The polar plunge

Viola Rolando went to Coney Island in search of the burlesque but wound up capturing this ocean gathering instead

09

Preparing to dive into the bracing waters of the Atlantic, Italian photographer Viola Rolando caught the people of Coney Island taking a New Year's dip. The annual benefit event was the unintentional subject for this series from the Italian photographer who splits her time between Rome and New York. Originally starting out as a fashion stylist, Rolando has since moved behind the camera. Here Dazed talks to her about capturing the freedom of that day and her interest in youth photography.

Dazed Digital: Where were these photos taken?

Viola Rolando: They were taken at Coney Island, just beside the boardwalk, by the ocean, in front of the very first Luna Park in history, in the heart of the legendary Coney Island of Lou Reed and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

DD: What was the inspiration behind this particular set of photos?

Viola Rolando: That day, my plan was to go to Coney Island to meet and eventually shoot an artist from the Coney Island Circus Side Show, which is a revue in the tradition of Vaudeville, Freak Show, Circus art and Burlesque. When I got there I bumped into this happening; the New Year’s Eve Polar Plunge, a benefit event that takes place every year, January 1. It gathers hundreds of people on the beach, despite the freezing weather. They must wear a bathing suit and take a bath in the ocean. It was very fun, also because it was totally unexpected.

DD: Is there a message that you want to get across in these?

Viola Rolando: Actually, no. No messages behind that series. I just wanted to capture images.

DD: Were the subjects aware you were taking these, at times unflattering, images of their bodies?

Viola Rolando: There's always a lot of people with cameras in Coney Island. That day in particular was really packed with cameras, so I guess that the people at the event were deeply aware of that. Actually many of them were there just to be photographed. A few I shot may have been unaware, but nonetheless they knew there were cameras everywhere. As strange as it may sound, my intent was not to emphasize perfection or imperfection of the bodies, but simply to capture images of absolute freedom and fun.

DD: Everyone seems utterly unselfconscious and free, is this the feeling you were trying to capture? 

Viola Rolando: Exactly! They all seemed really free, and this is what I wanted to capture. 

Dazed Digital: Where did your interest in photography come from and what did you do to nurture that interest?

Viola Rolando: I started out as a fashion stylist, working with many photographers. After a little while, I was always unhappy about the result of the final images. Then, I made the decision to take the camera and shoot my own stories. Movies, books, exhibitions, life, music and people have all inspired me.

DD: What kind of photos and subjects interest you?

Viola Rolando: At the moment I’m much more interested in shooting people and places, rather than fashion and clothes. Expecially young people, as youth is that magic moment in life when every possibility is still open. I like 'raw' images of real people.

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