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Home Art & Design Kristin Gates captures the cold truth about Polar Bears

Kristin Gates captures the cold truth about Polar Bears


For over a month in late winter on the Coney Island Boardwalk, Kristin Gates met with her Projects in Advanced Style and Media class for Sunday breakfast at Tom’s coffee shop and then went out shooting. They were there to photograph members of the storied Coney Island Polar Bear Club.

“The ‘Bears’ come from all of the five boroughs,” says Gates. “Swimming is their version of church. They love to run into the freezing cold harbor waters in weather that would be unbearable to most of us.” Gates captured them in devout contemplation.

Kristin Gates

“After breakfast we would go to the Polar Bear clubhouse near the Cyclone,” said class Professor Curtis Willocks. “We mingled, interviewed the ‘Bears’ and made our way down to the beach and into the water.”

Says Gates “One woman I spoke to about becoming a Polar Bear told me it helped her overcome addiction and the loss of her father.”

Photography Professor Brad Farwell praised Gates’ work.

“The quiet intensity of Kristin’s photographs is a reflection of the Polar Bears themselves, said Farwell.

“The act of plunging into the frigid water requires mental rather than physical strength, and these portraits convey that beautifully.”

“They seemed to pray to the sun gods to overcome their personal demons,” says Gates.

“This wall (above) is where everyone goes after their swim,” says Prof. Willocks. “It faces the sun in the morning and at the end of the swim the club gathers there. None of Kirstin’s images are staged; she was just there at the right time.”

Another swimmer told Gates that the cold water helps his body by decreasing inflammation.

Kristin Gates

“For all the various reasons they come, they swim with friends and family, enjoying every moment wading into the cold harbor,” says Gates.

“After you leave the ocean,” says Prof. Willocks, “the members pause for a moment and take in the warmth of the sun, sometimes it reminds me of meditation.”

Kristin Gates

“I swam once myself and within seconds I couldn’t feel my feet or legs. But afterwards, my body and mind felt deeply relaxed,” said Gates.

When Gates graduates from FIT she hopes to become an environmental portrait photographer. “I find beauty in capturing people in their environment.”