Photography led Paul Frangipane to reconnect to his home city of New York and rediscover his love of swimming
In the summer of 2021, I set out to document New York harbour, looking at it as the vital piece of New York city that it is, as an accessible body of water for city dwellers to enjoy. Camera in hand, I canoed on superfund sites, kayaked in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and observed a volunteer-run water testing initiative. But of course the most striking form of water recreation in the stigmatised city waters, is swimming.
I reached out to the group Urban Swim, who organise open water swims around the harbour as a way of promoting and increasing water health and accessibility, feeling the absolute need to photograph the few people who get to experience the city from that floating perspective. Months later my camera was wrapped in a budget protective housing and I was jumping off a motorboat into the East River.
When I brought my head up and caught a glimpse of Lower Manhattan from the very body of water that helped make it the symbol that it is today, something in me changed. I suddenly felt a new connection to the city that I couldn’t shake.
I photographed as swimmers prepared for a 0.6-mile swim that would bring them under the Brooklyn Bridge. The swim, and others like it, show what is already possible in New York harbour and they beckon to a future when more people will be able to enjoy these waters.
Those photos became my favourites of the project and garnered the most attention, prompting conversations about the cleanliness of the water. Yes, in fact the water is clean enough to swim in most of the time, in many sites around the city, I would tell people when they asked, quietly hoping that they would trust me and try out a swim one day as well.
I’ve been photographing Urban Swim events ever since but at this year’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim, when I jumped into the East River, I left my camera on board and took part in my first official open water swim. It marked a full circle moment for me, not only in going from an observer to a participant, but coming from a childhood of competitive swimming and becoming disillusioned with the sport at a young age, it marked a return to swimming for me.
I found my way back to swimming on terms that excited me, in a way that helps me connect to the city I live in and love and that hopefully allows me to advocate for its water bodies.
During the swim, I couldn’t help but feel emotional as I looked over to the piers of Brooklyn Bridge Park, spots I’ve stood so many times looking across the river to Manhattan and peering into the water below. “I’m finally in here,” I thought. “And I’m allowed to be!”
I wonder how many people looking on from land that day will research New York’s water quality or look into swimming options in the city, or simply become interested in open water swimming, like I did.
I look forward to a day when more New Yorkers of all backgrounds can enjoy their waterways. But with more water accessibility in the urban area, we must also demand more affordable or free access to swim classes and water safety education for children and adults. For there are too many people who have not gotten the chance to feel what the water has to offer.
Read about Leslie Hamilton’s record-breaking swim around Staten Island.