Photo © Ellen Cuylaerts
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, Cuylaerts creates works that are almost otherworldly, ushering her viewers into a realm still so foreign to the human collective. Cuylaerts’s objective with her work is twofold: she seeks to bridge a deeper connection between humanity and nature, and she also works to capture her own experience as the photographer, how it feels in those moments when she is behind the camera. As she explains, “You can either choose to document an encounter or express how you’ve experienced the encounter. I try to shoot from the heart.” In this way, she essentially draws the viewer into the natural world.
Ellen Cuylaerts travels the world as a researcher and freelance underwater and wildlife photographer, documenting animals in each region and the particular challenges they’re 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.
An activist, photographer, teacher, wife, and mother, Ellen Cuylaerts has come up with her own formula for a successful work-life balance. Ellen’s interest in photography started at a young age, but as she so candidly put it, “other subjects (boys, parties, university, history, and traveling) took over.” And as the Nikon she had purchased with saved up babysitting money gathered dust, she tended to other conventional building blocks of life.
But if you ask her how she ended up living the island life she does today, you might find, as I did, that her frank and honest nature is quite refreshing. She admits that she earned a masters in history and education to prove to her parents that she could do it. She worked in IT for her brother's company until a “blast from the past swept her off her feet.” She and that so called “blast” (videographer Michael Maes) were married, and later, as they were raising their children in Belgium, she became disenchanted with conventional living and systematic education, and pulled her children out of school, moved the family to Grand Cayman, took charge of their learning, and started scuba diving.
She studied history in Antwerp, Belgium, and got her master in modern history and education. Then she became a Master Scuba Diver and took up her childhood dream photography and combined it with the wonders of the underwater world. After diving a few months she signed up for a workshop on the island with renowned underwater photographer & marine biologist Dr. Alex Mustard and decided to use the skills she learned to spread the awareness and contribute to the conservation and preservation of the fragile marine environment.
Within the year she won 3 first prizes in The Cayman National Cultural Foundation (categories Underwater, Arts & Culture and Nature Wildlife) and last November she became 2nd in the International CITA Photo Competition (Scenic and creative) and received honorable mentions in all other categories. Her basic concern is the decay of the oceans by pollution, overfishing, the brutal act of shark finning and dolphin and whale slaughtering. By showing the beauty of the underwater world she hopes people will start protecting what they love like Jacques Cousteau once wished.
"I try to find a connection with every animal before trying to take a picture of them. I watch how they swim, how they behave and if they swim in a pattern. This allows me to anticipate where the animals will swim and I can take a shot with some eye contact. It’s great fun, but it can be very tiring when you’re trying to keep up with them. To swim next to a whale shark makes you feel very small. Because of their size, they seem to move slowly, as they glide through the water. But in fact they’re a lot faster than you as a photographer, and can swim three miles an hour easily.
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."
Ellen Cuylaerts was at United Nations headquarters in New York in June 2016 to talk about the value of showing the ocean’s beauty through images that make people care. She told that also photographers had the power to change attitudes toward marine life and the environmental challenges the world’s oceans are facing and this is a chance to show the beauty in the oceans and tell a story with one image that would evoke the love of the viewers. “Once there is love for the ocean and all life in it, big or small, humans will try to protect it” she said.
Ellen Cuylaerts at United Nations headquarters, New York, 2016
She said it was an honor to be asked to speak at this year’s World Oceans Day celebrations. “It is one of those things you can never imagine doing, to talk in public at the United Nations. But when it happened, it felt very natural and good. It’s an inspiring place, so much diversity and people willing to think about challenges and solving problems. There was lots of energy and good vibes. I felt at home.”
The event also featured speeches from leading U.N. officials, a performance by singer-songwriter Jack Johnson and a talk by Nainoa Thompson, a native Hawaiian navigator. Ms. Cuylaerts said in her speech that winning the competition in previous years had opened up doors for her and helped her send a positive conservation message. “As a former winner, I can also testify that this contest contributes in discovering new talent and young talent too,” she said. “They are the future, making sure the world of underwater photography experiences a refreshing breeze in storytelling and giving the winners more exposure, leading to more open doors and a louder voice in conservation. That’s what it did to me.”