We shouldn’t let a new year full of cataclysms obscure all those brave souls who’ve been jumping into super-cold water without their clothes. (1, 2, 3). Judging from the rate at which they keep popping up, photos of these festive polar bear swimmers have come to anchor winter’s visual fare. Apparently we like to see random people strip down to their skivvies and take the arctic plunge. This latest group dive comes from Bulgaria’s version of Epiphany Day, where local swimmers compete to see who can be the first to fetch a wooden cross from the icy water and hopefully not drown or go into hypothermic arrest.
There’s something rich about the placement of the cross in this photograph–floating there just beyond arm’s reach–that illustrates how even the smallest visual element can change a mundane image into one that plays on grand cultural themes. Maybe all you need to do is throw in an well-placed religious symbol, and wha lah, the visual narrative changes instantly from folly to piety. A winter cold rush turns into an epic quest for the beatific. These men go from looking like rowdy buckaroos to appearing like so many seraphs floating gracefully in a white celestial sphere. After all, these men are walking on a body of water. And yet, as a piece of visual commentary on how the season has a way of driving people into a frenzy, where the eager and the committed scramble to get their hands on the prize, this photograph might work better if we read it simply as a well-timed and deftly composed lemming analogy.
— Philip Perdue
(photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters. caption: Men jump into the waters of a lake in an attempt to grab a wooden cross on Epiphany Day in Sofia, Bulgaria, January 6, 2015.)