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Georgina Miranda | 08.13.2019

Shannon Switzer Swanson is a scientist, photojournalist, and waterwoman. She lives with the passion of merging creativity, storytelling, and science to better understand the relationship between people and the natural world.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors, and Shannon is on a journey of deep exploration in her Ph.D. program and personally to better understand and share the mystery of the ocean and how we can better protect it. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform again with courageous and inspiring female figures who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. It’s been an honor to be a guest editor this year for Women in the Wild, and I am grateful and inspired by all of the remarkable women that I got to connect with and interview. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

As women, daily support and affirmation of each other’s knowledge and credibility is what we collectively need most. Highlighting each others’ achievements and inherent value is really critical as we continue progressing together in all fields—sports, outdoor adventure, science.

 

—Shannon Switzer Swanson

 

In this interview, we talk to Shannon Switzer Swanson about overcoming self-doubt, finding your path, and the relationship of people with nature.

 


Shannon Switzer Swanson at work in the South Pacific. Shannon Switzer Swanson.

Georgina Miranda: Tell us about Shannon Switzer Swanson. How would you describe your connection to the outdoors/adventure today?

Shannon Switzer Swanson: Throughout my life I’ve teeter-tottered between the creative and the scientific. Since I was a child, I have loved the written word and storytelling. I’ve also always loved spending time dwelling amid the non-human, whether it be ranging around in the sagebrush covered hills behind my childhood home in southern California or plunging into the cool waters surrounding Catalina Island, where I would spend time each summer with my dad on our tiny sailboat named Grateful.

In college, I tried my hand at the scientific route as a way to extend this love of nature into a career of sorts, and I worked on two bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and environmental studies. However, picking up a pen and journaling still gave me that creative outlet I was always craving.

It was during this time in college that I discovered photography as another powerful storytelling tool. At the same time, my formal studies opened a whole world of knowledge to tell stories I was passionate about. In college, I also picked up surfing---which is a sport that intimately involves one in the sea: riding on, duck-diving through, being tumbled and flushed by, and, quite literally, tucked into saltwater.

After graduating with my bachelors, I worked as a photojournalist for 7 years, teetering to the creative. My writing and photography have always tried to show the connection people have to nature. Showing how they are a part of it, yet at times alienated from and antagonistic toward it. My work mostly focuses on the marine environment, because it’s where I feel most deeply at home and centered. Each year I’ve pursued new ways of connecting to the sea, whether it be improving my surfing skills, long-distance stand-up paddle trips to raise money for marine conservation, or training my freediving and breath-holding abilities so I can spend more time deep in the sea surrounded by what I most love.

After 7 years working as a photojournalist, I returned to school to study these human-ocean connections in a more systematic way—tottering back toward the scientific. Now I am working on my doctorate at Stanford University studying the very same thing in Indonesia: working with artisanal fishers to understand how they relate to their coral reef environments and what motivates sustainable versus destructive behavior.

I still use my camera and writing to share my scientific findings with a broader community of thinkers, and I’m always seeking ways to keep that balance of science and creativity. I also now understand that these two worlds are not mutually exclusive, and in fact the earliest naturalists and scientists were more often than not poets, artists, and philosophers as well.

It’s fitting for people wanting to understand how nature works, because the more I learn about our world, the more I am convinced it’s a mix of explainable mechanisms and intangible magic. In other words, we can always seek new knowledge about how the ocean “works,” but we will never fully understand it. That mystery is what draws me to it over and over. 

GM: Were you always drawn to a life of the outdoors, science, and photography? How did your journey get you to where you are today?

SSS: Yes, I’ve always been pulled to the “wild,” although often I found it in unlikely places. For example, having grown up on the edge of a suburban development, I mixed blacktop games with hunts for “treasures” (rocks, sticks, four-leaf clovers, shed rattlesnake rattles) on the trails behind our house. My mom once found me out front with a wild songbird perched on my finger as if it were a tame pet. More than once, I brought home various reptiles I thought would make great additions to our family. Luckily, my parents were willing to humor me on this front. Growing up, I also had horses that I would explore our hills with, again mixing the domestic with the wild.

GM: What initiatives/projects/goals are you focused on?

SSS: I’ve spent the past year in Indonesia living with indigenous fishing families and families working with local marine conservation NGOs to understand what motivates sustainable fishing behavior. This is the core aim of my Ph.D. thesis. It has been the most challenging year of my life—which I know says as much about my privilege as a white, middle-class female as it does about the circumstances I’ve navigated, something I am constantly striving to be aware of while working in the global south.

I have learned a lifetime of lessons about not only how various communities relate to the oceanscape here, but also about my own selfish nature, my insecurities of being liked and accepted, my anxieties around failure, as well as all that I can accomplish when I am able to quiet those fears and keep moving steadily along. Broadly, I hope my work and time here can contribute to a more full and nuanced understanding of our complex relations to the sea.

More tangibly, I hope my findings can lead to local and regional policies that have positive conservation outcomes and are fair and equitable to the local fishers who most depend on the marine resources to survive. Over the next year, I have to actually write my thesis, look for a job (hopefully a tenure-track professor position), and graduate!

GM: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your time?

SSS: I have always been inspired by people who see their daily reality and live fully in it. Maybe that is because I’ve often struggled with not being content with my life and achievements, always longing for worlds away and a mythical reality of perfection.

When I meet people who fully settle into their day-to-day, embrace their life, and do all they can to make it beautiful and full; I love them, and I am filled with inspiration by them. This includes my parents, who overcame dysfunctional upbringings by becoming marriage and family therapists and facing their painful childhoods in the process. This also includes people I’ve met during years of conservation field work and projects

Over this past year, I’ve gotten to know many people who take less-than-ideal daily realities (limited water, food, electricity, education, health care, etc.) and still do everything in their power to make that life a beautiful one. They are my heroes. They inspire me more than world celebrities with big glossy titles.

Of course I have my conservation heroes, too: Sylvia Earle, Jane Gooddall, Cristina Mittermeier—people who have also faced numerous personal and professional obstacles and found a way to effect positive change on a global level.

GM: What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges?

SSS: Like I mentioned earlier, I had a leg up, being born into a middle-class, loving, supportive, two-parent home. Both of my parents were very encouraging of my love of the outdoors and indeed fostered it through their own love for nature. Given that context, I think my biggest challenge has been my own self-doubt that, given all of this support and privilege, I needed to find the perfect and most full way to use my skills and talents to give back to the world. That self-imposed pressure has sometimes paralyzed me from moving full-steam ahead with my outdoor/career pursuits. This has resulted in a long, winding, and slow path for me as I sort out how to give my best and do my best work—but what a gift it is to have the luxury to go through that process!

Being a woman has its unique challenges, of course, most recently during my field work with fishermen in a predominanlty Muslim part of Indonesia. There are certain activities, like overnighting at remote islands on extended fishing trips, that would be really important for me to observe. However, they are not deemed appropriate activities for a woman by the local cultural. This fact has limited what data I am able to collect, but also gives me insight into life in a fishing village from a more feminine perspective.

GM: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women in the outdoor/adventure space? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact on these issues?

SSS: Women are still fighting to show we are “good enough” and worthy of equal pay, equal opportunity, etc. In my work this often manifests by women not owning their knowledge. We tend to qualify our knowledge with language that weakens our statements and hides the expertise we have worked hard to develop. In contrast, men often puff up knowledge of things about which they really know very little (this is a gross generalization, of course, and not all men do this!).

As women, daily support and affirmation of one another’s knowledge and credibility is what we collectively need most. Highlighting one another’s achievements and inherent value is really critical as we continue progressing together in all fields—sports, outdoor adventure, science.

GM: What can the greater outdoor community and companies like OP do to better amplify and celebrate the voices of ALL women in our community?

SSS: I think broadening the definitions of “adventure” and “adventurer” is important. The two can come in all forms, shapes, and sizes, whereas outdoor companies tend to highlight the “daring” adventures that require exotic landscapes and distant travels, and adventurers who are traditionally “athletic” looking. This has already begun to change and needs to continue changing to be more inclusive of all who love engaging with the non-human! Companies can also support programs that provide opportunities and offer funding/scholarships for women who have historically lacked access to the outdoors.

GM: How do you keep your pursuits going? How did you get it all to a point where this is a feasible lifestyle for you? How do you support your adventures/passions? Has this changed over time? 

SSS: Well, I’m still drowning in student debt from my master’s program and don’t have a “real” job yet, so I have to be honest and say that I’m still figuring out this part. As I wrap up my doctorate and think about the next steps, I’ll hopefully have a better answer in the next few years!

GM: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

SSS: The most useful advice I’ve been given (and wish I knew earlier) is this: whether or not a job/project/pursuit is the “perfect fit,” dive into something whole-hog and become an expert at it early on. This won’t define you forever, but it will help make a name for yourself, then you can expand your skills and talents beyond. First it’s critical to dig in deep and struggle a bit.

Earlier in my career I was always so concerned about getting “stuck” in a position that wasn’t my “calling,” that I ended up being stuck from not moving distinctly in any particular direction.

One more piece of advice that I wish I had learned earlier is to make notes of what specific aspects of a particular project or job you really get excited about and feel fully engaged and alive doing. Accumulate a list with these tasks/skills and see what common threads they hold. Doing this surprised me. Tasks emerged that were important but I really didn’t enjoy when it came down to the nitty gritty, like staying up to date on the latest and greatest gear to hack it as a freelance photographer. Some tasks I loved doing, but I had never distinctly identified, like making connections between people, groups of people, and ideas, which is great for being a social scientist!

GM: Any other tips/advice/encouragement do you have for women looking to embark on a similar career or path or wanting to make a difference in the world?

SSS: Focus on channeling your unique set of skills and passions into something productive.

A big part of this is NOT comparing yourself to other people. I think we all struggle with this, especially with social media—I know I do! It leads to self-doubt, jealousy, and ultimately spinning one’s wheels in an unproductive and tiring circle. I can’t say I have any magic shield to protect me from this.

However, when I find myself thinking, “Man, I wish I were more like this person or that person,” I try to identify what it is I admire in them and think of ways I can cultivate those specific skills in myself. If the skills are not in my wheelhouse (i.e. being a tech wizard), just singing their praises to the world is important! It’s amazing what (genuinely) bragging about other people does for one’s own self-worth. It makes that person’s day, too, and gives a boost to others reading or hearing about women supporting women!

Two friends who do this so consistently, both in person and through their social media outlets, are Captain Liz Clark and shark researcher Jess Cramp. They are always lifting up other women, and it draws me to their work over and over.

GM: At Outdoor Project, we put a strong emphasis on the phrase “adventure like you give a damn,” which refers to putting effort into responsible recreation. How do you “adventure like you give a damn” in your own way?

SSS: For me, this is all about respect—for all human and non-human creatures with which we share this planet! I ask myself every day, do my actions show respect for this awesome creation I am a part of? Do they show reciprocity for all that I have been given and get to experience in this beautiful world? If not, how can I do better?

Specifically: remembering that each natural place has human connections and people who care for it. How can I honor those connections? This could be hiking with reusable water bottles and forgoing snacks with one-use packaging, happily paying a park entrance fee and having a chat with the ranger to thank them for their work, respecting other surfers in a lineup and grabbing trash that floats by, organizing or participating in beach, river, lake, or neighborhood cleanups or restoration projects, or donating $5 to grassroots campaigns that take a stand against plastic, oil, or chemical companies with unsustainable practices. The point is to make it personal and tangible. For me, that’s how I give a damn.

GM: What’s been your favorite adventure to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

SSS: I can’t select any one adventure as my favorite. However, I have noticed that as I continue down this path, I appreciate adventures where I really have a chance to connect with communities in the areas I am visiting and understand their day-to-day lives at a deeper level. Just passing through and taking pretty pictures doesn’t appeal to me any more. I also used to love solo adventures, and there’s still a time and place for those, but more and more I crave time with loved ones to learn more about the world together.

GM: What is the message you would like to share with the world, the outdoor community, and other women in general? Or what is a story you hope to tell in your lifetime?

SSS: Listen to one another. With everyone feeling pressure to be a voice for a cause these days, sometimes we forget to also take time to really listen. Not listen like, “I’m letting you talk but already formulating my response to convince you that I am right,” kind of listening. I mean “deep” listening. Showing the person I respect them by being willing to open myself to what they have to say, take time to digest it, and see if and how I can learn from it—whether I agree with it or not. Engaging in a cross-fertilization of ideas.

I don’t mean doing this with people who see the world the same way I do. I mean doing this with people who I think are flat-out wrong, but nevertheless giving them the time and space to share, too. If we want to move forward with critical issues like climate change, social justice, saving species, etc, I think this is the single most important thing we need to collectively improve.

GM: Anything else you’d like readers to learn about you, what you’re working on, etc.?

SSS: One interesting project that led to my current Ph.D. work was tracing where the enigmatic blue tang, aka Finding Nemo’s “Dory,” comes from. National Geographic supported this project with a collaboration grant, and I worked with a fantastic team of other explorers: fish biologist Andrea Reid, tech and 3D specialist Caleb Cruise, and sustainability entrepreneur Mikayla Wujec. We created an interactive website for folks interested in knowing where aquarium fish come from and how they can keep an aquarium that doesn’t harm the world’s reefs. If you want to learn more, check it out at www.reeftoaquarium.com.

Want to hear more from Shannon? Follow her on Instagram @ShannonSwitzerSwanson, on Twitter @S3Oceans, and Facebook. She is a National Geographic explorer grantee for her studies in the South Pacific. Visit her official website at ShannonSwitzerSwanson.com. You can also find her professional profile at Stanford.edu.

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Brought to you by:

Women in the Wild 2019

Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments. Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2019 with the help of guest editor and 2018 #womaninthewild Georgina Miranda, adventurer, entrepreneur, mountaineer, and founder and CEO of She Ventures. We're proud to open our platform once again for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews with outdoor advocates, influencers, and athletes to female-focused content from the community, Women in the Wild 2019 aims to amplify the voice of women in celebration of female fortitude, strength, and camaraderie in the outdoors.

For a complete list of content published in correlation with Women in the Wild 2019, visit Women in the Wild 2019: Amplifying Women in the Outdoors.

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