After the end of the first lockdown in the UK, photographer Alexander Ward met with a group of sea swimmers on the Suffolk coast and began to document their swims and experiences. After working alongside Mental Health Swims, his attention turned to the common fears of outdoor swimmers. Here, he explains the seven fears swimmers shared with him, the process of capturing these through the techniques of cinematography, photography and dance, and his own growing immersion in the world of outdoor swimming.
In 2019 when the first Covid lockdown ended in the UK, a group of sea swimmers started to meet on the Suffolk coast. As a photographer who had just moved back to the area, I gravitated towards what they were doing. It was that day and that work which inspired me to explore the world of outdoor swimming in my MA, which I began almost a year later. The ongoing body of work, Wild Swimmers explores the people and culture of those who engage in the seas, rivers and lakes of the UK. The project has showcased a breadth of people in different environments, along with an experimental stage which sought to show swimmers’ connection to water.
My focus then turned to what swimmers discuss after water temperature, baked goods and dry robes – their fears. Having been partnered with Mental Health Swims for a number of months, we worked together to survey their collective of swimmers and identify what people fear most in the water. This produced the seven fears. I didn’t want to just create simple interpretations in this chapter of the project; I wanted to make something layered that leant on techniques used by cinematographers to convey fear. Benefiting from the creative talent of Maya Inniss, a dancer from Dance East, I selected seven pieces of music and filmed her short interpretative dance of each fear. Finally, I produced stills of scenes within these videos.
The fast, scaly and carnivorous jagged-toothed fish was almost always front of mind when speaking to swimmers who were regularly in rivers and lakes. One recent story circulated to me was of a Norfolk lake swimmer who’s dangling feet over the edge had attracted a pike, leading to quite a severe injury to her foot and hospitalisation. Despite the commonality and predatory nature of this fish, attacks are [anecdotally] rare.
Interestingly, I found swimmers often linked their fear of pike with The Jaws Effect – a culture of fear developed through the cinematographic techniques of the film Jaws (1975). Spielburg’s work in this movie inspired a number of ways I eventually created stills across the project.
When interpreting the pike fear, I created something which blurred form and conveyed the writhing nature of the fish.
I’ve always loved the coast, the way the sea connects and intersects, the movement of the tide’s arrival and departure, the power of the waves. Despite this connection from a very early age, I was always fearful of the water, hampered by messages of danger from my parents. One deeply personal thing to have grown from this project is my engagement with water – working with wild swimmers meant it wasn’t long before I was donning waders and getting into the water. Then, the waders were shelved and I gradually moved to wetsuit and then to shorts. I now have a dry robe, make baked goods and boil a kettle for tea on the beach.
I am – very firmly, a dipper. The fear of my swimming not being strong enough and being vulnerable away from shore is both wise and frustrating. Of the swimmers I’ve encountered, many fear getting into difficulties, especially as many people swim alone. I wanted this piece to have a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability, the exposure to the elements.
There are those swimmers who never go underwater, who daren’t look beneath the surface and explore the world under their feet. Often I have spoken to people who regard this as a blissful ignorance, feeling more comfortable not knowing that to discover. Interestingly, swimmers also mention The Jaws Effect here, with many salt water swimmers telling me they fear sharks despite it being mostly irrational.
I have been fortunate enough to join swimmers in deep rivers, in the pitch black barely lit by the moon and this fear has been at the front of their minds; the darkness and the focus on small sounds in the water exacerbating how they feel. I wanted to take this and make something which was slow, a building fear the longer you’re exposed.
Having been hospitalised for suspected leptospirosis this year after a river swim, this fear felt very close to my heart and as the amount of sewage being put into our waterways has come to light, I would suspect most of us think of it more often than we ever have before.
Swimmers regularly discuss their fears and concerns with me about water quality and disease. More often than not, they list blue and green algae, field runoff, sewage and Weil’s Disease as what they are really concerned about.
There’s nothing quite like the glowing feeling of togetherness that emanates from a wild swimming group – the strength, belief and stoicism, all connected together and to the water. Having had the absolute privilege to be welcomed into these communities, many swimmers I’ve spoken to feared those first few meets.
They described the anxiety of meeting new people, the fears of their own abilities and how well they would get on with the group. Often, people were worried about commitment too – putting in the effort to be part of something but against a backdrop of their own busy lives.
This work was made to feel still and quiet. I wanted it to feel gentle in how it expressed itself.
“It’s the thought of them wrapping around you. Like a bunch of ties around your ankles.” one swimmer described as she looked out at the lake, about to embark on a swim to the middle where there was a patch of reeds that everyone complained about. Shortly after, an experienced long-distance swimmer reached the bank and talked about how he was caught up briefly.
Even the most experienced of swimmers seem to have a healthy fear of reeds beneath the surface. When creating this work, I wanted something that crossed the divide between free and trapped movements, to show the struggle that’s envisioned by those that submitted this fear.
Finally, the research found that there was a fear of rough seas, where the swell of tides becomes unmanageable and you find yourself at risk. Similar to the fear of drowning, swimmers are concerned about injury or being lost to the sea, but more distinctly with this fear is the overpowering of tides and currents.
Of the swimmers I’ve spoken to, they always describe a sea swim as a choice – calculating where the line is between ‘challenging’ and ‘risky’ before entering the water. Of course, everyone has different abilities which is a blessing for the broadchurch communities of wild swimming, but a curse for the likes of the RNLI who are doing their best to provide safety information to those engaging with water, along with launching to people in distress.