Art & Photography / In Pictures

East London Swimmers

Photographer Madeleine Waller's new book offers a touching insight into the private worlds of some swimmers at London Fields Lido

Nick ready to swim
Nick ready to swim © Madeleine Waller

In the north west corner of Hackney is the London Fields Lido, an open air public pool that, since being re-opened in 2006, has become cherished by many Hackney locals as a sanctuary of leisure and relaxation, a refuge from the restlessness and anxiety of city life. For her new book East London Swimmers, photographer Madeleine Waller has recorded the stories of some of these locals, and the result is a touching and intimate account of the lives and loves of individuals brought together by their shared passion for swimming.

"A touching and intimate account of the lives and loves of individuals brought together by their shared passion for swimming"

Waller photographs each swimmer twice: once when fully clothed and secure-looking and once when stripped down to their swimming gear, near-naked and vulnerable. The second, more intimate photograph is accompanied by a short quote in which the swimmers reveal, in an often frank and tender manner, the associations that swimming at London Fields Lido has for them. It is this technique which makes this book unique: accompanied by a quote, you can feel the voice of the subject coming through each photograph – there is palpable feeling in each of the presence of its subject. In this way, as well as revealing the swimmers' bodies, prone and unguarded in the often icy cold weather, these photographs also give us a snapshot of their lives, their memories and their unique personal histories.

Nick: Property Developer, 44
"I got into swimming after getting caught up in the tsunami in Thailand. I was on a family holiday when the wave came in and I managed to grab my son from his pram and leg it up a hill. I looked back and saw the pram disappear. When I returned home I had a fear of open water so I entered a race in Lake Windermere and my passion for long distance swimming was born. Last year I swam from Spain to Morocco. Next I’m swimming from Robben Island to Cape Town."

Kathryn: Office Worker, mid-40s:
"I used to go to a lot of alternative clubs. Now I feel I’ve got too old for that and I’ve taken to regular swimming. It becomes an addiction. When I first started, the endorphins kicked in after 16 laps. Today I feel good after 1½ kilometres. My longest swim was the length of Lake Windermere in 8 hours, 20 minutes without a break. Sometimes when I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming of swimming. It’s happiness."

Karina: Travel Agent, 25:
"I always relate swimming in public pools with chlorine that makes your hair go green. This pool doesn’t have it. I love all the sensations: the water around you, the different temperatures you feel, going in, going out, stepping into the cold from the heat – particularly in winter. It allows me to cope with being in the city."

Laura: Performance Artist, 26:
"I’m a countryside girl. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Devon and always swam in the sea. Being in London can be very intense. Swimming in winter in an outdoor pool feels like reconnecting with nature."

East London Swimmers by Madeleine Waller is published by Hoxton Mini Press.

Text by Max Fletcher