Jay Patel overcomes his fear of water, now seeing it as a place of “utmost tranquility”
The Jersey City-based photographer talks to us about how photography constantly gives a new perspective on his relationship with water.
- Alif Ibrahim
- 24 November 2020
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
When Jay Patel was a kid, growing up in the southern coastal town of Gujarat in India, his swimming coach threw him into the swimming pool with little notice. Straight into the deepest end of the pool. “I was traumatised and I didn’t swim for eight years after that,” Jay tells us. “When I was growing up and saw my classmates swimming and having fun, I felt left out.” One summer break, he decided to work on the traumatic experience he faced years before and signed up for a membership at a local club.
At first, he couldn’t see anything as he kept his eyes closed as he swam. Goggles helped him significantly in losing his fear of depth and water. Slowly, swimming became something else for him: it became something that let him experience “utmost tranquility”. For Jay, teaching himself to get familiar with the depth of the pool felt like a big achievement. It is this transformation, of overcoming fear, that the photographer, now based in Jersey City, has documented in Diving into the Unknown.
“Once I graduated high school and learnt how to swim, there was a break in the regularity,” Jay says of his relationship with water. “It became like watching mountain ranges from a vantage point, the distance between your desire and action wherein the world of fantasy lies.” Jay no longer wanted to become a mere observer, but to experience this relationship from a different perspective. The project kept him on his toes, reminding him to experience what he calls “vuja de,” the act of seeing something familiar with a different view. “I knew there was more to my relationship with swimming than experiencing the trauma of being thrown into the pool and overcoming fear,” he says.
He started out as a self-taught photographer, working in Pune as an assistant to his friend, before moving to the United states to get formal education in photography. He graduated from the Creative Practices programme at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2019. “While I was in ICP, I wanted to work on something personal because I had never turned the lens onto my own life,” he says.
He describes his creative process for the project, which involved swimming in pools and navigating local lakes in New York and New Jersey. “I drive to these places aimlessly with different friends for leisure, but with my camera and a swimsuit,” he explains. “Sometimes I find interesting pictures and sometimes I gain experiences that act as a segue to making specific visuals in the future. I have also worked with non-camera-based photo processes like cyanotypes and photograms using water as a pivotal element.”
Jay only photographs his friends, never working with models. In this body of work, he photographed a classmate, a competitive swimmer, who was also working on a project based on water. Though their focus was different — his friend focusing on underwater ecosystems — their shared experience in this project resulted in images that are vulnerable and sensitive. Droplets roll off the skin, accentuating the sitter’s goosebumps. Bubbles fragment the swimmer’s skin as he extends his arms for a dive. This transformative relationship with water is reflected in Jay’s project, finding moments of peace but never static, always in transition like the vuja de he seeks.
Jay Patel: Into the Unknown (Copyright © Jay Patel, 2020)