Project documenting wild swimming women in Latin America wins award

Photographer Ana Elisa Sotelo van Oordt wins ‘Picture of the Year’ award for her project (featured in Outdoor Swimmer as ‘World’s End Swimmers’), documenting wild swimming women in Latin America. 

Photographer Ana Elisa Sotelo van Oordt has won the POY Latam ‘Picture of the Year’ award for her “Cardumen de Mujeres” (Wild Swimmers) collection, a long-term photography project that documents groups of women swimming in open water in Latin America. The POY Latam celebrates visual creators of Latin America, to “give ourselves permission to tell our own stories”.  

We caught up with Ana Elisa Sotelo, who featured in the November 2022 issue Outdoor Swimmer and provided the incredible cover image. You can read her original story ‘World’s End Swimmers: Cold water and feminine strength, photographer Ana Elisa Sotelo captures the world’s southernmost swimmers’ here.

How did it feel to win?

It felt great! It’s a mix of feeling surprised, feeling accomplished and feeling proud, not just of myself but also of all the women that have been a part of this project. Because this is a collective project it feels like a shared award. Also I got to watch the judging live, which was nerve-wracking. What I love about this series is that it shows a whole new side of sports – it has to do with connection and community, rather than competition and physique. 

What do you aim to highlight through this ongoing collection of images? 

I explore the transformative power of sisterhood and connection with the natural world. I also show that strength comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and ages. If you look at the women, they are all great sportswomen, but they don’t necessarily fit under the stereotypical image of ‘sportswoman’. This is something I want to change. 

Please can you tell us more about one of your favourite images, and how it felt to capture this community of women?

One of my favourite images shows three women swimming under the storm (see main image). I took this in Coyahique, Chile, in the Lago Atravesado. This is a typical Patagonian winter day, where it can be sunny one second and hailing the next. For this image the group made a circle and I was inside of it. Capturing all the energy and heat as the hail and snow fell on us was exhilarating. The sounds were laughter and screaming and wind and splashes, which though you cannot see in the image you can definitely feel. 

How has your work evolved since you started the project?

As I got deeper into this project I began to explore the theme of women connecting with each other as a form of liberty and liberation. When I was in Patagonia it was actually the women who asked me to take a nude shot, and I began exploring the idea of nudity as a way of empowerment and communion. From there the series ‘Women of the Water’ was born.

How do you think it feels for the women being photographed?

A lot of women share their experience with me, which is one of the most gratifying things about doing collective projects. Many of them have profound emotional experiences when they swim with these groups; for others it’s simply finding a community of like-minded women that has felt extremely important. To some the idea of being seen and showcased for their sport is wonderful; not many people know about it and to be able to share their passion with the world is very fufilling. During the shoots without clothes the feelings intensify. Women have profound self-love experiences; they face fears. Many of them reach out and tell me how it’s changed their perceptions of their bodies, how it’s made them feel powerful in their on-land activities, and improved their ability to stand up for themselves. I could go on, but it’s been amazing. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently away from the sea. I’ve just moved to Washington DC, but I hope to travel to Maine and Vermont this summer to meet and photograph more women! 

Follow Ana Elisa Sotelo’s work at anaelisasotelo.com and @anaelisasotelov. Read ‘World’s End Swimmers: Cold water and feminine strength, photographer Ana Elisa Sotelo captures the world’s southernmost swimmers’ here.

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.