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Wild Swimming by Mark Griffiths

Words: Mark Griffiths

Images: Mark Griffiths

The air temperature is a mere two degrees above freezing, snow covers a rugged, baron landscape and a strong north westerly wind causes surface ripples at the lake one thousand feet above sea level. Soon a number of open water swimmers walk into this freezing lake with complete disregard for the extremities of this harsh and uninviting environment. Wearing nothing but a lycra swimsuit or shorts they wade up to their waist through lake pushing pieces of ice to the side before diving into the water. The thermometer displays a temperature of  0.9 degrees and the wind chill makes it feel more like minus ten. After twenty five minutes the swimmers return to the waters edge, clambering up the slippery rocks with a noticeably deep red complexion. They are shortly back in their dry robes (a fleece lined dressing gown) and their endorphins kick in, with a sense of illation and euphoria across their faces as they bounce back and forth off each other with verbal banter and an encouraging appreciation of what they have just accomplished. The smiles and conversations continue for the rest of the day. This is wild swimming.

Ever since the late Roger Deakin swam through Britain by river, lake and sea the term ‘wild swimming’ has been used to describe the age-old practise of swimming in natural waters. Wild swimming has a long and fascinating history stretching back through the centuries. Nordic kings and earls of Orkney were famed for their heroic swimming feats and welsh mercenaries took to the waters in a bid to win the hearts of the women they admired. Water has a healing quality; ancient Egyptians practised bathing rituals in hopes of curing ailments. 

Outdoor or wild swimming is one of the fastest adventure growing sports in the U.K. More and more people are realising the benefits of swimming in cold or natural flowing water. This photo essay follows wild swimmers throughout the year; from the hot and dry summer months to the unpredictable cold winter season with water temperatures barely above freezing. The images bear witness to the swimmers and their affiliation with the water and the varying reasons for why they swim outdoors. Immersing myself in the culture of wild swimming, I spent a year documenting a number of groups, clubs and individuals across the country in order to delve deep into the personalities of these intrepid souls. 

Unlike the more traditional pool swimmers, wild swimmers are less interested in the competitive nature of swimming and more in the varying benefits and attributes of open water and its nourishing qualities. Being in water can improve emotional health and mental well-being including decreasing anxiety and depression and improve mood according to research. From metal illness to PTSD, the water allows the swimmers in this series to completely detach from the mental or physical anguish in their lives and find comfort in the cold. 

The most important thing for me as a photographer is to get to know my subjects so that they feel comfortable in my presence and are virtually unaware that a camera is pointing in their faces. For this project I spent a lot of with a number of swimmers before taking any pictures, explaining my intentions and what I was hoping to achieve from the project allowed the swimmers to understand that I wasn’t there to exploit them or for any kind of financial gain. I am genuinely interested in peoples stories and the complexities of life. Alfred Eisenstaedt once said “It’s more important to click with people than it is to click the shutter” which is something I have taken with me throughout my personal and commercial career. This approach enabled me to capture the swimmers in their most vulnerable state and enabled me to delve deep into their thoughts about the healing nature of cold water swimming and why they chose to do it.  – Mark Griffiths.