The Underwater World – Ellen Cuylaerts

Photographer Ellen Cuylaerts captures images of sea creatures that are strikingly serene, peaceful, and intimate.

Award-winning Belgian photographer Ellen Cuylaerts captures images of ocean wildlife that are serene, peaceful, and strikingly intimate. With a masterful understanding of composition and light, Ellen captures images from another world, bringing her viewers into a realm still so foreign to the humanity.

Ellen Cuylaerts
“My main goal with underwater photography is to create a contact between human and animal, not by touching but through recognition of the soul.” – Ellen Cuylaerts
Ellen travels the world for her freelance underwater and wildlife photography, documenting animals in each region and the particular challenges they are facing. She currently lives and works on Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, where she dedicates herself to forging a deeper understanding of animals and their habitats.

You relocated from Antwerp, Belgium to the Cayman Islands just a few years ago. What inspired that huge change?

My children and husband have high functioning autism. Living in Europe became too stressful with lots of triggers and society expectations. We decided to let it all go and make our own happiness, far away from a society that focused on the things they could not do rather than on the many things they could do better! A positive, constructive new start was our best decision ever!

We just finished a documentary about the issues we faced as a family and how that helped me in my connection with sharks and other wildlife. The name is Epiphany and it will be on iTunes by the end of the year. You can see the trailer and read more about it here.

Your interest in scuba diving was fairly recent as well, after your move to the Cayman Islands. Did you practice photography before you became certified in scuba diving or did the two go hand in hand?

I started diving and photography in 2011, and I did have an interest in photography before. I even wanted to study it when I was young, but that was before the digital days and it was a huge investment. Instead I chose to study my second love, history, at university.

The moment I started diving, I really wanted to know everything to become a safe and responsible diver and, since I was used to multitasking, I combined it with photography to show friends and family the underwater world I discovered. I studied day and night and the more I worked on my skills, the better I could capture my subjects and even the emotions the experience evoked in me. By taking images that touched people I could engage them to care about marine life and the challenges of the oceans.

"Shelter" - photograph on fine art paper - 25" x 20"
Shelter, Photograph on Fine Art Paper, 25″ x 20″

What kind of research do you do beforehand on the region and the animals you will be photographing?

I start with research about the region in books, not travel guides but journals from people who lived there and how they interacted with the wildlife, which in many cases was not good in regards to poaching. The former problems are, in most cases, not the issues the region and wildlife face today. After becoming familiar with the facts and figures, I narrow down the research to the latest developments and the different views and reports. Based on those facts, I decide which animals to concentrate on and how I will portray them.

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Are you ever scared during a dive to get so close to sharks or whales? It looks like some of the animals in your photographs are about to eat you! How do you get so close to them without frightening them?

I am always very cautious! I never go in the water unprepared or unfocused. Learning about the behavior of the subjects and how to react in case of a close encounter is something I do regularly. By being prepared and by being able to read an animal, you can prevent a lot of mishaps. The ocean is the realm of sharks and marine life. We are lucky we can witness it, but should do so with respect for the animal and its ways.

It takes knowledge and a lot of patience to approach them. In fact, it takes a lot of empathy, of which I have plenty. Living in a family with 3 people with autism makes you prepared. It makes you read signs which are hardly noticeable and become a first class problem solver. You also become a better observer. All of these skills come in handy with my work too and in my approach to wildlife. I spend a lot of time establishing a bond between me and the subject. Only when there is one, or when there is contact, do I start shooting. I want to capture a part of their being, a piece of their soul, a spark to ignite the viewers to engage.

You travel a lot for freelance photography work. What places do you visit the most? Do you have a favorite place or an animal?

Nowadays, I travel more and more to the Arctic, choosing to document subjects and the challenges they face due to climate change. My favorite animal is the seal: harbor seals, harp seals, grey seals. I absolutely love any time spent with a seal in the water, on the ice or on land. They’re playful, gentle, and kind and I just melt when I look them in the eyes. They remind me of why I do this kind of work.

"In Between Worlds" - photograph on fine art paper - 25" x 20"
In Between Worlds, Photograph on Fine Art Paper, 25″ x 20″

What message do you want your photos to convey to your viewers?

Mostly I want my viewers to care about wildlife and the balance between the oceans and the earth. I do not want to preach, I want to tell the story with a pretty image and a message of hope. People that care will inform themselves, educate their surroundings and take action.

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It was extremely difficult to pick only a few of Ellen’s photos to show here. Be sure to check out her movie, Epiphany.

Collecting art is a highly involving and emotional experience. The artist’s process and intention are some of the factors that make one fall in love with his or her piece. Learn more about our artists’ creative methods and fascinating techniques in the Center Stage and Artist Techniques categories.

You can also view more of her works on her ARTmine page.

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