Pushing wild swimming into coordination, meet the synchronised swimmers of Henleaze Lake
Following the spark of an idea to create a series on synchronised swimmers, photography graduate Eva Watkins discovers the physical and mental benefits of taking to the water all year round.
- Lucy Bourton
- 20 January 2021
Henleaze Swimming Lake in Bristol – a space for wild swimming that even features a gigantic 1950s diving tower – celebrated its 100th birthday back in 2019. To commemorate the event, a group of synchronised swimmers formed to practice and perform in its waters, which now features around 80 people from as young as 11 to as old as 76. For recent photography graduate Eva Watkins, the group held everything she looks for in a series.
A fan of embedding herself in groups or clubs (previous works of Eva’s have included a series on members of a circus troop), the photographer also allows herself to be led to subjects by her dreams. Following one where Eva dreamt she was a synchronised swimmer, weirdly coinciding with her tutor Liz posting a photograph of her performing in the synchronised swimming team at Henleaze, her next focus was obvious. Further intrigued by the “effort, strength and beauty of [synchronised swimming],” Henleaze’s group held a unique quality being a wild swimming group also. “The more Liz told me, the more I wanted to know,” adds Eva. “I couldn’t wait to get to know the team and find out who the individuals were who were taking such a different approach to the art and sport.”
Beginning to spend days with the group, Eva describes the team as being “full of many different characters, but the one attribute that I noticed in everyone I met was how much they cared; about the members of the team, about swimming, about this new venture into the synchro team.” In between organising shots or naturally taking photographs of the group at work, Eva would chat to members about the many benefits joining has brought them – both in a mental and physical sense. “The topic of conversation was also often about how the group had been able to make friendships and connections that they didn’t have before,” adds Eva. The tight friendships that have grown from the group are also represented in Eva’s publishing of the series, featuring notes from swimmers. “Being in the synchro team is deeply nourishing and life-affirming,” says swimmer Becky Thoburn, for example. “I value, and giggle with, new friends. Am I super fit and co-ordinated... I’m very happy!”
On shoot days, Eva always tried to approach the group away from the conventional ways synchronised swimmers are posed together. “I didn’t want to take photos of them performing in the water as, for me, that would be the obvious approach,” she explains. “Individual portraits and group portraits were always a must, but it was working out the best way to approach it.” Following a period of experimentation, “I started to understand what was working,” opting for photographs which winked at the suggestion of synchronised swimming without the team directly striking a pose.
Direct examples of this are clear in Eva’s group shots in the series, where the women neatly line up by the water’s edge, with their matching swimming caps nodding to their craft. Elsewhere the team’s love and respect for the conditions in which they practise are also presented. As Eva explains, “it felt right to pair their portraits with landscapes to show the beauty and ever-changing environment.” And while the project is currently on pause due to the pandemic, the photographer’s kept busy researching further context for the series, concentrating on the health benefits of cold water swimming and the bond team sports create. Although unable to photograph the group, Eva has remained in close contact, chatting further over email. “I even received a photo during lockdown of one of the members in her synchro cossie and hat, striking a leg pose in the bath! They all have such a great sense of humour.”
In turn, Eva adds that one of her largest takeaways from the project is the bonding benefits of team sports, particularly something as difficult and cooperative as synchronised swimming. “I have a greater understanding about why they love the water and why I love the water now,” she notes. “But, the biggest thing I’ve learned during this process is how important human connection is.” Reflecting on this while on a frustrating pause from the project due to Covid-19 restrictions has given Eva further time to consider the beauty of the group’s friendship most of all: “They have such an incredible bond with each other. They support each other, in sport and in life. Through lockdown, they’ve been able to keep each other’s spirits high which has been a lovely thing to see. To think they were strangers not too long ago!”
Eva Watkins: Synchronised Swimmers, Ladder (Copyright © Eva Watkins, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.