András Ladocsi’s meditative photographs relive the joys of competitive swimming

Our biennial New East Photo Prize is back — this year, with 11 new finalists. Below, get to know Budapest-based photographer András Ladocsi and his moving autobiographical series Swallow.

5 November 2020

Before András Ladocsi chose to study photography, his life was devoted to competitive swimming. Each morning he would wake up at 4:45am to make it to his first session, and later follow-up his day at school with two more hours of training. When he quit his pool practice at the age of 18, after 14 years of competing, his friends were surprised by his pursuit to become an artist. But as the Hungarian photographer explains, his two life passions actually have a lot in common: There can be a lot of people around the pool, family and friends who have come to support you. Yet when you’re in the water, the pool acts as a camera frame — it helps you tune out the world and all its stimuli, and focus on what’s in front of you.”

His ongoing photo project, Swallow, is his first comeback to the sport in 10 years — only this time around he’s experiencing it beyond the excruciating minutiae of strokes, drills, and tournaments.

Prior to making Swallow, Ladocsi documented athletes: he’s photographed gymnasts, wrestlers, spent half a year living alongside a stunt-man and his family, and is now working on a film about dancers, both amateur and professional. “One of my main interests is the body,” he says, “It’s not so much about sports. I’m interested in what movements our bodies are capable of, but also how a person feels in their own body — our awareness of it.”

To call Swallow a project about sport would be misleading. Ladocsi doesn’t show the competitive nature of athletics, or the pressures and emotional struggles which he himself once experienced. Nor are there any photos of pools or swimmers in action. Swallow is a coming of age story built on recollections from Ladocsi’s adolescence and subtle, allegorical images that convey themes of belonging, routines, community, and closeness. The project includes staged images, but more often, Ladocsi says, he works intuitively, photographing from feeling. He took a photo of a lone fish in an outdoor tank in Albania because it stirred a memory of having to travel to swimming competitions abroad.

In another image of a figure suspended in mid-air, Ladocsi intentionally crops out the lake and the summer crowds, turning it into a psychological portrait. “[When I look at this image], it brings to mind the early mornings, when you jump in the water, and you are completely alone in the whole pool. This is when you go really deep into your mind.” He also includes a photo, where his friends are watching the rope jump from another perspective. This exploration of individual and collective experience forms the very basis of Swallow.

Competitive swimming is marked by two extremes: feeling both a part of something, and feeling alone. When you’re spending 1.5 hours in the water, there isn’t the same chit-chat that you might get in long-distance running, for example. “You’re in your own head for the duration of your swim,” Ladocsi says. “This can be really nice but it’s also frustrating. I have a clear memory when I realised I’d made a mistake in my exam and for two hours I was swimming with the same thought — that I hadn’t made the grade.”

Though there are moments of loneliness and nostalgia, the memories in Swallow are conveyed with affection. Ladocsi says this is typical of his style. “There’s a chance that what I’m saying doesn’t match up with the images,” he laughs. “When I photograph, I feel a tremendous sense of happiness. Maybe that’s why my photos have this warmth to them. I use photography to get to know people better, to create a deeper connection with them. I’ve tried taking photos from moments of pain, when I am sad or frustrated. But the process makes me feel better. If I shoot from a negative headspace, subconsciously, I won’t end up using that photo.”

The project title refers to both the bird and to an exercise performed by top-level gymnasts. Though Swallow is not strictly about swimming, it captures the ways that the mind and body work together — at a tender age, when you’re driven by raw emotion and trying to understand who you are.

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