“It’s about being seen, letting another person pour light into the dark places of who you are and come away feeling like who you are is absolutely enough.” That’s a quote from this week’s Portrait, Amanda Swiger. Where I get to do written portraits each week, Swiger does actual portraits, from wedding to boudoir. I recently saw her on FYI Philly and decided to find out a little more about her and her thriving photography business.
Where are you originally from?
I was born in Texas and at about 2 we moved to the suburbs of Atlanta, though I don’t have much memory of either place. [Laughing] I used to say, “I’m from the South,” but I’ve been here for so long, I can’t really say that anymore! I’ve lived in Philadelphia or the suburbs of Philadelphia since I was in middle school and my parents have been in the same house in Yardley since we moved here. I went to college in Langhorne, though I try to gloss over that because I went to a very conservative Christian college that unofficially knew I was gay. I was basically given the choice to renounce the lesbian thing or get expelled. I chose to leave instead. It was… interesting. My friends now are like, “You went to a Christian college!?!” and I’m like, “I know! What can I say, I grew up in a very religious family!”
How did the school know?
I got involved with someone there. We thought we were being sly, but looking back I’m surprised that everyone didn’t know. Honestly, I think our roommates may have tattled on us. The school was strict, you weren’t even allowed to front hug members of the opposite sex. But the girls would walk around the dorms naked, and I remember thinking, “I think I’m enjoying this a little more than I’m supposed to!” In the end, we both left the school; she went to Temple, I went to an online college and we dated for a few years. It was tough because I lost all of my college friends and elementary school friends at once. But now I laugh to find out how many of my friends who were aghast at the time are now gay.
What were you studying?
Psychology and social work. Out of college I worked at a program for homeless, mentally ill adults. I was pretty decent at it but it didn’t really make me happy. I knew that I wanted to work with people and liked the idea of working for myself, but I had no idea what that would mean. And then I had a friend whose photographer basically ghosted them a week before their wedding. I’d been doing photography for fun, and was not good at all, but she asked me, figuring it was better than nothing. I did it and after the wedding, I was like, “This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Now, a decade later, I can’t imagine what life would be like if I was still doing social work.
What was your favorite photo from that first wedding?
There was a picture of her looking in the mirror, and I was so proud of myself because I didn’t get my reflection in the shot. I felt so professional!
Do you use your social work skills to handle any bridezillas?
I find I use my degree in weird ways, more often than I ever thought I would. I don’t get a lot of Bridezillas or controlling grooms, I’m usually able to vet them in the interviewing process. I use it more in other ways. I’m able read a room and get a feel for the couple and what they need, or realize when a mom is making the bride batshit crazy and try to be like, “Okay, let’s bring the bride over here for a minute” and then get my wife to distract mom. It can be a very intense day with the couples being pulled all over the place. We have a great review from a couple thanking us because we were able to recognize that one or both of them were headed for a meltdown. Everyone wanted their attention and it was getting to be too much. My wife Jordan grabbed the two of them, threw them into a bathroom and stood in front of the door to give them 10 minutes without anyone hassling them. When they came back out, they were different people, refreshed and ready to go.
I would imagine Covid has put a damper on things.
Yes, but I’m still doing some weddings. I do quite a few elopements and micro-weddings, which are trends I would love to see continue.
I’m not familiar with either term.
An elopement generally is the couple and a few witnesses, maybe your immediate family and an officiant, or in PA you can self unite. It’s usually a quick ceremony and some pictures to commemorate the event, no reception or big fanfare. A micro wedding is like taking a wedding and scrunching it down to maybe 25 people. You might get married in a small chapel and then go for dinner or have a small reception after. It’s a little more traditional where you have photos getting ready and at the reception, not just the ceremony. I love it because it’s more about the couple, it’s not about 200 people you barely know. I love bigger weddings too, don’t get me wrong, but there is something special about getting married with just the people who mean something around, and not the friends from college you haven’t seen for 10 years or the relative you can’t stand. Things are starting to turn: I have 5 weddings in the spring and 30 in the fall.
That’s great, what are some of your other services?
I’m doing a lot of maternity sessions. It seems like everybody got pregnant during lockdown! And about 40% of my work is Boudoir. It’s something I’m super passionate about and I’m just coming off my busy season which is October through January, for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
What’s your best tip for getting people comfortable?
You have to be yourself and willing to put yourself out there. I have my own photos up for people to see and I usually spend the first 30 minutes of the session just shooting the breeze with people. We talk about what makes them feel good about themselves, what kind of vibe they want, we go through outfits; it’s not just someone walking in and me saying, “Okay, take off all your clothes and say cheese!”
What’s the best reaction you’ve gotten?
I had a client in her 60’s who told me that she never looked at herself naked in a mirror… ever. She would turn off the lights when she got out of the shower, she just had this deep hatred of her body. After the first shoot, she would glance in a mirror as she walked by and pause, then she found out her husband was cheating and she came back and said, “I want you to throw me in the deep end.” And I thought, I’m going to shoot her the way I would want someone to shoot me. After she saw the pictures, she called me and said, “I want you to know I’m in the bathroom, buck naked, staring at myself for the first time in my life.” I sobbed like a baby, because it wasn’t about the sexy pictures, she just needed someone to hold her hand so that she could see herself and her beauty. When I talk about why this work is so important, it’s never about just sexy lingerie or makeup, and I’m all into that crap, but it’s more than that. It’s about empowering people fo find out what makes them feel beautiful and hot. The power of boudoir is found in allowing yourself to be seen, to show up for yourself, as yourself, knowing that you have me there to encourage you every step of the way.
What is the importance of what you do?
As a society, we are very judgmental. I’d always been told that I didn’t look queer enough or I didn’t fit other people’s expectations of who I should be. When I met Jordan she was the first person to say, “who gets to set those standards, f*** that.” And it was like she’d opened the shutters on my life and let the light in. And I try to do that in my work, I have a lot of curvy brides and it’s not something that you see represented often in the industry. Especially queer women; when do you see two beautiful fat women posed together? And that’s ridiculous, because fat people exist, black people exist, trans people exist, why is that not celebrated and shown? A lot of photographers want to impose their biases on people. Especially with queer couples, there’s no man in a lesbian wedding, or woman in a gay wedding, so a lot of the traditional things have to be amended depending on the couple and how they want to present. It’s important to honor people as they are and not shove what makes them special into the dark.
Tell me a little of your coming out experience?
My mom did not handle me coming out well, at all. In fact my parents did not come to our wedding, I thought maybe once it was done and real, they’d come around a little but no. We haven’t really spoken in 5 years, but since the pandemic, they’ve taken baby steps. I think she got a little worried and it gave us a safe subject to talk about. But she’s still not there, Jordan and I bought a house last week and her response was, “I’m just upset because this is one more thing that ties the two of you together.” Yeah mom, I’m still super gay, and married, that hasn’t changed. They’re so conservative that even appearing to support me would be considered sinful. Fortunately my sister lives in the middle land of ‘I love my sister and my sister-in-law, but also my parents’. In the ABC piece you saw, she’s the bride in the wedding dress. I needed a bride in less than 48 hours for the shoot, so I pressed Brittany into service! She’s very supportive.
What was the most homophobic thing you recall hearing growing up?
I don’t remember a specific thing said, it was just constant. The worse sins were to get pregnant and be a slut, or be gay, and I never thought I was gay, because it just wasn’t an option. I dated boys and they never really did anything for me. People would say, “You just haven’t met the right one” and I’d think, okay, that makes sense. I dated a guy in college and it was getting to the point that our families thought it was going somewhere. We did love each other but we had a conversation and both decided, ‘this ain’t going nowhere.’ Of course a few years later we found out that we’re both gay! I think the worse thing my mother said was, “Why would you do this to me!” And I was like, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything to you, but the family response was, “If you’re not going to change, we have nothing to talk about.” Our first Christmas together, I decided to go to the house to drop off some presents and they wouldn’t let Jordan in the house. Once they knew she wasn’t just a roommate, she wasn’t allowed in. So she stood on the front porch and waited for me. Looking back, I should have told them if she wasn’t welcome then I wasn’t going to come in. But I’d just come out that October, so I was still trying to navigate a really shitty situation. I was like, “Okay, so because you know that she’s the person I want to spend the rest of my life with she’s not allowed in, but if I had lied to you, that would have been better?” and my mom said yes. [Laughing] They seemed to gloss over the fact that lying was a sin!
That convenient Christianity.
Jordan calls it the Pu Pu platter, where you choose what sins are relevant, you can cut your hair, eat shellfish and wear clothing woven of two kinds of material, but you can’t date girls.
I understand you did some unusual things at your wedding to acknowledge what was happening.
Yes, I always envisioned my parents walking me down the aisle but since they refused to have anything to do with it, I was like, oh crap, I don’t have anyone to walk me. I love drama, I love a good sensational moment, and to me, marrying Jordan was letting go of everything negative that I’d been told all of my life. So I decided to carry balloons down the aisle that symbolized all the negative people and things in my life and I released them right before we said our vows. It was cathartic and looked beautiful in the pictures. FYI, they were animal safe, biodegradable balloons. The reception was in the backyard, but we set up a table on the front porch and laid a setting for my parents and a setting to symbolize all the people who chose not to be there or couldn’t, like my grandmother who would have come from Texas if she could. We wanted to honor who they were in our lives and the fact that they were still welcomed by us. I’ve kept my parents’ place setting in a box for 7 years, along with the invitation they didn’t want. But maybe someday my mother will come around. She watched the ABC piece with my sister, and it was the first time she’d ever seen my wedding photos. So who knows? There may be hope.
Okay, random questions, what’s the oddest thing in your house?
When you walk in the house we have a giant husky tool chest that doubles as a bar. It’s massive and takes up an entire wall.
That’ll come in handy with the new house. If you were in a band, what part would you play?
I’d definitely be the singer. It’s the one talent I wish I had, but don’t.
I love celebrating my birthday and Christmas. I have a birthday coming up and I can’t wait, unlike my wife who I had to force to have a 30th birthday party. One of the things I’m excited about with the new house is being able to decorate for Christmas and live out all my white girl suburban decorating fantasies.
Would you rather swim in a pool or ocean?
Pool! I won’t get in water if I can’t see my feet.
Ever have a nick name?
My parents tried to give us names that couldn’t be shortened or made into nick names but my sister still calls me Amanda Panda, and people call her B, so apparently they failed. And in high school friends called me Bubbles, I don’t know why.
Well, you’ve giggled throughout our interview, so I think I can guess why!
I know, and it’s a crazy maniacal laugh too. Especially in my Instagram videos, I’m constantly laughing and crunching up my nose. But I didn’t realize how much I did it until I saw the piece on FYI Philly!
Well, thank you Bubbles, it was great talking to you!
For more information, visit www.swigerphotography.com/.