Adam Stenhouse

The Sea Collector 

The Sea Collector is an ongoing photographic project in which a fictional character, known only as the Sea Collector, journeys the globe visiting each Sea described by a name on maps and collects it in the form of a photograph. Each collection, or photograph, is an attempt to connect with the Sea. It assumes that each Sea has a sense of self, a personality that it conveys to the Sea Collector through his experience with it. Attaching anthropomorphic elements to each Sea implicates each image as a portrait. But they are also landscapes and, as a photograph made by the Sea Collector, they reflect his experience within each place. 

What happens when the Sea Collector communes with each Sea is unclear. He spends time looking out on to the waves, observing the patterns of movements, the shapes and colours formed. He meditates through his vision. He walks up and down the beach or cliff top looking out towards the Sea, feeling the geography around him and the emotional affectation this has on him. He focuses like Italo Clavino’s character Mr Palomar [1] on watching specific waves come in to the shore. He focuses on the repetition on the waves, finds a calm in the repetitive sounds of wave after wave after wave. He records this in a photograph. 

Locally in the Pacific Northwest we have the Salish Sea, a beautiful body of water marked as being a collection of multiple bodies of water. There is Puget Sound, Georgia Strait, Strait of Juan De Fuca, Desolation Sound, Swanson Channel – the list extends on. How does one photograph a Sea such as this? Or those like the great Oceans whose epic scale is far beyond a singular image. Sometimes the Sea Collector must have multiple meetings, making a variety of collections, to capture the fractured nature of our experience of their sheer vastness. 

The Seas we have marked out on our maps have been named, given borders and claimed by countries – an invention to claim ownership, define as different and alienate strangers. They are regarded as property. They have had significant values placed upon them. Yet we cannot control them. Whilst we may dwindle fish stocks, obliterate the ocean dwelling communities, and drill down for resources causing extensive damage through our negligence, the Seas, in their rawest form, remain. The water continually laps at the shores claimed by humans, wearing away at cliffs and beaches. The phenomena such as storms and tsunamis that grow through these expanses of water can wreak havoc on our communities. 

Only the photograph of the meeting, the artefact created for the collection, is what is readily shown to the audience. What can be represented in these images? An image of water and sometimes land, showing sky, weather, and light? The cultural implications we have based around the seas? Emma Cocker suggests, ‘the photographic memento of travel is only ever a pale echo of experiential encounter with a place’ [2]. But Robert Adams insists that, ‘there is always a subjective aspect in landscape art, something in the picture that tells us as much about who is behind the camera as about what is in front of it’ [3]. Perhaps the photograph is the sum of experience, or rather my own experiences as the artist hiding behind the effigy of an imagined character. Or maybe just a suggestion of this. 

The Sea Collector is an evolving archive of photographs concerned with what comes through the lived experience of being beside the Seas, the recorded ‘Cicada Shells’ of human experience as Hiroshi Sugimoto describes photographs [4]. The images are my attempts to photograph a cultural place as much as a geographic one. They are a recording of the human experience of specific geographical places resonating in our cultural vocabulary. The photographs are the "evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world," as Susan Sontag states in On Photography. Robert Adams concluded his essay Truth And Landscape by stating that landscape art, “is a rediscovery and revaluation of where we find ourselves” [5]. Perhaps this is the aim of The Sea Collector.


[1] Calvino, Mr Palomar, 101.

[2] Cocker, Heather and Ivan Morison: Earthwalker., 49-50. 

[3] Adams, Beauty in Photography: Truth and Landscape, 15 

[4] ‘A mask doesn’t age, but the living face soon fades away like the Portrait of Dorian Gray and finally dies, leaving only the mask behind. Like cicada shells once the insect has broken out of it’s subterranean nether life and winged away, photographs preserve the husk of human souls now flown off to that boundless freedom, such is death.’ Sugimoto, Noh Such Thing As Time, 205-207.

[5] Adams, Beauty in Photography: Truth and Landscape, 20.

Artist Statement

I grew up in the skinny piece of land know as England between the Irish Sea and the North Sea. I was always captivated by the romanticism of the Seas. I was drawn to the adventure and tragedy attached to them. I began the Sea Collector project in 2009, by accident, unaware of what I was embarking on. At the time I was living in Japan working as an assistant language teacher in junior high schools in Kobe, a port city on the Seto Inland Sea. I was drifting through the world and life without responsibilities, exploring and experiencing things far beyond my culturally instilled borders. On a trip to Hokkaido in February I looked at the map and felt a strange pull to waters around Hokkaido, in particular to a body of water called the Sea of Okhotsk. This deeply Russian sounding name at the northeastern edge of the Asian Continent really captivated me and I persuaded my partner to jump on a train and take the four hour journey to the town of Abashiri to spend the night there because I wanted to see this strange and mysterious sounding Sea. It was bitterly cold and the town completely depressing. It felt like somewhere forgotten, desperately clinging on to society’s memory, trying to remain in our collective conscious in an attempt to remain apart of this world. We walked in the cold fading light between the scallop processing factories and the sea, ice layered everything and the freezing wind whipped around us. I photographed what I saw. And I fell in love.


Adam Stenhouse is a photographer and artist concerned with the interactions we have with the landscapes we inhabit, and exploring the influence the landscape exerts on our society and culture. He has earned an MAA from Emily Carr University, Vancouver, BC (2012) and a BA Honours in Visual Communication from the Glasgow School of Art, UK (2006). He lives and works in Vancouver, BC.

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