Musings on: Easter Island as a location for photography

I have mixed feelings about Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it’s more evocatively called. On one hand it’s a very special place to visit, in several different ways; on the other hand, I found it disappointing as a venue for photography.

I’ll start with the positive aspects. The island is quite genuinely fascinating and I have no regrets whatsoever about having visited it for a week in late summer. Quite the reverse: I may very well return one day. The giant statues – the moai – sitting on their plinths, gazing out over the island, are everywhere and easily succeed in pervading the atmosphere of this small piece of land 2,500 miles off the coast of Chile. The moai are iconic; seeing them in situ was worth every hour of the two days travelling it took me to get there from Europe. Add to that the sheer “I’m on Easter Island! Wow!” factor – a feeling only surpassed by the same sentiment applied to travelling across Outer Mongolia years earlier – and Rapa Nui was a truly marvellous place to go.

Fortunately, I travelled there largely for the sake of simply doing so; photography was secondary. It’s a place which I’ve found fascinating for many years and finally it became ‘next on the list’. Not that I have an actual list, but the solar eclipse which occurred in July 2010 had brought the island to my attention again, and once I’d concluded that I didn’t want to go there for the eclipse, since it was going to be both wintry and abnormally busy, I realised that there was nothing stopping me going anyway, at a warmer, quieter, and considerably less expensive time of year.
Tongariki - 'the 15 moai'

A sketchy and selective history of Rapa Nui
For anyone who doesn’t know the putative history of Easter Island – and I say ‘putative’ since there is much dispute on precisely what happened, in what sequence, and over what time-scale – here’s a brief summary of some of the more entertaining aspects.

  1. At some point, the islanders started carving and erecting huge, stone statues around the coast (only a few are inland). They face away from the Pacific ocean and are thought to be indicative of some form of ancestor worship.
  2. This industriousness was doubtless fine for a while, but the island is small and did not have infinite resources: it’s only about fifteen miles on a side and roughly triangular, being formed from a trio of volcanoes, each one approximately constituting a corner. The inhabitants lived on crops, fish, the birds which nested in the abundant trees, and their eggs. A splendid, varied diet no doubt.
  3. Unfortunately, they used the trees in increasing numbers to handle and transport the enormous statues – the largest of them is about eighty tonnes and would not have been straightforward to move – so they cut down the trees to make rollers and ropes.
  4. After a while, as tree cover decreased, so did the numbers of birds, and the top-soil was susceptible to being washed away; not to mention that there were fewer trees to fashion boats from, and hence fewer fish were caught.
  5. Eventually, their obsession with statues was such that they had wrecked their ecosystem and the population fell dramatically.

As a result of this self-destruction, Rapa Nui is often cited as an example of how homo sapiens, despite our name, is not quite as wise as some might like to think: these people essentially destroyed all their sources of food, whilst at the same time expending enormous effort in erecting ludicrously large statues of their deceased relatives. Oops.
Tongariki at dawn

On the upside, this fanatical statue-building did leave a fascinating archaeological legacy whose precise mysteries and ‘rationale’ – to be generous – are as yet not fully understood (and probably never will be). The island has getting on for one thousand moai (887 extant, to be pedantic about it) in various states of repair and mostly toppled forwards onto their faces during a speculated, tribal dispute in the mid 1700s. A few dozen key plinths have been restored though, so the visitor can get some idea of what this World Heritage Site was like when Europeans first landed there on Easter Sunday, 1722.

At some point after the statue-fetish phase, they also had a political system which involved, amongst other things, a race to some nearby rocks to retrieve the first bird’s egg of the year – the birds had presumably caught on to the whole ‘being eaten’ downside of nesting on the main island now that it lacked trees. This was a particularly fine event and involved plunging down the notably steep cliffs on the side of one of the volcanoes, swimming a little over a mile through waters whose fish population included sharks, then reversing the process carrying the egg. Pleasingly strange and not entirely without risk. The winner became the leader, or perhaps his sponsor became the leader, until the next birdman competition.

The overall point here is that, what with huge statues, numerous carvings on rocks (petroglyphs), extreme isolation from other human habitation, and a tiny population, this is a very interesting place to go (if you like that sort of thing, obviously). If you don’t like that sort of thing, there’s a rather stunning little coral beach with a stand of palm trees called Anakena. The rest of the coastline is black, volcanic rock, but Anakena is a beautiful beach (it’s possibly not worth going there just for this sandy bit though, to be entirely honest – there are more accessible beaches on the planet). Oh, and Anakena has moai too; but of course.

Back to photography

Anakena moai

Rapa Nui is mostly scrub grass with a healthy smattering of horses and a few cows, plus one herd of rather impressive goats which live on the least accessible volcano. There are still very few trees, and those that do grow are only a few decades old. Two of the volcanoes are now just flattened cones with nothing especially dramatic from a photography perspective, though the third, Rano Kau, has an excellent crater lake. The image opportunities, then, tend to concentrate very distinctly on the moai themselves and the excellent, black-rock coastline. Oddly, these are remarkably difficult to photograph in an especially interesting way – at least, I found them so as a relative beginner. Bruce Percy has some very good black and white images from his time on the island, but I’d still maintain that moai are not the most photogenic of subjects.
Rapa Nui coast

Critically, whilst I was there – and this was in early March – the sky was a beautiful, clear blue for the entire week. This is not atypical during a large part of the year – or so I was told by several Rapa Nui people, so I concede that they may have been putting what they thought was a positive spin on their climate. On such a relatively featureless island, I was rather hoping that there would be clouds to form key elements of compositions: there were some clouds; just not what I’d consider an abundance or, indeed, ‘enough’.

So, this brings me back to returning. I would at some point like to revisit the island in more interesting weather. Whilst I’ve somewhat decried the moai as subjects, I’m certain that with huge, dramatic skies they could make excellent foreground, they’re just not – at least not to me – sufficient subject in themselves to make more than a handful of worthwhile compositions.
Single moai at sunset

If you’d like to correct any of the highly-condensed facts in this post, please comment, and I’d be very happy for anyone to prove me unduly negative about Rapa Nui as a photographic subject! Once again, it’s a remarkable place to see, and very much worth the trip; it’s simply the photographic opportunities which I’m less enthused by…

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