Through a mother's eyes: Santa Barbara photographer captures the heart and soul of her subjects
By Brett Leigh Dicks, News-Press Correspondent
As any 5-year-old who has tried getting out of brushing teeth or teenager who has attempted to sneak in undetected after curfew can tell you, mothers possess an intuition when it comes to children.
A Santa Barbara mom is putting her parental instinct to creative use. A little more than a year ago, Kelly Sweda opened a portraiture business, Kelly Sweda Photography, which specializes in children's and family lifestyle photography.
But this isn't the obligatory smile-at-the-camera-in-front-of-a-colored-backdrop type of children's portraiture you would find in a shopping mall. Her subjects are out enjoying the real world at their favorite locations. She uses natural light and her subjects rarely look at the camera.
Within her photographs, Mrs. Sweda poignantly captures those candid moments and interactions her subjects share that say so much about who they are. Be it a look, a touch, an off-the-cuff smile that has come straight from the heart, the resulting photographs speak for themselves.
"This isn't your traditional family portrait photography," Mrs. Sweda, 36, told the News-Press on the sand after a recent session at Butterfly Beach. "When I'm photographing, I try and take a fly-on-the-wall approach.
"I photograph outdoors, I don't pose people, and very rarely have them looking directly into my camera. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible and just follow along to be there to capture what unfolds naturally. It's the in-between moments where the real magic lays. I think that's the true art in portraiture."
Being a mother of three, they are moments the photographer knows well.
"When I see one of those magical moments with a child through the lens of my camera, I feel that same flame inside me that ignites when I'm with my children," said Mrs. Sweda, who has a son and daughter, Isaac, 14, and Francesca, 4, and a stepdaughter, Isabella, 11.
Born in Idaho and raised in San Diego, Mrs. Sweda's original career path was in journalism. Between 1996 and 2000, she attended UC Santa Cruz, where she completed a bachelor's degree in journalism, all the while working as a reporter for the Good Times and Santa Cruz Sentinel.
"I was always a better written communicator than a verbal communicator," Mrs. Sweda said of the inspiration behind her initial career choice. "Not only did I enjoy writing, I was also really good at it."
In 2000, Mrs. Sweda moved to Missoula, Mont., where she pursued a master's degree in journalism with an emphasis on photojournalism at the University of Montana; upon graduating in 2002, she moved to Santa Barbara to be closer to her Southern California family.
"Then I stopped taking photographs for about 11 years," Mrs. Sweda said. "I was a young single mom with a 2-year-old son living somewhere where the cost of living was really high.
"I have always been a perfectionist and if I couldn't devote 100 percent to being a photographer, I didn't want to do it. I was working three jobs just to get by, so there was no way I could give my all to photography."
It was a few years after the birth of her second child, daughter Francesca, that Mrs. Sweda rediscovered photography and decided to turn it into a commercial venture.
"About two years ago, I started messing around taking photographs of my daughter with my cellphone and that's what literally launched me back into photography," Mrs. Sweda said. "I developed a passion for it that never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined having 11 years ago when I threw in the towel."
The last camera Mrs. Sweda owned was a film-based Canon that she used in graduate school, but after sharing her work on Instagram and being inspired by the photography of other like-minded photographers, she ventured out and purchased a professional digital camera about 18 months ago.
Once comfortable with her new camera, she decided to pursue photography professionally at the end of 2013.
"I've built up a local client base, but it really started with the connections I made through the Instagram community I've built," Mrs. Sweda said. "I've got clients in different cities and states, most of whom discovered my work online.
"The old-school approach was to build a client base in your local community, but through Instagram, it's been the opposite for me. I've not only connected with other photographers, but I've connected with people all across the country who like my work and who have gone on to book sessions with me."
In addition to her children's and lifestyle photography, which recently saw her listed on the parenting website Clicking Mom's 100 Photographers to Watch list, Mrs. Sweda has branched out into children's fashion and editorial work. She has photographed for clients such as Babiekins Magazine, Children of the Tribe, Enfants Terribles Magazine, Childhood Unplugged, and, locally, Glop & Glam and Dani BOY.
"I consider myself a children's photographer first and foremost," Mrs. Sweda said. "I do photograph families, but they have to be like-minded and be looking for what I'm offering, which is something different."
The resulting photographs are spontaneous, poetic and full of life.
"What I do isn't for everyone and I know that," Mrs. Sweda said. "I have never connected with the traditional style of portrait where people are positioned and posed, and I know that a lot of other people don't either.
"There's something so much deeper and more real in a photograph that captures the connection between two people when they're looking at each other than in a photograph where I've told them to smile and look into the camera.
"I want my photographs to tell their story."