Wild swimming has become somewhat of a phenomenon. Perhaps it's the rising summer climate that draws people to water or the physical benefits it promises. Either way, Suffolk-based photographer Alexander Ward is fascinated by the ritualistic submersion that seizes so many.
His newly-launched series Wild Swimmers – a follow-on from a shorter series he previously shot in 2020, The Sea Swimmers (https://www.alexanderward.com/projects/suffolk-sea-swimmers) – explores the communities that emerge from plunging into open water and understanding their reasons for doing so.
Having joined a group of sea swimmers after the first wave of Covid restrictions lifted, Ward began observing their habits – noticing their bravery for entering the North Sea swell and how doing so in community cultivated a strong sense of connection, to nature, to others and most importantly, to themselves.
"My work typically explores how people are connected to environments, objects and experiences, and the Wild Swimmers series was fascinating for this, particularly how swimmers connect between their water and non-water environments," he says. "Throughout the project, it became clear that engaging in the seas, rivers and lakes was much more than the belonging and community – it was about regrounding, connection and the quiet."
He realised that swimming in wild spots allowed swimmers to quieten their minds, find solace and regain focus. And doing this in a shared environment strengthened their understanding of how necessary this practice was for their well-being.
One of the reasons Ward loves working as a photographer is his ability to work with people and uncover new stories. While most wild swimmers engaged in the routine for various physical benefits, he shares one experience of a 35-year-old woman diagnosed with an aggressive neurological disease and a terminal diagnosis.
Now struggling with limited mobility and mostly unmanageable pain, for her, wild swimming is about overcoming the aches she has and replacing them with another sensation.
Joining her on a swim one day, Ward shares: "Her experience is different to that of other swimmers I've had the privilege to work with – she is about pragmatism and pain relief and hates warmer water. She's been dipping a year when I meet her, and she knows her time is coming to a close, although there's no indication of when that will come."
He concludes: "To be a part of this experience and see swimmers reconnect and reground has been an absolute honour."
Through his work, Ward aims to connect people and find the sticky unexplainable parts that make up the intricacies of humanity by presenting its simplicity and beauty. This series has already been shortlisted for the Royal Photographic Society IPE164, won the UK Government GREAT Britain award and has been featured by BBC News, The Outdoor Swimming Society, Mental Health Swims and the EADT.