Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros11Dossier thématiqueWhat representations for the Ocean?

Dossier thématique

What representations for the Ocean?

Alice Cuvelier
Traduction de Roisein Kelly
Cet article est une traduction de :
Quelles représentations pour l’Océan ? [fr]


The conceptualisation of the Ocean as a resource and as a navigable surface, as old as it is persistent, is based on a utility relationship between humans on the one hand and a space, a territory, on the other. It is debatable if we are trying to account for a living relationship—understood as symbiotic—with the Ocean. It excludes the possibility of empathy with those who inhabit it: animals, plants, minerals, plastics, ecosystems, and so on. By seeking out the conceptualisations that support representations of those who populate the Ocean, the challenge is to identify what in the history of humans has led them to invisibilise entities that are essential to the survival of the biosphere.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1In the current context of environmental urgency, and acknowledging the importance of visual representation as a means of engaging with the non-human sphere (Haraway, 1976, 2016; Latour, 1991; Coccia, 2020), identifying representational constants of Ocean inhabitants emerges as a crucial prerequisite for the much-needed reconceptualisation of the Ocean (Casati, 2022). This reconceptualisation necessarily entails proposing novel visual representations. The traditional conceptualisation of the Ocean as a resource and navigable surface (Steinberg, 2011), though deeply rooted, implies a utilitarian relationship between humankind, on the one hand, and a spatial territory on the other (Ingersol, 2016). Reducing the Ocean to a resource means failing to take account of the living—symbiotic—relationships which bind the Ocean’s inhabitants. It negates the possibility of empathy for the entities which inhabit it: animals, plants, minerals, plastics, ecosystems and so on. The present text focuses precisely on the history of such extractivist representations and the countermeasures which have risen against them.

2With this paper, our objective is not to compile a historical account of the portrayal of the Ocean and its inhabitants, but rather to pinpoint certain recurrent motifs in artistic and popular depictions and unravel their roots and implications from semiotic and “biopolitical” perspectives. The task at hand is to discern the factors which have led to the invisibilisation of entities which are vital for the survival of the biosphere, positing that this invisibility is inherently consubstantial to the absence of empathy towards them.

3Images, whether they be artistic, media-related, or popular, are permeated with the concepts that shape them, and reciprocally, these concepts are structured by these images. Consequently, they serve as guides for recognising the concepts and biases that govern our understanding and, perhaps now more than ever, function as essential channels for the myriad conceptual propositions emerging for rethinking the Ocean.

4Conventional wisdom, like most geographers, draws a distinction between seas and oceans. Seas are perceived as bodies of saltwater, accessible and self-contained, whereas oceans are believed to be much larger, framing the boundaries of continents. This differentiation lies at the core of enduring misconceptions about water on Earth, influencing both political discourse and human interactions with this element. The “global” or “world” Ocean, the focus of this paper, encompasses all the uninterrupted expanse of saltwater encircling continents and archipelagos across planet Earth. Conceptually, it incorporates the entire water cycle on Earth, in its three states and circularity.

5By navigating through the representations of the Ocean throughout Western history, our goal is to shed light on the thought systems which underlie individual images and identify elements which, in certain endeavours, may function as intermediaries for new ways of comprehending these representations.

Out of time and space, the realm of mermaids

  • 1 The first known representations of the marine world are petroglyphs dating from 5,000 to 10,000 BC, (...)

6From the earliest depictions of the Ocean in Mesolithic cave paintings1 to illustrations from the Middle Ages, the portrayal of underwater life which has reached us remains relatively sparse and predominantly symbolic. Initially, artistic renditions focused primarily on ships and their occupants. When water is featured, it often takes the form of parallel undulating lines which, rather than detailed representations, serve as symbols of a seemingly unfathomable depth. Even with the thriving trade in fish, a significant commodity, and the advanced study of ichthyology, exemplified by Aristotle’s History of Animals (343 BC), there was limited representation of underwater life until the end of the Middle Ages. While accounts frequently document fishing and the trading of fish, the figures portrayed in paintings, engravings, and mosaics predominantly feature mythical creatures.

7As early as the 5th century BC, mermaids were abundantly depicted in paintings or drawn on a variety of objects. They were perceived as denizens of the deep, aligning with the notion of the Ocean as an otherworldly, boundless, and timeless realm. These depictions can be found as far back as the Middle Ages, appearing in numerous illustrated natural history bestiaries. Mermaids are often portrayed with the upper body and head of a woman, holding musical instruments and luring sailors towards the abyss. In Sebastian Münster’s Universal Cosmography (1544), the Ocean plates illustrate a hierarchical perspective of the world, presenting a vision of the marine world that is both magical and ominous. Some figures sport horns and ruffs, indicating their diabolical lineage. They are portrayed as taller than humans, who, in turn, are taller than trees, reflecting a symbolic hierarchy that places humans below deities but above nature. The motifs of mermaids and sea monsters are prevalent, reflecting the fears of the time which science was unable to answer. The entire global Ocean had not yet been fully mapped, and the sea presented itself as an endless horizon.

  • 2 There are many representations of mermaids in Shinto and Buddhist religious engravings in Haitian v (...)
  • 3 Michel Cazenave, in his Encyclopaedia of Symbols (1996), indicates that the mermaid also represents (...)

8In the Middle Ages, the figure of the mermaid held significance in numerous beliefs,2 be it folklore, as seen in Muslim painters (Clément, 2010), or as a cult object, as observed in the Shinto religion in Japan. In Christian symbolism, the sea represents a transitional space, a place of passage between life and death. In Christian imagination, monsters and mermaids symbolise the perils of navigation but also of the human experience.3 This symbolic conceptualisation gave rise to the enduring idea that the ocean is a realm of extreme otherness. From science fiction to NASA’s exploration of the possibility of colonising the Ocean depths, the Ocean fascinates us, as an inaccessible space, profoundly alien and inhospitable to human life. Despite technological advances allowing us to descend to depths exceeding 10,000 metres, prolonged human survival underwater remains unattainable. In fact, more individuals have ventured into space through extra-planetary travel than into the great depths with submarines. In a book tracing the history of humanity’s relationship with the sea, Jules Michelet introduced the topic in these terms:

  • 4 Translation is our own.

For all terrestrial beings, water is the unbreathable element, the element of asphyxiation. A fatal, eternal barrier that irremediably separates the two worlds. It should come as no surprise, then, that this vast mass of water which we call the sea, mysterious and daunting in its depths, has always seemed menacing to the human imagination.4 (Michelet, 1983, p. 63)

  • 5 Title translations from The Toilers of the Sea, Ernest Rhys, 1911. Translated by W. Moy Thomas.
  • 6 See, for example the animated TV series SpongeBob SquarePants (United Plankton Pictures & Nickelode (...)

9The human imagination continues to populate the Ocean with fearsome and menacing creatures, as dangerous to man as Victor Hugo’s giant octopus. In Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, the author sketched a giant octopus in the margin of the chapter titled “The Monster”5 (Hugo, 1866). The visceral fear evoked by certain marine animals persists, even when these creatures pose no actual threat to us. Ridley Scott’s terrifying Alien derives its morphology from an abyssal amphipod, Phronima sedentaria, which, despite being a carnivore that preys on the husks of salps, is only a few centimetres long. Its survival strategy, made famously terrifying by Ridley Scott, mirrors that of the hermit crab (or Pagurus), a creature which, precisely because it does not inhabit the Stygian depths, is generally perceived as a fun and friendly animal, as evidenced by its presence in various cartoons.6

10The conceptualisation of the Ocean as a radical elsewhere is at the root of a very powerful cognitive distancing, deeply ingrained ever since humanity’s initial encounters with this vast expanse. Nevertheless, alternative perspectives exist. Lynn Margulis’s groundbreaking research on endosymbiosis (1985, 1998), further explored by Stefan Helmreich (2009) and Donna Haraway (2016b), has inspired narratives wherein individual animals, plants, and microbes emerge as active participants in the ongoing history of life, their fates intricately intertwined with the economic, political, and philosophical trajectories of humanity. Bacteria and other microplankton, still largely unrepresented outside a laboratory setting, embody this “alien” realm (Helmreich, 2009)—radically foreign yet intimately connected to human existence. The monumental challenge lies in achieving a visual, artistic, and poetic representation which preserves space for firsthand experience, even when mediated. This entails capturing not only interactions but also ontologies, fundamentally challenging the anthropocentric narrative we have of the world, which today stands in the way of the cognitive rapprochement required for the emergence of a comprehensive empathy extending to all living entities.

The seabed as scenery

11The water’s surface, maritime navigation, and the seashore have achieved the status of a distinct pictorial genre known as Marine art. In contrast, the Ocean floor is vastly underrepresented in visual arts. Throughout the history of Western painting, spanning from the earliest depictions to the mid-2000s, artists’ portrayals of the sea centres around three main conceptualisations: the Ocean as a transit route, as a territory, and as a resource.

12Initially perceived as a transit area, a commercial conduit connecting land masses, the Ocean was predominantly illustrated with ships dominating the scene. Functioning primarily as a trade route, the Ocean was mostly represented as a surface traversed by mankind, even though this was fraught with danger, as evidenced by numerous paintings depicting naval battles and shipwrecks. With the exception of symbolic beings featured until the close of the Middle Ages, marine populations were largely absent from artistic representation.

13The conceptualisation of the sea as a territory, which took root in the 17th century with the emergence of the notion of frontiers, paralleled the evolution of landscape development. The term “territory” was then used “to delineate the shift from limits to borders, signifying the transition from a given space to a claimed territory” (Drisch, 2015, p. 129), thereby establishing the political and economic authority of states. Painters’ depictions of the sea mirrored this evolution. Departing from an aerial perspective inherited from the Christian tradition, portraying the sea as observed from the heavens, there was a gradual shift towards a more human perspective. The viewpoint lowered to the bow of the ship and eventually to human eye level, capturing scenes from the port and the coastline. In the 19th century, Gustave Courbet, for instance, painted the sea from the coastline, exploring its intrinsic qualities in all perceptible variations. In those days, the sea was perceived as a territory entirely subject to mankind, existing only through the human gaze and what could be observed from the shore and its distant vantage point.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A. Neuville et E. Riou for the 1871 edition of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers written by Jules Verne, published by J. Hetzel (Paris).

Source: Gallica, BnF.

14The advent of technological development, fuelled by the economic aspirations of states, making underwater exploration and mapping possible, made possible the first depictions of the world from an underwater perspective. The sea, too, was caught in the wave of landscape fascination, and saw its seabed illustrated using the same pictorial principles as those applied to terrestrial landscapes. Illustrations accompanying Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou [fig. 1] showcase an underwater valley, where three divers in diving suits are seen walking, seemingly unaffected by the physical constraints of underwater environments. They were surrounded by jellyfish, which also seemed subject to a very terrestrial gravity, their tentacles hanging vertically downwards. In The Valley in the Sea [fig. 2], often regarded as the first painting of the Ocean floor, Edward Moran, known for his paintings of the marine history of the United States and the American West, used codes of landscape painting. In the foreground, we see a valley adorned with difficult-to-identify animal and vegetable organisms—sponges, anemones, corals, seemingly directly illuminated by the rays of the setting sun. In the background, the blue expanse is illuminated by an aura around the rocky formations, creating a divine-like atmosphere. Fish can be seen swimming in the distance. The effects of light and perspective convey a grandiosity and sublimity to Nature, reminiscent of the Hudson River School’s style, which sought to visually capture Edmund Burke’s philosophy of the sublime. Moran, renowned for his desert landscapes, said that he was inspired by the laying of the first underwater telegraph cable in 1858. Similar to his depictions of Yellowstone and Colorado, he followed the luminism trend, neglecting the reality of underwater observation. The mapping of the seabed undertaken in the 19th century aligned scientific and economic interests. While it sparked fantasies for some, it primarily served commercial interests. Gravimetric data from the seabed were measured in order to map fossil deposit locations. The sea then became a territory to be conquered, fantasised about, and feared, but it also offered the promise of a new industrial revolution. In these landscapes, the presence of animal life is anecdotal, and the emphasis on nature came at the expense of the representation of life.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Oil painting from E. Moran (1863) titled The Valley In the Sea.

Source: Indianapolis Museum of Art Collection.

15During the same period, a select few explorers found themselves captivated by underwater life, a fascination facilitated by the development of specialised immersion apparatus. Individuals such as Eugène Van Ranconnet-Villez and Zarh Pritchard, both pioneers in diving, designed equipment to enable them to paint underwater. While their works remain exceptions, they serve as precursors to what an aquatic perspective could entail. In the mid-19th century, diplomat and painter Eugène Van Ranconnet-Villez, confined to shallow areas, utilised a human-sized glass bell for protection to sketch what he could observe along the coastline. In the early 20th century, Zarh Pritchard, equipped with a diving suit, dedicated extensive hours underwater to reproduce what he observed. These works stand as the earliest faithful depictions of the underwater experience. Life beneath the surface differs significantly from that on land, and the visual perception underwater varies drastically. The vibrant colours of organisms which can be observed in aquariums tend to shift towards a spectrum of blues as depth increases. Beyond a certain depth, selective absorption of wavelengths rapidly hinders the perception of red and yellow. Green and blue persist until approximately 90 metres depth, beyond which light dissipates, yielding to darkness. Zarh Pritchard’s artwork serves as a pictorial rendition of this underwater experience. Colours appear muted, as if washed out, with blue and grey dominating. While the foreground remains relatively discernible, featuring fish and rock formations, the environment becomes increasingly blurred until it dissolves into a murky wash. Perspectives are obscured by the impossibility for light to penetrate due to the water’s depth. Silhouettes become poorly defined, as is the perspective of the explorer whose body is experiencing the movement of the currents. Pritchard’s and Van Ranconnet-Villez’s works have gained relative popularity, particularly within scientific circles, where they are acknowledged as realistic portrayals of underwater life. Despite the advent of mediums such as photography and video, these representations are all too rare in art, the media and in the collective imagination today.

Emblematic species to the detriment of others

16Nowadays, photography and video have taken on a predominant role in depicting underwater life, made possible by individual or motorised diving devices. These mediums aim to overcome the limitations associated with underwater observation, such as poor light penetration and the gradual loss of part of the colour spectrum. To achieve this, underwater photography has adapted lighting techniques commonly used in terrestrial settings, incorporating flash, LED lights, and colour filters (now applied during post-production). These techniques generate images in which the foreground appears somewhat “detached” from its environment, exposed to such intense brightness that the background ends up cast into darkness. It often appears as inexistent, a uniform blue or black mass, devoid of any discernible activity. When photographing the seabed, as can be observed in coral images, the focus is on the seabed itself, sometimes at the expense of the surrounding body of water. This raises critical questions of the conceptual foundations shaping the technical solutions selected to navigate inevitable physical constraints. The desire to portray specific species has, undoubtedly, conditioned the development of certain technological devices over others.

17Photographs recognised in the Underwater Photograph of the Year Competition over the past eight years7 offer valuable insights into the focal points of professional underwater photography. The subjects featured and the way they are portrayed offer insight into the selective interests of photographers, as well as those for whom these images are intended, whether through mainstream or specialised press outlets.

  • 8 The term does not cover “protected” species, which provide a legal framework for the preservation o (...)

18Just over six out of every ten winning images showcase marine creatures such as sharks, turtles, whales, large rays, or mammals (both marine and terrestrial, with almost 20% of the winning images featuring human subjects). These species, often termed “flagship species” (Frazier, 2005) or “emblematic species,” are presented positively to the general public and are spotlighted by associations aiming to garner support for environmental causes.8 This approach, initially at the intersection of marketing and activism, has resulted in the over-representation of specific individuals and species in the media and the arts, to the detriment of others. It is grounded in a neo-Darwinian evolutionary tradition which places mammals at the apex of the evolutionary hierarchy, even though phylogenetic cladistics has demonstrated for several decades that fish, plants, plankton, bacteria, and microbes are equally evolved. The emphasis on flagship species capitalises on the empathy elicited by the depiction of their habitats, framed by Western anthropocentric norms of the house as a home, and narratives of their lifestyles around iconic milestones in the formation of heterosexual families (mating, birth, and caring for offspring).

19In the year 2022, all four photographs honoured with the “Photograph of the Year” award prominently featured mammals. In the “Ways of Life” category, which rewards photographs depicting interactions between individuals, mammals still account for over half of the featured species. The prominence of these individuals in narratives from environmental protection organisations, research initiatives, and visual portrayals stems from their perceived physiological closeness with us, leading them to be more readily identified as “fellow creatures” compared to other marine non-human entities. The captions accompanying the award-winning photographs emphasise this idealised, albeit somewhat fictional, proximity.

The baby whale swam around curiously, while the mother whale stood proudly and gently beside her child. I photographed their tails to capture the striking image of mother and child.

Having my long macro lens on was an advantage as I could stand off from the reef enough to get some light into their home so we could all see their somewhat bemused little faces. Best buddies for sure!9

  • 10 Giuseppe Recco painted a number of still lifes in the 18th century, including the remarkable Still (...)

20The characteristics put forward in both images and narratives often result from a form of media-driven anthropomorphism which is not grounded in biological data or behavioural observation. This perceived closeness to human beings provides these species with a partial shield against the status of mere “resource,” a fate that befalls most fish, often depicted lifeless and lying in nets or on market stalls10.

21Media coverage of certain emblematic animals, as can be seen with the seal affectionately named “You,” raised among surfers on the French Atlantic coast, and Zafar the friendly dolphin, whose body was found dead on the Dutch coast (both analysed by socio-anthropologist Fabien Clouette in 2022), tends to paint somewhat of a biographical portrait supported by visual representation. Such coverage of lives tragically cut short build on unverified clichés and present a simplistic and inaccurate vision of these animals. These narratives tend to emphasise these animals have all the makings of a hero, an individual and patriarchal figure, at the expense of a broader perspective which takes full account of the environment, context, and interspecies relationships (Gumbs, 2020).

22When fish do make an appearance, they are often backlit, forming a collective shoal. If shown individually, it is usually to showcase their vibrant colours, as can be seen with clown fish, surgeon fish, or parrot fish that captivate aquarium enthusiasts. They are photographed either facing the lens, like a portrait, or in pairs during mating or, less frequently, confrontations. All award-winning photographs utilised additional light, with the flash or spotlight calibrated to isolate a subject in the foreground, but also to ensure colours align with the broadest spectrum of human vision. Accustomed as we are to seeing the vibrant hues of tropical fish, coral, and anemones through the prism of aquariums, and due to the legacy of natural science which still holds sway, there can be a temptation to capture them in photography exactly as seen. It is a real challenge to find instances where blues dominate and spread to all animals and plants, yet that is how the human eye perceives underwater environments. As the loss of part of the light spectrum is an environmental reality, this also reflects how aquatic species with ocular vision perceive colours, when they do. Consequently, the prevalence of green and blue is not a hurdle to overcome but rather a phenomenological reality which we ought to faithfully transcribe through imagery. Most underwater photography courses, promoted through various websites, emphasise the use of colour filters and retouching as an essential step in producing a “good” underwater shot, i.e. a photo whose colours align with aerial views. Nevertheless, it remains entirely conceivable to design a photograph aesthetic, following on from the drawings by Ranconnet-Villez and the paintings by Pritchard, which showcases a realistic, non-anthropocentric underwater world. Lighting and digital capture technologies are available to make visible the great diversity of oceanic populations, interactions among species, and symbiotic relationships at individual and environmental levels.


23Our perception, i.e. our conceptual framework of the Ocean, is intricately tied to the images disseminated to portray it. These aspects mutually influence one another and are rooted in conceptualisations which have developed over human history. While these conceptualisations have evolved, they now appear inadequate in as far as they seem incapable of supporting the development of narratives and representations that the environmental challenge requires and that certain policies are actively seeking to deploy. The invisibilisation of the Ocean’s inhabitants, exacerbated by the challenges of representing what we harvest and consume (Chemin, 2022) and overshadowed by the excessive media focus on a select few emblematic species, precludes the ability to extend empathy to the majority of marine species. Alternatively, when empathy is experienced, it often remains confined within the narrow boundaries of individualism and the heteronormativity associated with home and reproduction. However, collaboration with these species is already an integral part of our daily existence. The cycles of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur intricately intertwine our lives with theirs. Our discards serve as their nourishment, and their waste is what ensures our atmospheric survival. It is not merely that they serve a purpose for us or aid us; rather, we exist in a state of interdependence with them, if indeed such a clear distinction between “them” and “us” is at all possible, given the numerous interpenetrations that exist at the scale of our bodies. Our intestinal microbiota functions as symbionts, and genetic sequencing reveals that several bacterial species with which we coexist are descendants of those originating from the Ocean.

  • 11 Christian Sardet’s work on plankton has been exhibited at the Photoclimat social and environmental (...)

24Visual depictions of the Ocean serve both as reflections of and catalysts for prevailing conceptualisations. After analysing these, the imperative before us lies in drawing conclusions and initiating the essential process of reconceptualisation. Drawing on the framework of conceptual negotiation (Casati, 2011), the challenge ahead involves crafting and testing novel depictions of marine entities. While such images may originate in academic or artistic circles, their impact should extend beyond these domains, reaching a diverse audience. Recent curatorial endeavours focusing on living organisms, particularly plankton,11 demonstrate a growing interest in making visible those individuals which have previously been overlooked. The critical next step is to ensure a coherence between biological and ecological knowledge, conceptual narratives, and the methodologies employed for their representation. This alignment is crucial for avoiding replicating, albeit on a different scale, the elevation of certain individuals at the expense of acknowledging the symbiotic, ontologically complex nature of life. It entails embracing the potential failure of identification mechanisms which are conventionally deemed necessary for fostering empathy, and instead affording space to more subtle connections, letting go of the illusionary dichotomy between nature and culture.

Haut de page


Augeron, M., Tranchant, M. (2004). “Introduction,” La violence et la mer dans l’espace atlantique : xiie-xixe siècle. Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Armstrong, C. (2022). A Blue New Deal. Why We Need a New Politics for the Ocean. Yale University Press.

Attali, J. (2018). Histoires de la mer. Fayard.

Casati, R. (2011). Prima lezione di filosofia. Laterza.

Casati, R. (eds.) (2022). The Sailing Mind. Springer.

Clément, F. (2010). “Les métamorphoses animales dans l’Islam populaire médiéval et moderne.” In J. Pigeaud (eds.), Métamorphose(s): XIIIe Entretiens de la Garennes Lemot. Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Clouette, F. (2022). “Une coprésence littorale controversée,” Revue danthropologie des connaissances, 16(2).

Coccia, E. (2020). Métamorphoses. Payot et rivages.

Cohen, M. (2014). “Underwater optics as symbolic form,” French Politics, Culture and Society, 32.

Cohen, M. (2019). “Zarh J. Pritchard et la peinture du monde sous-marin,” Journal de l’Institut océanographique de Monaco.

Cohen, M., Quigley, K. (2018). The Aesthetics of the Undersea. Routledge.

Connery, C. (2006). “There was no more sea: The supersession of the ocean, from the bible to cyberspace,” Journal of Historical Geography, 32.

Corbin, A. (2011). La mer. Terreur et fascination. Points.

Descola, P. (2013). Au-delà de la nature et de la culture. The University of Chicago Press.

Despret, V. (1996). La danse du cratérope écaillé. Naissance d’une théorie éthologique. Les empêcheurs de penser en rond.

Despret, V. (2019). Autobiographie d’un poulpe et autres récits d’anticipation. Actes Sud.

De Toledo, C. (2021). Le fleuve qui voulait écrire. Les auditions du Parlement de Loire. Les liens qui libèrent.

De Vargas, C., Decelle, J. (2015). “Quand la symbiose ‘corallienne’ prend le large” [national press release]. CNRS/TaraOcéans.

Drisch, J. (2015). “Territorialisation des mers et des océans: entre mythes et réalités,” Inflexions, 30(3).

Gumbs, A.-P. (2020). Uncrowned. Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, AK Press.

Haraway, D. (2008). When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. (2016a). Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. (2016b). Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields. Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-century Developmental Biology. Yale University Press.

Hawthorne, D., Minot, F. (1954). La mer inépuisable. Dodd, Mead and Company.

Helmreich, S. (2009). Alien Ocean, Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas. University of California Press.

Hoare, P. (2014). The Sea Inside. Malville Housse.

Ingersol, E. (2016). Old Ocean. Wentworth Press.

Jue, M. (2020). Wild Blue Media. Duke University Press.

Kandel, R. (2006). Water from Heaven. The Story of Water from the Big Bang to the Rise of Civilization and Beyond. Columbia Press University.

Latour, B. (1991). Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. La Découverte.

Margulis, L., Sagan, D. (1985). “L’origine des cellules eucaryotes,” La Recherche, 163.

Margulis, L. (1998). Symbiotic Planet. A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.

Margulis, L. (2022). L’univers bactérien. Seuil.

McMenamin, D., McMenamin, M. (1994). Hypersea, Life on Land. Columbia University Press.

Michelet, J. (1983). La mer. Folio.

Munster, S. (1544). Cosmographie universelle.

Neimanis, A. (2019). Bodies of Water. Postman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury Academic Press.

Rancière, J. (2020). Le temps du paysage. Aux origines de la révolution esthétique. La fabrique.

SAPEA, Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (2017). Food from the Oceans. How can more food and biomass be obtained from the oceans in a way that does not deprive future generations of their benefits? Evidence Review Report, no. 1. SAPEA.

Steinberg, P. (2011). The Social Construction of the Ocean. Cambridge University Press.

Tasse, J., Alex, B. (2020). “Le changement climatique, facteur d’océanisation des enjeux géopolitiques?,” Études marines, 18.

Haut de page


1 The first known representations of the marine world are petroglyphs dating from 5,000 to 10,000 BC, depicting boats around the Caspian Sea. It was not until Greek antiquity and 500 BC that water as such appeared.

2 There are many representations of mermaids in Shinto and Buddhist religious engravings in Haitian voodoo, and in Medieval Muslim paintings.

3 Michel Cazenave, in his Encyclopaedia of Symbols (1996), indicates that the mermaid also represents an alchemical symbol that evokes the union of sulfur and common mercury (the fish and the virgin), in other words, the work of the Great Work itself.

4 Translation is our own.

5 Title translations from The Toilers of the Sea, Ernest Rhys, 1911. Translated by W. Moy Thomas.

6 See, for example the animated TV series SpongeBob SquarePants (United Plankton Pictures & Nickelodeon Productions & Rough Draft Studios, episode 11, season 8, 2011–2012); the character Sebastian in the animated film The Little Mermaid (Walt Disney Pictures, 1989); the animated short film Piper (Pixar Animation Studios & Walt Disney Pictures, 2016).

7 The Underwater Photograph of the Year (UPY) award is recognised by the profession as the most important award in underwater photography, in terms of the number of entries and its extensive media exposure. It has been awarded annually since 1965 for the best underwater photographs in around ten categories. Very popular among professionals and amateurs alike, it seems to us to be the best indicator to date of the evolution of the practice and its recurring characteristics. The comments are the result of a quantitative analysis of the semiological features of the prize-winning images between 2014 and 2021, isolating in particular the subjects represented (in number and species), the framing, the use of flash, photographic filters and digital processing.

8 The term does not cover “protected” species, which provide a legal framework for the preservation of certain individuals because of their possible and programmed disappearance.

9 Quotations from 2022 UPY catalog.

10 Giuseppe Recco painted a number of still lifes in the 18th century, including the remarkable Still life with fish, oysters and shrimps, in which he depicts a seabed with its landscapes as the setting for his work. A veritable mass grave lies at the bottom of the water, where a wide variety of species are piled up as if at an auction. The juxtaposition of the still life genre and the landscape, while imperfect, clearly shows the vision of marine individuals as mere food, which is not to be imagined as living.

11 Christian Sardet’s work on plankton has been exhibited at the Photoclimat social and environmental photography biennial, at the Grand Hôtel Dieu in Lyon and at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Christian Sardet is the founder of the Plankton Chronicles website, and the author, with his son Noé Sardet, of portraits of plankton.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende A. Neuville et E. Riou for the 1871 edition of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers written by Jules Verne, published by J. Hetzel (Paris).
Fichier image/jpeg, 9,1M
Titre Figure 2
Légende Oil painting from E. Moran (1863) titled The Valley In the Sea.
Fichier image/jpeg, 131k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Alice Cuvelier, « What representations for the Ocean? »Hybrid [En ligne], 11 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 20 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Alice Cuvelier

Alice Cuvelier is a PhD student in the Arts at the Institut ACTE (Arts, Sciences, Sociétés) at University Paris 1 and the LLCP (Logiques contemporaines de la Philosophie) laboratory at Université Paris 8. A graduate in photography from the Arts Déco de Paris and the EHESS (CRAL), she teaches art semiology at the Université Paris 1 and coordinates practical photography workshops in several medico-social structures. She is currently artist-in-residence at the Observatoire de Villefranche sur mer, where she is working on a visual approach to the reconceptualization of the Ocean, in particular through the representation of planktonic individuals. She is a member of the editorial team of Multitudes magazine.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search