Teaching children how to swim means teaching them to overcome the fear of drowning. If people flew, the challenge would be to conquer the fear of falling. But we are not birds, nor has anyone yet figured out how to fly without the aid of machines. But we can navigate the water and, in principle at least, behave like fishes going places.
When I was a waterfront instructor at a Boy Scout camp, we used to display grappling hooks outside the lifeguard house to discourage horseplay on the water, such as jousting matches in the canvas canoes that were prone to tipping over with a sneeze.
“What is that?” the kids would ask with a look of terror in their eyes as they fingered the perfectly spliced eyelet lash connecting the metal device to the long coil of rope beside it.
“Grappling hooks.” Just that, we were told to say.
Fierce-looking hooks they were, triple-pronged and barbed at the tips, as I recall. Six equidistant hook sets were mounted to a heavy metal pipe about four feet in length and welded to a shaft pipe, very similar to a T-bar found on ski-area rope tows. Only nobody was going up a hill on one of these: This contraption would pull you up to heaven instead.
Theoretically, once any of the hooks caught on to a submerged body-eighteen opportunities to pierce the waterlogged flesh—the idea was to pull the victim up into the rescue boat, hoping the hook hadn’t found the heart, eyes, or other vital organs. Catch as catch can, but as quickly as possible. Desperate measures, nothing high-tech back then. Odds for survival were nil, about as dim as the darkness below, even if the victim were found relatively soon. By the time the divers were called, so were the undertakers. In cases where the body was light and not stuck in the mud, one could imagine a scenario where the rescuers, giving up on finding the victim, decide to drag the hooks all the way back to shore, only to discover there that the body had come along for the ride. Scare tactics for midnight campfires, indeed. Prong-marked ghosts inhabited the nightmares of all of us, I am sure. Bedwetters we became, by the dozen.
It was time to learn to swim.
To prevent oneself from drowning, what the scouts needed to learn was the power of buoyancy, how the air in the lungs holds them on the surface of the water. Swimming is not about staying afloat; in its purest sense it is about propelling oneself from point A to point B. Floating, however, not swimming, is what prevents drowning. But the fear of drowning had to be conquered first: swallowing all that water, dropping down into the deep, dark abyss the way people sink in the movies, down into the land of the grappling hooks.
What we did was throw rocks wrapped in tin foil into shallow water some two feet deep and ask the kids to go fetch ’em. The difficulty of the task, as an adult could imagine in water three feet deep, became immediately clear. The air in the lungs held the kids’ bodies up like balloons. You can’t force a balloon down easily. It wants to pop up with amazing force. We demonstrated that, too. And that was the lesson, of course. Hold your breath. Turn yourself into a balloon. It didn’t take long before their bent-over torsos morphed into suntanned jellyfishes with knees and elbows tucked underneath, one neat little package after the next floating on the water’s surface. Thereafter, all the sidestrokes and frog kicks fell naturally into place. Olympians were on their way.
Holding one’s breath. It became the key to my work in photography, too, and not just for the images made in water but also for hanging off of cliffs or holding impossible positions over the prows of rowboats. There is that moment before the camera shutter clicks when silence reigns. Breathing stops.
I didn’t become aware of “images” until much later in life, however. It was all words after college, short stories and novels that I aspired to create. But when I became a photographer (working on a camera advertising account as a copywriter on Madison Avenue), I often would journey back to the blessed time on the waterfront and imagine the pictures I could have made had I been a little Lartigue at the time. I began to create images in my head using that landscape as the breeding ground for inspiration and invention.
Every two weeks we held a mile swim at the lake that measured—plus or minus the last butterfly victory strokes—about half a mile on a crude map. It meant a round trip, of course. I remember swimming the lake first to make sure the way was clear to the very end where the turn-around buoy would be set. Then, without touching shore, I swam back, a safety rowboat with a pole watcher in the stern keeping pace with me off to the side, just the way the kids who would go next were escorted safely across and back in what for many of them was their first attempt at personal glory.
A field of upright poles crossed the lake like knights and lances in that Uccello painting of old. It was not a race against anyone, not even against the clock. Either you made it or you disqualified yourself. By the first lap, half the kids had called for the pole and climbed on board the rowboat, white towels of surrender covering their shivering bodies.
The total distance took almost two hours as I recall, long enough to turn you into a fish. Physically, all you had to do was to breathe rhythmically and rotate the strokes—from back to side to breast to crawl and back again. Mentally, it was all about vision—the trees and mountains, the clouds and beyond, still images inside a goggle-eyed viewfinder. Passing the mile swim test was a victory against the grappling hooks, and every kid who passed it crossed a great divide: the miracle of faith over fear.
That was the great lesson in the fine art of swimming. Learning to trust in something beyond yourself. Perhaps it also taught me something about photography: that my best pictures happen when I trust the camera to make them, just the way we rely on the water to hold us there on that gleaming and wonderful sheet of nothingness.
“What happens inside your mind can happen inside a camera.” It was the headline I wrote for Minolta that convinced me I could try it myself.
When the ability to question outdistances our ability to answer, faith takes over. It was at this point that photography became my language, the expression through which I would try to speak.
Arno Rafael Minkkinen is a Finnish-American photographer. His work has been shown at over two hundred exhibitions worldwide and appears in permanent collections including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. (updated 6/2010)