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‘If you move to Sweden, have a clear plan’

After a long and successful career in tennis coaching which took him to Egypt, Norway, Malta and beyond, Ian Smith decided it was time for a change of pace and relocated to southern Sweden to become a photographer. The Glaswegian told The Local why he felt compelled to relocate to Skåne.

'If you move to Sweden, have a clear plan'
Ian Smith and his daughter Chloe. Photo: Ian Smith

Tell me how you ended up in Sweden: your story isn’t the standard one of meeting a Swedish partner then following them.

Nobody believes me when I tell them, it was because we wanted to leave Malta, where my wife is from, and decided not to go back to Scotland. We were looking for somewhere else with nature which is important to us. I used to live and work in Norway, which is way too expensive, and comparatively Sweden has much the same to offer and it’s a similar cost to Britain.

How do you feel Sweden compares to Scotland? It’s maybe not as difficult moving as a Scot in terms of the weather as it perhaps would be for someone from a warmer country?

In the west of Scotland I’m sure you’ll get rain roughly four out of seven days. The weather is considerably better here by and large, and the summers are better. In Malta people used to ask me what to pack for a holiday in Scotland. Everything is the answer. You can’t assume anything. Here it’s not as extreme.

The other thing is people told me Sweden isn’t very friendly, but I’ve not found that at all. That’s nonsense. It’s what you make of it. You either fit in because you’re trying to, or if you sit at home all day, and nobody will talk to you. You have to get out and try. In my small community near Simrishamn people make you feel very welcome.

There’s some pretty amazing scenery down in Baskemölla, around Simrishman where you live. Perhaps it’s not a surprise you ended up working in landscape photography after moving there?

I had an interest in photography before I left Malta, but not to the same degree. Since moving here I have a lot more time on my hands and it fit well. I really decided to learn as much as I could, and I’m out every day shooting. Now I can teach photography and have reached a certain level which is good.

Tennis is now on the back burner and photography is the way forward for me. There are a lot of artists in this area. The coastline helps. The only thing you don’t have, which if I had a magic wand I’d add, is some height in the area. It’s pretty flat and that’s the one thing that’s lacking, but everything else: sprawling fields, forests, is there.


Photo: Ian Smith

What drew you to Baskemölla in particular?

You’re only an hour and a half from Copenhagen airport. We’re further south, so for my wife, coming from Malta, it was important to get the best weather we could. We’re also only an hour from Malmö, and house prices here are also much more reasonable than Stockholm for example.

You said in a previous conversation that you also came to Sweden to raise your child. Are you happy with how that has worked out?

Absolutely. The daycare system for kids is really good. You have so many choices. I find the system to be very good, and fair; what you pay is what you can afford to pay.

What’s your favourite part of Sweden to photograph?

Österlen is great to photograph. I know it very well and through walking, mile on mile, I know the coastline almost like the back of my hand now. It would be so easy to do photo tours and photo workshops there because I know exactly where to go.”

It has a special, subdued light. You get some amazing sunrises.

How important is light to your photography? Skies feature a lot.

Some of the skies are remarkable. In Scotland there are some brilliant sky shots to get too but you probably go out ten times to the same location to get the shot. Here I find it’s a few out of five hit-rate.

On the more practical side of things, how was setting up your own company in Sweden?

Setting up the company wasn’t difficult really. Some form-filling, a six-week back and forth period, but it really wasn’t bad. Then once you’re registered, everything else follows


Photo: Ian Smith

Was there enough help and guidance available?

You have to keep asking, and asking, and asking for the guidance. Perhaps it would be the same elsewhere too. But there was a discussion I had with the Swedish Tax Agency about assistance with setting up the business, and the reply I got was something like ‘if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answers’.

So if you don’t keep probing you may not get the help you’re looking for. But there are really very few negatives.

What about trying to make connections in the industry? Sometimes that can be tough..

I’ve been trying to find someone interested in publishing a coffee table photography book, and I find that people aren’t always the best at replying to e-mails. I’m not the only one who has said that either. That’s a bit of an issue.

I have to ask about your past as a tennis coach briefly: once upon a time Sweden had a pretty prestigious crop of players, and not just Björn Borg, but what’s it like today?

I’ve spoken about this with a lot of people, and from speaking to Swedish coaches who came to Malta, I’ve heard that there’s a bit of a lack of funding in tennis here. That doesn’t really explain why in my era, in the 80s and 90s, you could be outside of the top ten in Sweden, but still inside the top 100 in the world, though.

For a nation with the population we have here, that’s a ridiculously good record. It must have been the Borg effect at that time, leading to people like (former World No. 1) Mats Wilander, (Former World No. 1) Stefan Edberg and (former World No. 4) Jonas Björkman, as well as a host of names most people wouldn’t know.

One thing I have noticed: when you see a Swedish kid playing on the junior circuit today, you can tell they have been coached in Sweden from the style of play. They tend to still have a baseline, top-spin approach. While most other kids these days are taught many different skills, based on coordination, the use of hands, legs and so on. They can now do things a lot of Swedish kids can’t do. The Swedish kids are tough and consistent, but there’s a certain level they’re not pushing past.

It’s a bit like Britain until Andy Murray, who is a game-changer. The effect of that is now starting to come through in the UK’s top juniors, it seems to have given them hope. As the Swedes turn off maybe the tennis education hasn’t evolved with the times. It took Britain 30 or 40 years for that penny to drop – and Britain can’t take credit for Andy, he was sent to Spain to be taught.

There’s also a cultural thing in Sweden where it’s OK to be quite good, but not very good. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with not being good at something, but there’s also nothing wrong with being very good at it. There’s almost a degree of embarrassment here when that’s the case.

Looking forward to the future, what are your goals for you photography?

One thing I want to do before the end of next year is go up to Kiruna, right up into the Arctic Circle. I know Skåne well but I want to familiarize myself better with the rest, and I’d like to go from one extreme in the south to the other in the north.

I also want to keep learning, and just keep getting better and better. Photography workshops are one other thing I also want to do, that’s key really. Even experienced photographers when they come here on a photography trip, they don’t want to spend a long time trying to figure out where to go – it’s better to be shown around. So photo-tours and workshops are on the agenda.

What are some of the best places to take pictures in the south of Sweden?

A lot of people outside of Sweden want to go to the Öresund Bridge because of the TV show Bron above all. There’s also Ystad down here thanks to the Wallander effect. The (megalithic monument) Ales stenar is also amazing, as is the coast around there. Haväng beach is also beautiful.


Photo: Ian Smith

Finally, for anyone thinking of moving to Sweden and having a go in a creative industry like photography, would you recommend it?

Yes, but I think people should have a clear plan. My way of doing it was back to front in a way – making the plan after I came. I’d recommend if people move to Sweden and don’t have a job, they have have to have a clear plan. The information is out there, but planning is really key.

Follow Ian on Instagram and see more of his photos here.

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”

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