Stephan Vanfleteren – Angels of the Sea

From 18 September 2020 – 5 April 2021, we proudly present our exhibition Stephan Vanfleteren – Angels of the Sea at Het Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam. Vanfleteren (Belgium, 1969) is an internationally much lauded portrait photographer, who often works in the Netherlands. Angels of the Sea consists of his series of poignant portraits of boys between the ages of six and sixteen from the maritime boarding school Royal Work IBIS in Bredene, Belgium. For the first time Vanfleteren’s entire portrait series will be shown with his video installation of the North Sea, as well as vintage photography and historical film footage from IBIS. This exhibition was curated by Hedy van Erp.

‘Every child has the right to a visible horizon – even when there is a storm at sea.’ Stephan Vanfleteren

Photographer unknown,
Frans Puystiens, muster number 0260;
Richard Puystiens, muster number  0269
, ca. 1926.
Collection Royal Work IBIS.


In 2016, Stephan Vanfleteren portrayed pupils of Royal Work IBIS – young, often damaged children who cannot live at home. Vanfleteren called his portrait series Angels of the Sea. Not for religious reasons, but because he perceived something angelic in their being, a mysterious force: ‘They seem to suggest that everything will be alright. That we, anxious and concerned adults, must have confidence. Their wings are our future.’

Some boys in front of his lens look like true Hollywood stars; some like disciplined soldiers; others like insecure-looking children. All are dressed in uniforms. They wear immaculate white sailor suits or dark overcoats to with large shiny buttons are sewn, with an anchor in relief – the symbol of hope for salvation.

Traditionally, IBIS pupils receive a unique muster number. In the exhibition, visitors learn little more about the children than their first name and muster number. The viewer can only guess what hardship lies behind them.

In addition to Vanfleteren’s portraits, the exhibition also features vintage portraits of IBIS pupils from the early 20th century. We see hundred-year-old portraits of orphans that formed the inspiration for Vanfleteren’s series.


Royal Work IBIS was founded in 1906 to provide a safe home base for orphans of fishing families. IBIS settled on a former gunship. This floating boarding school accommodated eighty children and ensured that the shortage of well-trained fishermen was reduced.

Boys and recently girls, too, are offered the opportunity to find a place in society after completing the IBIS training. Since its foundation, IBIS has provided shelter to more than 2,200 children, now in a building ashore.

 Plan your visit to The National Maritime Museum, Amsterdam.

Sean, muster number 2202, 2016 ©Stephan Vanfleteren