography has brought you around the world. Is there an area or an assignment that most touched you as a photographer?
I spent about two weeks covering the aftermath of the Orlando mass shooting last year. It was such a horrific event but watching the community come together to support each other was one of the most powerful things I’ve witnessed.
How would you define your work?
I’ve never really understood this question. I guess I would define it as a desperate attempt to freeze moments in time with the hope that someone looking at an image feels that they learned something. My work is ongoing and constantly evolving and is always trying to reach people in different ways.
As a female in a somewhat male-dominated industry doing what you do, do you find it a struggle to find equal footing? Was there a time when you found it hard to make your work garner the attention it deserved?
I think that recently people have been paying more attention to the gender gap in photojournalism. Women are supporting each other now through social media in a way I’m not sure they could have before. Surely there are moments in everyone’s career where for one reason or another we wish that something we worked on had gotten more attention, but so it goes. Life is long and the news cycle is always changing. We learn from everything we do.
You’ve accomplished so much at a young age. What keeps you motivated as a photographer? What assignments or areas of the world do you still wish to shoot?
I feel like I’ve accomplished very little! The older I get the more I realize how much bigger the world is. Right now my interest is in the middle of the country but for a very long time, my intention has been to move overseas. I’m hoping to be doing that in 2018 with the intent of focusing more on women’s issues.
Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Not at all. I knew I wanted to travel and to help people and that I was really interested in everything. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college when I went to a few punk shows and interviewed musicians that I decided to drop out of my school in Iowa and move to California to study how to become a music photographer. A few protests and a personal project in my second year and I become obsessed with journalism. As soon as I found that, I was hooked. I can’t imagine doing anything else with the rest of my life.
This is a magazine about inspiring women. What, in your mind, makes for an inspiring woman?
All women are inspiring. If you take the time to know anyone they can surprise you with something they’ve overcome or accomplished or crafted. You don’t have to achieve “great” things or have a massive following to be inspirational.
Are there any photographers or artists in general that you look to for inspiration?
My inspiration comes from a lot of different places. I’m just as inspired by literature and art as I am by the work of photographers. I think half the reason I had the courage to pursue photojournalism is that I fell in love with the lyrics of a few musicians and decided that if they could make a living being a musician, I could do photojournalism. Sometimes if I’m feeling really stuck creatively I’ll go see a concert and spend time being surrounded by a large group of people who, if just for a few hours, am really engaged and moved with what’s happening on stage. There’s something to be said in drawing inspiration from sources totally outside of the medium you create in.
With that being said, Paula Bronstein’s photo essay on the women burned by lye probably had the most impact on me and my decision to do photojournalism. I saw it in high school and it really made me think about what it must be like for women living in that culture and how different that is, it stuck with me then and I still think about it a lot now. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s story on domestic violence had a big influence on me as well. The work of Brent Stirton and Diana Markosian, who both came to my school to lecture, also inspired me. I’m also really inspired by my closest friends. They’re often the ones that drive me to try harder and try new things. They also keep me very grounded.