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Freeze-Frame: Taking a Dip in Denmark’s Icy Waters

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9 year-old Jonathan breaks through the ice after plunging into the freezing water for a swim. He uses the edge of the hard ice to pull himself above the surface. His skin turned very red from the low temperatures.

This post was originally published in April 2014. We’re resurfacing it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.—The Proof Team

Most of us long for spring to settle in—to stop its flirtation and thaw the ground, green the trees, and lengthen the days. This is not the case for eight-year-old Lily Sølvig Wedel Krambeck, a member of Amager Strand Sejlinstitution’s Polar Bear Ice Swimmer Club in Copenhagen, Denmark. “I don’t look forward to spring because then the ice swimmer season is over,” she says.

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“I don’t look forward to spring because then the ice swimmer season is over.” Lily Sølvig Wedel Krambeck, 8

When photographer Daniel Hjorth, a student at the Danish School of Journalism and an intern at Danish newspaper Politiken, was assigned the task of illustrating a particularly cold and clingy winter, he came across a team of thick-skinned youth who were not only surviving the frigid season but immersing themselves in its most intense manifestation.

“Ice swimming is a pretty common thing here,” Hjorth explains. “Denmark is a small country with many islands, and the sea is never more than few hours away. Summertime and high temperatures only last a few months, so if you want to enjoy the water you have to get used to the cold.”

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“People say that ice swimming gives you a better immune system.” Carl Ryskov Aagesen, 12

“Some kids stay in the water for only a moment; none of the children remain for much longer than 15 seconds. In the really cold winter months, most children only do one dip. After the swim they would find their towels and get inside for a hot shower and maybe a cup of tea, but no hot chocolate–the teacher believed that the kids should learn that they didn’t need a reward for ice swimming, that the swimming was the reward itself.”—Daniel Hjorth

Rather than document the entire process of the ice swim, Hjorth realized that the most descriptive representation of the experience could be captured by isolating the frozen faces of the children after they emerged from the icy waters. “I thought that the whole story of these kids could be told in just the expression on their faces, and that you did not need to see the ice and snow to understand what a cold experience these brave children were going through.”

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“I look forward to getting my first ice swimmer diploma.” Viggo Plehn Prehn, 9

Hjorth set up a white backdrop on a jetty by the water. After the children finished their swim, ice crystals still in their hair, he made their portraits. “The children were wet and cold and wanted to go inside for a hot shower, but I had to insist on getting at least 20 shots of every child. I think they hated me at that particular moment. But afterwards, when we went back inside and I showed them the pictures, they were happy and we could laugh about the whole situation.”

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“My dad said that I will get a present if I finish the season.” Dicte Havelykke Thomasen, 7

So what motivates these kids to consistently plunge into uncomfortably cold waters? “Some said it was a question of friendship, challenge, and unity. Others mentioned health benefits for the immune system, blood flow, and such.” This is not enough of a motivation for everyone, though. When the young ice swimmers began their season in September their team had a hearty 23 members. Once the water reached minus 2 degrees, however, only 12 swimmers remained. For those who carry on, there is a reward. “When the children have finished the season, the club throws a big party where all their parents come and they get a diploma for their courage and perseverance.”

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“When I hit the water surface, it feels like my whole body pulls together.” Jonathan Ryskov Aagesen, 9

For Hjorth, a party might not be enough of an incentive. “To be honest, I hate cold water. I have been swimming in the fall and in the wintertime, but never as these kids do with ice on the top and everything.”

Images from Daniel Hjorth’s project, Ice Swimmer Kids, were recognized in the 68th annual College Photographer of the Year competition, placing gold in the Interpretive Eye category and silver in the Interpretive Project category. See more of Hjorth’s work on his website.

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