Cayman wildlife photographer: We must tell impactful stories

‘We are very privileged witnesses, at the front row of climate change.’

Seal pup
“Harp seal pups, like most baby animals, are very cute and people love their images. But having spent time with them, seen their vulnerability in a changing climate, having been confronted with taking their images and hearing two days later, they’re all gone, to me, they are the symbol of climate change. I will tell their story as long as I can. People need to connect with nature to feel and make changes in their daily life. We’re all in this together.” - Ellen Cuylaerts

When it comes to understanding the impact of climate change, few in the Cayman Islands have been as close to the source as Ellen Cuylaerts.

The internationally renowned wildlife photographer has made it her mission to use her images to get through to people about the urgency of the situation.

From taking pictures of polar bears on the declining ice shelf in the high Arctic to photographing sargassum inundations in the Cayman Islands, she says the impact of climate change is evident in her work. Cuylaerts spoke with the Cayman Compass about some of her most impactful images and why she thinks photographers can play an important role in waking people up to the reality of what is happening to the world.

Behind the Lens: Ellen Cuylaerts has made multiple trips to the Arctic to document the impact of climate change.
Behind the Lens: Ellen Cuylaerts has made multiple trips to the Arctic to document the impact of climate change. – Photos: Ellen Cuylaerts

How much of your photography is focussed on climate change?

I wish all, because it’s the most important visual story I can tell. But an Arctic trip is very expensive and hard work to find the animals. The weather conditions can be harsh, and scouting is a big part of your day. Chances are you hardly have any encounters and come home with no, or just a few, images. Since I’m an independent and freelance photographer, I need the balance between destinations where I know I can get some shots and following my storytelling passion. At the moment, I mainly focus on the story of the importance of water and the underground aquifers in the Yucatan, for which I certified as a cave diver, and climate change subjects like harp seals, orcas, polar bears and belugas, but also kelp, seagrass, sargassum and so on.

How many times have you travelled to the Arctic to shoot these type of images?

If you count subarctic and Arctic, I think I have 12 trips, some with no result, some with great encounters. I do a lot of research to fully understand the animals, their behaviour, their habitat. For some places, we need to go with a guide to stay safe; other places I travel by myself and just jump in the adventure and habitat, and try to feel and think like my subjects.

Polar bear
“On a ship heading to the drifting ice pack around the North Pole, this polar bear was found on some thinner ice floes. In the next decade, the northern ice pack is expected to be totally melted, and reaching the North Pole by water will be possible, leaving the polar bears with no hunting ground.” – Ellen Cuylaerts

What is your favourite of your pictures and why?

All of my close-encounter images are my favourites, even if they’re not the most technically correct, because an image is all about feeling, and conveying that feeling, that love for nature, to the viewers.

I do sometimes enter competitions and the images I believe in are sometimes rewarded or sometimes not. I recently did a marathon of school talks and it was heartwarming and a big support to hear that most of my favourites were very well received by the next generation.

What do you think is the role of the photographer in terms of documenting and educating people about what is going on with climate change?

As a photographer, I believe our role in just documenting is over; we need to tell stories about what is going on. We are very privileged witnesses, at the front row of climate change.

We have to inform ourselves, offer context and start a dialogue about our observations.
I just wrote a charter of ethics and conduct for the United Nations World Oceans Day image competition and also an Ocean Decade alliance of underwater photographers will be forming and signing the charter to lead by example, practise what we preach.

There is no more time for not being authentic, we have to be the best ocean ambassadors we can be.

We can do that by making the right choices and not travelling and adding to our carbon footprint for ego, only when we can really contribute to the stories.

Iceberg in Scoresby Sound, on the eastern coast of Greenland
Cayman-based photographer Ellen Cuylaerts travels the world capturing stunning images of the impact of climate change, such as this iceberg in Scoresby Sound, on the eastern coast of Greenland.

What is it like for you as a person to see at such close quarters what is happening to the world?

Honestly, it is depressing. People are numb, think others have to take responsibility and they underestimate the impact of their own actions. I sometimes feel like a nag. But, once in a while, you feel understood, so see some good news and it makes it all worthwhile. But, in general, I feel sad.

Do you think people care enough about/are treating this issue with the urgency it needs?

No, people believe the Earth is very resilient and I admire their positivity, but why gamble with the tipping point? Our oceans are our lifeline and our lungs. If life in the oceans die, we die. I can’t make the message more beautiful, nor more diplomatic. But there is hope. We are about to reach the tipping point but are not there yet. Until then, there is hope. We can all start with ourselves: limit the use of our cars; limit flying; use reusable cups, cutlery; let’s just limit all waste. We’re so lazy, we choose convenience over preservation.

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