Since 2013, Nicky Newman has been photographing the public swimming pool at the Sea Point Pavilion in Cape Town, South Africa. Perched on the Atlantic Ocean, the pool is a place for leisure and exercise. For Newman, the pool provided a space to recover her health and create a remarkable photo series in the process. Newman talked to PDN about the challenges and joys of photographing the pool’s visitors, and the importance of public spaces in post-apartheid South Africa.
PDN: What drew you to working on a project about the Sea Point Pavilion swimming pool?
Nicky Newman: I’m happiest whenever I’m in or near water. Ten years ago, after a great but grueling career as a documentary filmmaker in South Africa, I thought I was experiencing burnout, but it was a more serious health situation. I found myself quite literally broken with zero explanation available from medical professionals as to what was going on.
I was alone in navigating a long, complex and debilitating situation. I wasn’t able to move without extreme pain and exhaustion, but being in the water allowed me to stretch and move slowly. My time at the Sea Point Pavilion pool in Cape Town played a profound part of my journey back to health. These are some of the images from my various swims there.
PDN: How long did you spend working on the project?
NN: I recently found a 35mm slide I shot about 20 years ago of two boys jumping off the high board. So I guess it’s been brewing for many years, but in terms of this current body of work, I started shooting there again in about 2013.
PDN: Is there a story other than the joy and peace many experience at the pool that you’re hoping to tell with the photographs?
NN: I think the theme that is running through this series, and much of my work at the moment, is freedom.
There’s a deep and ugly historical and political context to this pool, and all public spaces in South Africa. When I was a child swimming here, it was reserved for white people only. This only changed when I was in my 20s. When I see everyone having such a good time together here, I still get emotional at the distance we have thankfully covered. (You can actually see Robben Island clearly from the pool.)
Something else I hope comes through is how important these open-air communal spaces are. And how water is a such a leveler. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, fit or challenged, the water lifts the spirits, people connect with each other in ways they don’t on land and leave lighter somehow.
PDN: How have you marketed the project?
NN: I entered it into three photo competitions and it was shortlisted for the Zeiss Photography Award in 2017, which meant that a selection of the pictures were exhibited as part of the Sony World Photography Awards.
I also sell fine art prints, but I wanted a price point for everyone so I made a range of commercial prints such as postcards, greetings cards, etc. under the name Lighten Up Pictures. I’ve started stocking local shops and galleries in Cape Town and so far they’re moving really well. Now that I’m across many of the start-up hurdles, I can develop new products and hopefully it will become a healthy income stream.
PDN: Tell me about your photographic approach.
NN: I have a background in Journalism and Psychology and they really complement each other well for documentary photography work.
I started my Journalism degree during the State Of Emergency of 1985 in the Apartheid era. For our first class, we were handed the Emergency Media Regulations that said if you shoot/write/publish anything of what is happening we will heavily fine and/or jail you. It was a total media blackout. It became critical to find ways to show the truth of what was really happening. I think that urge to document life, people, events, history and social change has stayed with me ever since, and I carry my camera with me everywhere to this day.
With these pool photos, they were really for my own pleasure, some lighter moments amongst the heavier topics I’m often immersed in. When I started entering them into competitions, it forced me to pull them together into a more structured series. And each time I share them or write about them, I seem to find another layer of insight for myself, find new images, it’s an ongoing process.
PDN: What were the challenges of photographing at a public pool?
NN: Photographing people in public spaces can veer into tricky terrain. This isn’t people at a protest wanting their message to be spread. This is people in their relaxation time. Potentially intimate or even private moments, even though they are in public. You might say, “but it’s just people chilling at the pool,” and while some people absolutely love being photographed and gain enormous validation from it, others feel the opposite and many don’t even know I’m shooting. So how much and what do you share publicly? What are the boundaries around capturing a moment and honoring people’s space? I try and put myself in each person’s perspective and sometimes just have to use my intuition of what is ok to share and what is not.
PDN: Did you learn the stories of the people you photographed?
NN: This young man (gallery slide 1) found himself living rough on the streets after a construction job fell through. He would park cars to get the entrance fee and then watch the diving instructors teaching their students. He would copy them and was a complete natural, gliding with a fearless grace and ease that was breathtaking to watch. The last time I saw him, he was a lifeguard at the pool.
This student (gallery slide 3) was showing his girlfriend who was absolutely terrified of birds, that they are not to be feared. He took a piece of his lunch and held it up and this gull gently flew in and plucked the food from his hand. By the time I left, she was giving it a go herself and it was special to witness someone move through their fear and do something they would never have imagined possible a short time before. His calm tenderness stayed with me so many years later.
PDN: What did you enjoy most when working on this project?
NN:I love just being able to relax after a swim and let the crazy flow of people and movement appear in front of my lens. And how different every day is. Some mornings are cold and misty, others blazing hot, sometimes I’m the only person there, other times it’s crowded, it’s forever shifting. And how energized and happy people are when encountering the water, diving and defying gravity for a few thrilling seconds, being able to capture that joy.
– Sarah Stacke