The River Irwell and its tributaries meander through the moorland of the Rossendale Hills, where photographer Jim Marsden grew up. He developed a deep love for dramatic landscapes but didn’t begin his career documenting them; instead, he worked as a draughtsman, creating drawings for architects and engineers, before becoming a designer working in interiors. He delved into photography full-time shortly after his son was born, a decade ago, and his work has become deeply rooted in the landscapes of the UK.
For his latest project, an upcoming book titled Bodies of Water, Jim has journeyed to rugged coastlines, quiet streams and urban lidos to explore the connection between women and the water through a series of portraits, which began six years ago. We speak to him about the process and the people he met along the way.
How did the idea behind Bodies of Water come about?
It seemed like the amount of people spending time out in open water exploded in recent years. It’s a natural thing now, so many people do it. I thought that was really interesting. But the thing that intrigued me most was that it seemed like women really embraced it. I was more interested in this female perspective – it felt to me that men approach swimming in open air like a sport, but that didn’t interest me so much. Whereas with women, it often seems to be this sort of ritual, and there is this strong sense of connection. Women often go with their friends, and it isn’t just about active swimming. It’s also about immersion, and I find that much more interesting.
How did you go about finding people to feature in the photographs?
I didn’t want to just approach people that I didn’t know. I felt I needed to create a body of work, so that I could show others what I was trying to do with the project. So I spoke to a friend of mine, and told her about the idea. I said I wasn’t sure how it would develop, but could I spend an hour or two with her capturing some shots. She was more than happy, and after that, I thought a lot about the shape of the project and the kind of work I wanted to make, and things just kept going from there. People started introducing me to people they knew, and the project built up over time.
What drew you to start collaborating with Jo Tinsely and Jess Lea-Wilson, who conducted the accompanying interviews and wrote for the book?
Because I wanted the project to be focused on a woman’s experience with water, I instantly thought about getting in touch with Jo, and subsequently Jess, as they both have deep connections to outdoor swimming. I knew it was so important to get a woman’s voice inside the book. It can’t just be my perspective. It has been so interesting spending time with new people, finding out why they spend time in the water. It’s such a powerful experience for them all. For some, there’s a lot of thought that goes into going swimming outside, whereas for others it's more simple. No matter which, they are all so connected to the process, whether they are alone or in a group.
What was the overarching intention for the project?
We didn’t want it to be a typical coffee table book, we’d rather have the project as something you can build conversations around. We might do an exhibition – we don’t want the publication of the book to feel too final, it’s got to carry on from that. I'd like to work on other projects around the human connection with nature. It’s been great to look at a small idea and expand on it, rather than taking on something too complex.
Did you meet the people at the same time as Jo and Jess, or did you go separately?
We went separately. I’d always have great conversations with whoever I was capturing, and I’d discuss the premise of what I was trying to do. Then after the shoot, we would arrange for Jo or Jess to talk with them, and start to really dig into what draws them to the open water, and what effect it has on them. It’s so important to share their experiences in words, alongside the images.
Did you find that what the subjects said to you informed the style in which you took the photographs?
I felt that their perspectives fit well because of the style of image I wanted to make. It’s very quiet, it’s a bit slower. There is less ‘doing’ and more ‘being’. That was one of the reasons that attracted me to the topic. It was all about spending time in the water, and not trying to achieve a certain goal. Most of the photos were taken on medium format, so that makes you slow down as well.
And did you capture people throughout the year, or were there particular seasons you focused on?
I tried to shoot more in the summer, because people could spend longer in the water. Once it got colder, I was really aware that it might become uncomfortable to be in the water for too long. When it’s cold, you only have a very small window of time to take the photographs, whereas when it’s warmer things are a lot easier, and slower. Last year, I went to photograph someone at Tooting Bec lido, and I turned up with a woolly hat and three layers on, whereas they showed up in just a regular costume. The water temperature was just a couple of degrees – it was predominantly women swimming at this time of the morning. The men who were there had full suits on. I think it says something about the way women seem to be far more connected to cold water as well, which is really interesting.
Were the people you captured from all different walks of life?
We tried to get as many different kinds of women in the pages as possible. One woman who was really interesting was Susie Parr, the wife of photographer Martin Parr. She’s been going to the same pool in Bristol almost every day for 30, 35 years. It was just incredible. There must be something in it, and that is what we are trying to explore. I think people are aware of the health benefits now, but if we start talking about science it becomes quite a factual thing, which isn’t what we’re trying to do with the project. We want to try and dig deeper, to find out why people are doing it, and perhaps encourage other women as well.
We wanted to share a wide range of experiences, so other women can see themselves and relate, or think they should try it. There were three sisters in Dartmoor, and that was one of my favourite shoots. Swimming was their time to meet up. They all had very different lives and were busy with their families, but they all met up in the same river to spend time together in the water. It was really beautiful.
Have you ever done any open water swimming yourself?
No, I think that’s why I admire it so much. I like my water warm, with steam coming off it. But at some point I need to try it!
Interview by Alice Simkins Vyce.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs courtesy of Jim Marsden.
Sign up to the Substack journal to learn more about the making of Bodies of Water before its publication in 2024. The book features interviews and writing by Jo Tinsley and Jess Lea-Wilson. It is designed by Tina Hobson.