While on assignment in Dandong, China last December, photographer Elijah Hurwitz happened upon a group of swimmers who took their laps in unlikely waters: the Yalu River. It's a 500-mile long waterway that borders China’s Liaoning province on one side, and North Korea on the other. They call themselves the Yalu River Swimmer's Association, and some of them have been swimming together for 20 years or more.
“The stronger swimmers will sometimes cross the entire width and then rest in the shallows of Sinuiju, North Korea before swimming back, but nobody I spoke with has ever run into trouble with North Korean border guards,” Hurwitz said. “As long as they stay in the water they seem to be left alone.”
When Hurwitz first noticed people swimming in the river, it was about zero degrees Fahrenheit outside, cold enough that his camera batteries barely lasted. The swimmers, however, were doing laps in half-frozen water, many of them without wetsuits.
“Seeing their big smiles and gusto for life felt like a stark contrast to the barren landscape of North Korea on the opposite shore and the doomsday specter of nuclear war,” Hurwitz said.
Though many Chinese who live near the border were initially reluctant to speak with a foreigner about North Korea in these tense times, they gradually opened up to the photographer. “Of course the residents of Dandong share those fears,” Hurwitz explained. “They are close enough to North Korea that people here could feel the earthquake last year allegedly triggered by underground nuclear testing. But for people who live on the border, everyday life goes on, and the swimmers are undeterred. “