To fulfil his need for adventure during lockdown, Mike Guest, a photographer and filmmaker who had spent his life travelling the world, had to try to see the world through different eyes. Specifically, seal eyes.
“When you swim out and don’t look back, you can forget the city is there. When you’re down to that ‘seal’s eye view’, as I like to call it, it’s magical. You can pick so much out – I’m finding adventures in small ripples, or miniature waves, the reflection of the moonlight, the clouds. And it all changes, every day.”
Mike’s ‘seal’s eye view’ photos are a creative expression of finding something new and beautiful in the everyday. By swimming and taking photos each morning, Mike transforms tiny ripples on Portobello beach in Edinburgh into roaring barrel waves, soaring mountain vistas and swirling abstract paintings.
The photos and videos Mike has made during lockdown are his contribution to Dawn Days, a project started by Mike and his friend Nick Pumphrey as a response to Covid-19 lockdown. For a self-described “perpetual motion machine” like Mike, suddenly being confined to one place for a long stretch of time was a momentous shock. When the pandemic hit Mike was in Austria working on Patagonia’s Worn Wear tour, planned as a 60-day trip stopping in locations in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy for a few days at a time. This type of work was normal for Mike, who for the past 21 years had done most of his work away from Scotland.
“It was like someone chucked an anchor out of the boat and you’re still motoring along, then the next thing you know everything just stopped and there was nothing in the future. Everything came tumbling down,” said Mike.
'It was like someone chucked an anchor out of the boat and you’re still motoring along, then the next thing you know everything just stopped and there was nothing in the future. Everything came tumbling down.'
A simple suggestion from Nick during a phone call in April 2020 set Mike on his path to embracing new experiences to be found on his doorstep and launched a project which would eventually include around 60 collaborators spread from Shetland to Cornwall.
Mike explained: “Nick said at the end of the call, ‘I’m thinking of swimming out every morning at the blue hour, the hour before sunrise, and I’m going to take some photos.’ I thought ‘Oh yeah, I can do the same.’ So it started in a very simple way – two pals swimming out, then chatting afterwards. We’d post some photos up and people were enjoying seeing that, because they couldn’t get to the beach.”
Mike and Nick swam every morning of May 2020, posting pictures and videos online and inviting others to join in. As Mike’s website explains, there are no rules to Dawn Days. The project was an invitation for people to immerse themselves in nature every morning. For Mike and Nick, they celebrated the act by making photos and videos. Others have made audio recordings or paintings. Some people just swim.
With their collaborators, Mike and Nick have separately made films about the project – titled The Ripple Effect and Be There, Be Present – and are now working together on a book. Mike reflects that during lockdown people had time to immerse themselves in something creative and were glad to collaborate on a project about the here and now – a welcome focus whilst the future was so unknowable.
When a new lockdown was announced at the start of this year, Mike and Nick got their wetsuits back on for January and the Dawn Days of Winter. Mike said that swimming in Edinburgh in January was every bit as cold as you’d expect: “There was a lot of snow. It covered the beach. One morning I was parked in my van getting ready and there was a woman cross-country skiing.”
Before starting Dawn Days, Mike had been exploring Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In his Dawn Days Instagram posts, Mike spoke openly about how lockdown was impacting his mental health. Without realising it, Mike’s Dawn Days swims and social media posts continued his ACT practice: “I was going out swimming every morning, for myself first and foremost. But it also has a purpose that isn’t just for me. Helen [Mike’s ACT therapist] was laughing because I’d accidentally started [practicing ACT]. I made a promise to myself that if I’m going to be on these horrendously curated, algorithm-driven platforms - which as a photographer I feel bound to be - I’m going to be really honest. I stopped worrying about what people were thinking, and just put my dyslexic rambles out there.”
As more people got involved, Dawn Days became about more than the act of swimming, or creating photos. “I stopped going out everyday, but started talking to the people involved about what they were doing and why they were doing it,” Mike said. “For me one of the most positive things has been the sense of community I’ve developed and the people I’ve met.”
Walking along Portobello with Mike, you can see the community Dawn Days has built. Mike greats, or is greeted by, almost everyone, from the swimmers to the café owners setting up for the morning and the bin men doing their rounds. One swimmer says hello to Mike, then says to her friend: “This is the Dawn Days guy I was telling you about.”
The connections Mike’s made have clearly made all the early mornings worth it: “There are three ladies who swam out in January for charity who have become pals – one of them, Emily, nicknamed us the Sunrise Social Club. It’s really nice. I’d get up, go for a swim, do some litter picking, do some shooting, wander back with them and have a chat. Getting to know them was brilliant.” Mike reflects that the community around Dawn Days has grown through people seeking an element of purposeful routine, and a meaningful way of interacting with others away from computers or phones.
Despite Covid restrictions easing, Mike isn’t planning on jumping straight back into his old life. He still plans to travel, but is aiming to recreate the immersive experience of Dawn Days in other settings, spending more time in places and communities to deepen his experience and learn more from the people around him.
Unsurprisingly for someone who spends so much time swimming, Mike uses the sea as an analogy to illustrate how Dawn Days has helped him better manage his mental health: “All of this has been a process, to deal with relationship breakups, being out of work, and the losses of identities we feel, these perceived holes that are left in our lives.
“It’s really important for me to say that Dawn Days didn’t ‘fix’ me, it isn’t a silver bullet. It’s kind of like building a harbour round your mind, for letting bad thoughts out and letting good thoughts in. If it’s stormy out there, you’ve got a sense of calm inside. You can head out into the storm if you want, but you know you’ve always got a place of refuge to go.”