For eight months, Katherine Williams has been mixing one of her biggest fears with one of her biggest joys nearly every day.
The Cooks Hill photographer has become part of the early morning brigade that braves the ocean waters. For her, the day starts at Bar Beach.
"It just happened," she said. "I wanted to be in the ocean, and I wanted to take photos there."
Williams toyed with taking photos in the ocean about five years ago, getting a waterproof casing for her iPhone6. But she didn't want to invest in a serious water camera, and life went another direction, as she became a full-time wedding photographer.
Williams became consumed by her job, lost interest in taking photos in her spare time. But as she burnt out of the business side, her passion for photography simmered somewhere deeper in her mind.
She enrolled to study social work at the University of Newcastle, the wedding industry came to a sudden halt during the pandemic, and in March this year she ventured back into the ocean with the goal of overcoming her fear of ocean swimming, and maybe capturing her journey through the camera lens.
The ocean ritual has been invigorating to say the least.
"I wanted to go into the ocean, that's great for my mental health," she says over a cup of coffee on a sunny spring day along Newcastle's oceanfront.
Since COVID-19 changed the way we live, Williams starts most days with an early morning plunge into the ocean at Bar Beach, working her way up from the shallows to rougher waters.
Of course, she's not alone. She's joined a club that has been there for a long time, an Australian tradition found around the country. But her view is through the sands of Bar Beach, on the ocean side of Cooks Hill Surf Club.
"There is the 6.30 crowd. And there's the 7 o'clock crowd," she says, "And some people only go to where the surf club is. Other people only swim in the granny area. I try to mix and mingle between the two ...
"They will stay in there for 10 minutes together, have a chit chat. The common experience, especially in winter, of going into the cold water, makes them tough. There's something that really binds it together. They cheer one another one when they are getting in the water. It's very ritualistic."
It's certainly had an affect on Williams.
"I come home and tell my partner, 'it was amazing out there this morning', and he says 'you say that every day', but it is. Whether it's pissing down with rain or beautiful sunshine, it's great."
While she had the desire, the first challenge for Williams was overcoming her fear of the ocean. A few years ago, she enlisted Cooks Hill Surf Life Saving Club stalwart Wayne Whiteman (who died in June) to teach her how to swim in the ocean.
"I used to be so terrified of the ocean," she says. "Last year I did my bronze medallion in surf lifesaving, in which I had two attempts at it. The first time I spent a lot of the time crying on the steps, calling my mum, saying, 'I don't want to go into the water' ... I was so scared."
It took Williams eight years to finally get the courage up to swim in the ocean.
"I met my old swim coach [Whiteman] who taught me to swim about three years ago," she says. "I couldn't swim three years ago. I could not drown, but float. I couldn't swim properly.
"And then I met my swim coach, Wayne, who trained me ... he was much more than a swim coach. He was a bit of a life coach and mentor. I have his voice in my head when I'm swimming and when I'm thinking, 'oh, it's too hard to get up today to go take photos and swim'. I hear his voice in my head: 'Don't miss out. All you've got is memories. All you have is memories later, you have nothing else. So you've got to make more.'"
And now, Williams is going deeper all the time, and almost subconsciously, taking her photography in a more challenging space at the same time.
"On Saturday I want to swim beyond the break," she says during our chat. "It's deep and far for me. Once you're out there, your perspective changes again. Part of it is overcoming my fear of the ocean. My big goal is to swim from Bar Beach to Merewether and back. That's not directly related to taking photos."
They will stay in there for 10 minutes together, have a chit chat. The common experience, especially in winter, of going into the cold water, makes them tough. There's something that really binds it together. They cheer one another one when they are getting in the water. It's very ritualistic.Photographer Katherine Williams
What is the most difficult aspect - the physical conditioning or the fear?
"It's more a fear thing. It will be hard," she says. "It's more of keeping my cool and not panicking. So I'm going to ease my way. By the end of summer."
Williams is an accomplished photographer. She has a distinct documentary style, with stunning black and imagery. She shot extensively at the Wayside Chapel in Sydney and was second in the National Photographic Portrait Prize with an image from her long-term social portrait series "Kids of Carrington".
She would like to eventually combine social work and photography. Last year she ran a photography workshop for young people with disabilities and had an exhibition of their work. It was a good experience for everyone."There is something about creating something and putting your name to it and putting it on the wall that builds confidence," she says.
She says she not approached the ocean project with any "grand expectations", and is comfortable shooting hundreds of images every day, and posting her favourite ones on instagram (@kathwphoto).
In the first weeks of her venture she dropped postcards of some of her images in the bags of her fellow earlybirds, saying 'thanks for letting me point my camera at you" and explaining why she was snapping photos (she uses an Olympus Tough) of them in the water and gave her details.
She has since gifted images to many of them.
Yet, the more she shoots at Bar Beach, the more she becomes engaged with the subjects.
"It's the people and the ocean together. It's not the separation of either. How the people interact with the ocean. I'm not ready to finish yet, I don't think I've captured it yet.
"I also like the challenge of going to the same place and trying to find something new in it. To find a new angle or new perspective of a place. Right now I've come to a point where there is nothing new for me to capture but I know I can overcome that and find a different way.
"That's part of the challenge."