The project Swimming Women is a photography series by Ivana Dostálová where she tries to empower women’s self-esteem and to chase away the shame we might feel when looking at our bodies. Her series captures swimmers she met when visiting the public pool in Podolí and presents their stories. The artist aims to free women from negative feelings and allow them to swim confidently and freely, regardless of body shape or age. The project also brings forth the important topic of empowerment and mental health, which has become a current issue not just in the world of sports.
The project entitled Swimming Women is a series of portrait photographs showing female swimmers from the Podolí pool. Altogether, it shows 30 different women and their unique stories about their relationships to swimming, but also to themselves.
In the Beginning, There Was a Pool
The project’s initial idea was conceived when the photographer became a regular visitor at the Podolí swimming pool. It was here that she met other female swimmers and came up with the idea to document these women. "The idea for the project didn’t come out of nowhere, it developed over the last five years, during which have been going swimming in Podolí. Gradually, I have been feeling, sensing and observing the environment and the different types of women I came to meet here," says Ivana. The idea started a series of photographs focusing on body empowerment and showing off the women in their natural beauty while reflecting upon their relationship to swimming, their body and also how they feel in the environment of the swimming pool itself. The photographer herself says that the feelings that led her to this project are hard to describe and have to be experienced instead: “You enter the changing room and you see women of different ages and shapes, some come in with walking aids, some you meet every day, at the same hour. Swimming has become a part of their daily ritual. Even one of the women here, who is completely blind, comes regularly. Here you get to openly see all physicality that is otherwise hidden and shunted away in modern society.”
Ivana uses her photos to show that swimming is for everyone. Women are often reluctant to enter the swimming pool because of fears about their own appearance, their figure or lack of fitness. However, in her series, the photographer proves that these fears are unnecessary and only hold women back from taking that first step. Ivana adds:
No matter who we are, no matter what we have been through, no matter whether we have scars on our body or on our soul - the water accepts us and embraces us as we are.
Community is Stronger than Fear
The photographer has been focusing on documenting women in her work for a long time, which is one of the reasons why we don't see any men in this series, although the subject matter could be extended to them as well. Another reason is the practical side of things, namely that as a visitor she regularly comes into contact with the women almost immediately upon entering, at the moment they come into the changing rooms, where the first sharing of nudity and the associated feelings and fears also takes place, as she explains: ”It’s the changing rooms, even more than the pool where everyone becomes more focused on their personal universe in the water, that represent the backstage, the sharing of stories, the creation of a community, the shared nudity, the atmosphere that a photographer must naturally tap into and absorb to be able to create a project that is personal and deep."
Ivana approached the women using a flier with an invitation to participate in the project. They could therefore apply themselves, the primary motivation being the chance to offer support to other women. The photoshoot took place both in the Podolí swimming pool and in the photographer's home studio.
"In a somewhat unconventional way, the photos in the pool area were mostly taken outside the water and then in my studio, we expressed our feelings in the water while swimming," Ivana adds, explaining that she had not met any of the women before the shoot and that there wasn’t even an information meeting about what the shoot would look like. "We only established a relationship during the shoot, when I photograph I get up close and I consider the relationship between the photographer and the photographed in this case to be deeply personal. A lot of people ask me how it is possible that in my photographs the women look as if we have known each other for a long time, how they seem so relaxed. It's the way I work, it's a form of how I function as a person, where there's a kind of connection and a form of sharing between me and the person I'm photographing in the course of the shoot. The women and I shot different types of portraits as part of the project, combining photography with handwritten texts, expressing feelings and emotions, so that as well as capturing the physical form of the body and figure, there was also a visual capture of each woman's soul, creating a deeper, psychological photographic study."
Message of Support
An important element of the project is also the written texts, which are intended to express the swimmers’ messages and to give other women more motivation to overcome their inner setbacks. "It turned into a kind of human wave where the women started to write me their stories about water and swimming, in some cases becoming profoundly open and honest about their body insecurities and their personal experiences. I was very happy that the project was able to get them to open up like that and that it was able to create a safe space where no one would judge them," Ivana describes her feelings.
The Swimming Women project opens the doors to the sport’s community and provides a unique perspective on the swimming pool environment to show what a fascinating phenomenon it is. It also brings the human side of the sport to life. No longer do we see anonymous swimmers struggling to achieve the perfect physique, a great performance or flawless style. Instead, it shows us that our fears and insecurities are often similar and can be shared, even in such intimate and vulnerable moments as changing in the women's locker room.
And what are the photographer’s feelings about the entire process?
Photographing the Swimmers has brought me extraordinary human encounters. Each of the women is different and each taught me something - about life, water, swimming, femininity, pride, bravery…different opinions, views and deep human wisdom.
She elaborates: “When working on the project I realised that it was swimming and the pool that taught me to get rid of my shame, the place where I learnt to accept nudity as something natural, which definitely has not always been the case for me. At the same time, my view of swimming and pools became more personal, I don’t go to an anonymous pool, I feel at home here. I also started swimming naked in nature more often and I feel very natural and feminine this way.”
The author adds that she does not consider the project to be a closed chapter, quite the contrary. She is currently planning to follow it up with a look into the community of women who swim in the Vltava River. In addition, she is also expecting that it will be easier to get closer not only to female swimmers, but also to male swimmers in the outdoor environment, so it may happen that men’s portraits will be added to the artist's portfolio. She would like her work to continue to show insight into a community that is very close to her.
"In itself, [the community] works on the same principle as my project; to show water and swimming as an intelligent system and a type of escape and safe space in today's value- and performance-driven age, where, as I have had the opportunity to discover, the swimming community functions as an open maternal embrace that accepts everyone regardless of their physical form, body shape, age, health, illness, or disability, and in which no one is ever left alone," she adds.
Ivana Dostálová is a photographer from Jablonec nad Nisou. She has been living and working in Prague since 1998. She graduated in biology and later obtained a doctorate in physiology and neurobiology at Charles University. In 2013 she decided to pursue photography professionally and founded Voitopi Photography, a studio that focuses on artistic, commercial and documentary photography. Her portfolio includes a variety of projects, among the most famous is a series called "My Prague", in which she captures the atmosphere of Prague and important events, or a series of photographs in which she focused on documenting the background of the Oncogynecology Center at the General University Hospital in Prague and the historic building "U Apolináře", which later resulted in the book "The stories behind hospital walls". In addition to these topics, since 2014 she has also been photographing children's dance and ballet for the time-lapse series "First Steps". In recent years, she has also been working on psychosocial projects, The Self Study and the therapeutic potential of Photography, and is a graduate of the PGCert Therapeutic Photography at Robert Gordon University in Scotland. She is also a double nominee in the Czech Press Photo competition and was shortlisted in the Sony World Photography Awards in 2023.