When the world was plunged into a global crisis in early 2020 we all developed our own coping mechanisms. Anxiety is a strange and often debilitating feeling. Cornish photographer Nick Pumphrey had a similar reaction to many of us, having trouble sleeping and worrying about the future. His reaction though, was quite unique - he decided to take his camera and swim in the sea before dawn and to document that experience, combining his two great loves: the ocean and photography.
These swims became a ritual, and the ritual spread and grew into something of a creative movement: Dawn Days. A personal project that outgrew Nick and blossomed into a community of people using creativity and nature to cope with anxious times.
Interview by Goodrays, all images © Nick Pumphrey
Nick, it’s been amazing watching the Dawn Days project develop, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?
The Dawn Days project was my personal way of dealing with uncomfortable feelings. Lockdown arrived, an experience that took the majority of us by surprise, freedom was threatened and we all had to stop and face ourselves, all of us dealing with it in different ways. My way of dealing with it was to connect to nature and be true to myself, to ask myself what it was that I loved to do, these two things have always made sense to me, the sea and creativity. The month of May 2020 came around and I swam out into St Ives Bay before sunrise without much more intention than to just watch and capture. That first morning I was greeted with blazing morning colours, I yelled to the sky in delight and I decided I would swim again the next day. A small personal project by the name of 'Dawn Days of May' was born.
Why do you think the idea connected with others so well?
I think purely because the whole idea was to connect to nature and to be creative. These two things are are so powerful, so very human, it is everything that we are and also something we have lost touch with, almost like a tapping back into the source and stripping back from all the noise and confusion of what we think we need.
"My approach was always to capture what was happening in front of me without trying to make it too perfect. The thing is with the sea and the way light plays is that it is beautifully random and never ever the same"
So many photography projects are highly personal and Dawn Days started that way but quickly spread. I’ve loved seeing the project grow and more photographers join/contribute their version. How did it feel when you realised it was becoming something bigger than a personal ritual? Was it hard to let go?
It has been nothing but heart warming to see the project grow especially in the beginning. To be out there alone each morning and bit by bit realise that someone else was taking part was so fun, it felt like this little good vibe gang was growing and I loved seeing that. The whole idea was to take photos to help or inspire so any kind of personal gain was not really in my mind. Someone recently told me that it is good to be able to let go of projects and to be aware of not letting something define you so with that in mind I'm happy for the Dawn Days project to keep floating around and to be steered by those who enjoy those simple yet powerful rewards that it offers.
Just how far and wide has it spread? Are you keeping contact with many people through the project?
From what I know it was mainly here in the UK but it did spread to parts of the US, Australia, France and even the Alps! I had messages from all over the world even though they may have not been taking part. I have stayed in touch with many and have recently got to meet a lot of people who were taking part. I reckon a winter mission around the UK to see everyone who got involved, go swim at their beaches, that would be pretty rad!
A Dawn Days roadtrip would be great! Can anybody contribute just by getting up and shooting at dawn and hashtagging on insta?
For sure anybody can do it and it does not have to be in the Sea. I chose that element because I'm fortunate to live near to it and because it's my love. Just getting up before the sun rises, getting out into nature be it the forest, the hills, mountains, rivers or lakes, even laying down some where and looking straight up into the infinite sky, this action will ground you and quieten the mind, along with that you can choose any creative pursuit that you like, do some writing, drawing or even dance like no one is watching! :)
"We were never in control and we will never ever be so we may as well learn to flow with it all and just enjoy what it is"
It must feel amazing to have started something quite simple, for personal reasons, and to see it spread and have a genuinely positive impact on people’s lives…
Yes absolutely!! We do not need much to feel great, the western world has projected the idea that we need to all these things to have a positive impact on our lives when really all we need is to slow down, love and be loved, be in nature and do what we love to do. In the project i did just that, it was my way of being very true to myself, the most authentic I have ever been and the response has reflected that. I had so many lovely messages, people who were struggling way way harder than myself, they found peace and joy in the project, either from watching from the phone or by taking part as they could. There is a book by an amazing chap called Satish Kumar, 'Elegant Simplicity', one to be read and one that touches on the importance of all of the above.
Tell me a bit about Warbey. He’s a recurring presence in your images and captions. I get the impression this project has really changed his life…
Yeah brother Warbey has gone through a pretty big transition over the last year and a half, I have witnessed physical and mental changes, I have seen a man face fears, overcome some of them and continues to address the others. Our friendship has become so strong through getting up and floating in the sea. He is alive today, he has found something that he loves to do and realises that he is a better person for getting into the sea. It has been cool to witness, it does make you wonder how transforming it can be for many others.
It seems like you have developed quite a strong Dawn Days community, especially centred around St. Ives…
Yes for sure we did, especially last winter during the 111 dawn swims, during the darkest dawns we had many that would join, my 'DM'S' would be kicking off every evening as to where we would swim the next morning. Myself and James Hardy did 100 in a row together, pre-sunrise whatever the conditions and we absolutely loved it. There is something really cool about having a buddy that is as amped as you, maybe James was actually more amped!! He has been like my older brother for two decades but we kind of lost touch, those swims made our friendship so strong, we are already excited about doing it again this winter!!
I would have been tempted to do this at dusk (I’m not my best in the morning) what do you think is so special about that blue hour at dawn?
The light and the experience is probably as beautiful be it dusk or dawn but the big difference I feel is how you start your day and how that will ultimately effect the flow of it. There is power in routine, to get up and face something that feels uncomfortable, there is reward in that and you will naturally buzz from it. There is the immersion into the Sea - a GIANT pool of energy! There’s the morning light. I’m not a proffesional in this field but there is a lot of info on the benefits of light as it passes through your eyes and effects every cell in your body. Combine that with doing something that you really love and it is quite the recipe before you even get going with your day.
This might be an odd question but do you have trouble sleeping? Or did you before you started getting up at dawn?!
I sleep pretty well today. I always have slept very well. I started doing the dawns because I was having trouble sleeping during the early days of lockdown. I couldn’t stop thinking or trying to figure out what was coming up next, basically a ball of anxiety. When I started the Dawn Days my sleeping went back to normal. My friend had sleeping problems for 15 years, after two weeks of early starts and swims with me his sleeping issues were gone. Wild hey?!
There’s something so endlessly captivating about the play of light on water - the infinite possibilities and details. Capturing it can be challenging. Can you talk a bit about your approach and if your approach has changed over time?
My approach was always to capture what was happening in front of me without trying to make it too perfect. The thing is with the Sea and the way light plays is that it is beautifully random and never ever the same. I think my approach has to be in line with these ideas, to flow with what comes my way and not try to take control. This also becomes a great teacher for life, to flow, to surrender and to not try and control, because it's impossible anyway. We were never in control and we will never ever be so we may as well learn to flow with it all and just enjoy what it is. So yes, the approach is the same and I think that is the beauty of it, just to simply watch the beauty happening and capture a few frames of it.
One might think it could get repetitive or boring doing the same thing again and again but the impression I get from the pictures you publish is that light and sea conditions are so varied that you rarely get the same thing twice…
This is true, no two dawns are the same but for sure it can be repetitive. Currently I am bored of photographing the sun dancing on the sea. It IS so beautiful but now my mind is transfixed on the up and coming winter, I'm craving wild oceanic winter shapes, the mood that this season brings. Ideas in black and white, grainy and raw.
Do you mix up the camera gear to keep it fresh?
I mix up the lenses on my digital set up and have recently been using some analog cameras in and out of the sea, only using high asa BW film with an approach to find the abstract shapes under low light. It has got me really excited to shoot again and I love the anticipation of it all, not really knowing but having that belly excitement that maybe maybe I just got a little something special.
As we’ve touched on, the pictures can be wildly different from day to day. Do you think your mood affects the images?
Totally. My mood plays a big part in what I choose to shoot. Also the seasons play an even bigger part. I'm in a happy place right now, I feel light and I feel extra excited about the winter and creating. I want to capture the sea and I love the idea of presenting in in a certain manner. I suppose you’ll have to wait and see what my mood will create.
Is there sometimes a particular image in mind when you swim out or is it more reactive?
Definitely more reactive but at the same time it is only natural to want to improve on what you have already done. I have images burning in my mind that of course need certain conditions to be able to capture. So i would say a mix of both, my style has always been authentic documentary, I like my photography to be real, to have something that really happened and was not forced, but as a creative I am always dreaming up ideas to move forward with!
"Anxiety is basically your mind trying to figure out the future or to control the future. When you are creative be it with a camera or paint brush you are able to become present, to really be in the here and the now where anxiety cannot exist"
Are there certain images you find yourself going back for? Either something you want to repeat or something you haven’t got yet?
Sometimes but I don't go too heavy on myself, it's not really a big deal in the grand scheme and I do feel that my best work often comes out of nowhere, maybe it is because naturally I choose to observe and am open to what may come. But that is just how I feel now, the creative process is so intricate and forever changing so tomorrow I may be seeing it all totally different.
As humans our lives are so closely linked to sunlight and the rhythm of the sun don’t you think?
YES!! Once upon a time we would rise and drop to sleep depending on the sun and the moon. It all comes back to our disconnection to nature. I feel that we have to reconnect, it is what we are and all of our problems are literally because we have separated from our real home, thinking we are above it or do not need it. So yes the rhythm of the sun, the tides, the seasons, the moon, every bit of it is important.
I think many people (me included) have found that photography can really help them with anxiety and mental health, why do you think that is?
Anxiety is basically your mind trying to figure out the future or to control the future. When you are creative be it with a camera or paint brush you are able to become present, to really be in the here and the now where anxiety cannot exist. 'The Power of Now' by Eckhart Tolle is an amazing book for explaining this. If you love photography then you are basically doing something that makes you happy and you are being present which keeps you peaceful in your thoughts. All very powerful stuff and so accessible too!!
CBD helps a lot of people with anxiety. Have you tried CBD? What’s your experience of it?
I have tried CBD and my experience is only positive. Hard to totally explain but I suppose a feeling of inner calm and one that my dreams are exciting and possible. Way less inner stress that is replaced by a warmer lighter feeling.
A lot of people are drinking less alcohol, looking for alternative ways relax and unwind. Have you noticed that yourself and in your social circles?
These days give a good bottle of red wine and some conversation with depth. Those days in the pubs getting sideways to make myself feel better are long gone. Now I know what my chosen remedies are and it starts from within. It’s about my environment and the people I choose to surround myself with. I'm lucky to be surrounded by some very strong and positive mindsets here in Cornwall, I feel like a good movement is happening right now, good conversations on food and community, growing local, supporting local, being fit and healthy and less self destruction.
I’ve noticed you’re involved with something called Holan Collective. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Yes myself, Harriet Bayliss (Marazul clothing) and Warbey along with Chris Proctor (Who gave us the space) have opened up a little creative space. No rigid plans apart from to encourage creativity. We have had exhibitions, supper clubs, DJ's, Growers Markets, La Femme weekend which showcased all of the incredible women around here that are involved in sustainable clothing and art. A lot has happened in a short time, HOLAN is really about the collective, we may have opened the doors but it is all about the people that have come in, the ideas that get thrown around, the real conversations about how to move forward, not doing it for money, doing it because it's of importance to our generation and those kids that are coming up.
Is Daw Days an open ended project or do you see and end to it? (Can you even decide now it’s grown into a movement?)
It is what it is, it will find its own way. I won't put an end to it, I think it’s too good to even consider finishing. I may not be as involved as much as I was, but I know it is always there, I know I can say to a friend let's go swim tomorrow and it will feel good and that is a cool thought, it is the real medicine, an antidote to a disconnected system.
I spoke to Mike Guest a while ago about a possible Dawn Days book. Is that happening?
Yeah I remember Mike talking about a book in the early days. I think it is a wonderful idea, all those photos deserve to be printed. I would be up for a book so if anyone out there would like to help with that then do reach out. I actually made a 240 page book for myself. I felt like I needed to rush it and get it out there but now I'm happy to not rush. It was a wild time for all of us, a time that changed a lot of lives for better and for worse. A book documenting a little movement to the sea will always have a place in time and I would love to work on that with Mike and the crew. Mike was there from beginning, he is a beauty, another good friendship that was born from going to the Sea. I should probably get in my camper and go up there this winter to see him.
What’s next for you?
Just stay in tune with myself, try and be a better human, stay true to my dreams and enjoy the flow of it all.