TRANS·MU·TA·TION, Michael Swank


Start from the simple premise that everything is about to change and you won’t be far off from what happened.

I‘m not going to attribute my success or feelings of positivity to my diagnosis of HIV. When people say “HIV is a gift” I want to slap them and puke. HIV is not a “gift”. It can be a catalyst, a wake-up call, or even the fruition of a belief system, but it is not a “gift”. It’s also not a diagnosis of death like it was when I was 18. Getting past the initial PTSD was difficult, but I knew I did not want to spend the rest of my life in that well of pain. HIV is, however, something that one has to survive and in order to do that, I had to allow the toxic medicine to transmutate my body and ultimately my mind.

Like nuclear fusion transforming an object, I was being pumped full of chemicals to change HIV to a non-reactive form. Undetectable. The human form translated at a cellular level. My body fat migrates. My body weakened. My mental capacity was absorbed by the energy required to fight HIV. I was powerless, or so I thought.

This series is about outside forces that create the opportunity for change, what we do to connect the mental and physical, and the person who emerges. If we are powerless how do we find our potential? I asked my models to explore the mental and physical boundaries of the surface I perched them on. Close your eyes. Imagine the camera above you has the power to change your physical being and your only weapon is your mind. You can project an image of who you are going to be and the camera will capture the struggle. We are left with these images to document their transformations. What does the model feel when they see the evidence? What do we believe their struggle to be? Can we see ourselves in their pain, joy, tension, release, and humanity?

The catalyst to transform here is the opportunity to share this experience between artist and subject. It’s emerging from a cocoon. It’s a seed breaking wide open and rooting in reality. I am all these things. I am my pain, suffering, anger, and disappointment. I am also my happiness, my creativity, my love, my laughter, my smile, my desire, and my connection to my physical self.

The next step is to add me into the mix. Cross that threshold of fear I asked my models to cross. Photography myself nude in transmutation. Deal with the changing appearance of my body due to the HIV medicines. Demonstrate my willingness to allow that physical change to be an opportunity for mental change.

What I was not planning on was the level of intimacy I’d be engaged in with my camera and my models. After hearing from the models about what the experience was like for them, I decided to send some questions back to them in hopes of including their point of view in the project.

Model Micheal (myself)

Thinking about how you felt during the modeling session, what were the outside forces affecting how you responded to the camera? 

I could not release the judgment I was feeling about my own body. After losing so much weight over 3 months due to the medicines I thought I would feel freer. The reality was all the feelings of self-loathing were waiting for me. I was dialoguing with myself during the photos about the things I could not change about my body. I was telling myself how important it was for me to be able to complete the circle of the project and how I needed to honor the experience of my models by having a parallel experience. There were two cameras; the camera above my head and the camera live broadcasting on Instagram (hyperlink to: It seems a little incongruent to be scared of my body and to be live broadcasting, but other models had done it and I wanted to walk in their footsteps. So the forces of my mind, the judgments of the audience, and the indisputable reality of the camera were all forces working on changing my physical being. I visualized those forces as energy that moved my body. I think that came out in the final photos. 

What were you feeling during the modeling session? 

Scared you’d see my body as I see my body. I was recalling the photo I took a few months ago when I was at my worst. Suicidal. I was comparing how I had been feeling recently and the distance between the two. At first, I cried. Then I laughed because I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to live when I took the previous photo and so much had transpired. A full range of emotions flowed through me during the session. It was a very emotional experience.

How did you feel once you saw the sketch of the photos I sent you? 

I was relieved that the editing allowed me to see myself as worthy of the photo. Sounds horrible to speak of myself this way, but again the transmutation process had become the American Express without limits I needed to make changes in the way I see myself. When I see the sketch I can’t not compare them to the beauty I saw in my models, the parallels, and therefore the beauty of myself. It released another torrent of tears, but tears of joy and relief. 

To see additional sketches and videos from the project and to read other models’ interviews, click here.

Micheal Swank graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA – Printmaking, and Design in 1998. In his design career, he has been Art Director for California Tan (packaging), San Francisco Examiner (Hearst), Miller Huber Marketing, Joie de Vivre Hotels, S.F. Business Times, Disney, Dance Magazine, Pasadena Weekly, and others. Micheal began to teach Graphic and Web Design in 2001 and decided to pursue teaching as a full-time profession. In 2006, he completed his Masters in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA. He led within the design education community as Academic Department Director, Graphic Design and Web Design Interactive Media at the Art Institute of California Inland Empire, Art Institute of California San Francisco, and Dean of Academics Art Institute of Houston – North.

In January 2012 he left his position as Dean to travel, learn, create, and ignite his passion for learning. He lectured for Universidad of Monterrey, Mexico, Raffles University, Guangzhou, China, and Fremont College, Los Angeles, CA. After two years within the public education system of California teaching art and design, with many awards, he decided to move his art studio to Colonia Juarez, Mexico City in January 2018. 

In 2019, Micheal created a vibrant artists residency – Proyecto Residencia – in the heart of Mexico City DF where he hosts artists and creatives who are seeking to ignite their creativity. Inside the studio, he has just closed his exhibition Transmutación: Ángeles en México as a benefit for to assist in education, testing, and treatment of HIV in CDMX. Micheal is currently working on a series of large scale craneo sculptures with the theme of transmutación for the upcoming Día de los Muertos as one of 35 international artists chosen.