Photo series about swimmers are a bit of a favourite for us at It’s Nice That. Whether they’re featuring the ladies of Hampstead’s ponds or point perfect Olympic divers, one thing is certain: these images never fail to make us smile. Francesca McColl’s latest work is no exception. Documenting the intrepid women who brave England’s freezing rivers and lakes, Wild Women captures the strength and community to be found in these freezing waters.
The Bath-based photographer embarked on the series last September during her final year of university. “I’d become really interested in our relationship to the natural landscape and I knew I wanted to return to nature in my photography,” she recalls of the project’s beginnings. While that interest laid the foundation for the work, Wild Women began in earnest when an article about the benefits of cold-water swimming caught Francesca’s eye. As a keen swimmer – and someone who, as a kid, went wild swimming “whatever the season” – the piece intrigued her immediately and she knew this needed to be the focus of her next project.
The first women she met was a group of swimmers in Wiltshire. Initially attending their swims as an observer, on her second week Francesca left the comfort of the river’s bank and took the plunge into its icy water. "I wanted to earn a mutual respect and trust between us because being in just a swimsuit in such a rural landscape, can put you in a vulnerable position,” she says explaining the decision. “So I bought a wetsuit and starting swimming; from this point, I felt a part of their group and not just like a photographer looking in.”
Her first time shooting on medium format, Francesca was unsure about the potential success of this initial foray. “I was slightly hesitant to begin with,” she recalls. “But I fell in love with the effect it created – particularly for this project: it produced a delicate and soft range of tones which emphasised the beauty of our natural landscapes and the beauty of these women.” Capturing the quiet joy of these encounters, the steady calmness of the medium format’s gaze subtly communicates the more mindful and therapeutic qualities of wild water swimming. It’s a joy that breaks through these otherwise frosty images, puncturing their palpable chill with radiant bursts of warmth.
Wild Women’s portraits possess an undeniable stoicism that beautifully mirrors the figures they depict. “When speaking to these women about why they wild swim – particularly in winter – a common theme was empowerment; submerged within these icy waters they felt invincible,” she muses. Wanting to translate that confidence into to her images, Francesca took a simple and paired back approach to the portraiture – directing the women to stand straight to camera, submerged in the water or on the land beside it. “They dominated the landscape with no instruction, standing before me in just a wetsuit or swimsuit,” she explains. “They presented strength in front of my camera, with a no-nonsense attitude I truly admired.”