Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua, might be considered the last place on Earth for a number of reasons. For example, it is one of the points of land on the planet furthest from any other point of land. Other than New Zealand and Antarctica, it was also one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited by humans. Once the Rapa Nui people had lived on Easter Island for several hundred years without any visitors and without ever making it back to other islands or continents themselves, they began to wonder if the rest of the world sank leaving them stranded on literally the last place on Earth. Finally, Easter Island is one of the last places on Earth I ever imagined having the opportunity to visit and photograph.
In my last article I shared photos and a trip report from the photography tour I helped lead in Patagonia with Christian and Regula Heeb, owners of the Cascade Center of Photography. Christian is one of the world’s most published and prolific travel photographers and there are few places he has not visited, but Easter Island was one of them. At the end of the Patagonia tour the Heebs scheduled an extension trip to Rapa Nui. Six of our group, including myself, continued on from Santiago, Chile to spend several days exploring and photographing there. I recently was interviewed about the Patagonia and Easter Island trips on The Traveling Image Makers podcast. You can listen to that podcast HERE.
It is fair to say that Easter Island is probably not a location most landscape photographers would prioritize. It is expensive and difficult to get to and it is small and windswept. If tropical seascapes and landscapes are your photography goal, there are certainly more beautiful, larger, more diverse and easier to reach islands and tropical regions. For me, the culture, folklore, history and ecology of the island made it an intriguing place to visit and the imposing visual of the moai standing watch around the island were alluring to me photographically.
Easter Island, so named because the first European explorer arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722, is best known for the massive stone moai statues the Rapa Nui carved and placed in multiple locations all around the island, but the history, culture and eventual plight of the Rapa Nui people make the tiny island all the more fascinating. The island itself is very small, just 13 miles long and as little as two miles wide in some places. From the highest points you can see all the way across the island in any direction. The nearest inhabited land is Pitcairn Island, 1300 miles away and the nearest continental land is central South America, 2200 miles away.
Polynesian people most likely arrived on the island between 900 and 1300 years ago and created a thriving society. Easter Island was forested and had a stable ecosystem at that time so natural resources, farming and fishing enabled a comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately it seems that overpopulation, over harvesting and the introduction of the Polynesian rat eventually led to deforestation, extinction of the native birds and damage to the ecosystem. The population of the island could have been as high as 15,000 in the 1600s, but by the time the first Europeans visited in 1722 it had declined to an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people. By the late 1800s disease and Peruvian slave traders had reduced the population to just 111.
The statues were created as part of the clan based society with one clan wielding power over the other clans through a high chief, the eldest descendant of the island’s legendary founder, Hotu Matu’a. There are 887 moai on the island, some of them standing, but many were knocked over, toppled in transport or were never completed and are still in place in the main quarry.
According to National Geographic, “Most scholars suspect that the moai were created to honor ancestors, chiefs, or other important personages.” For hundreds of years the creation of the statues was believed to be a way for the living to connect with dead ancestors and for the ancestors to provide for the needs of the living, including power and wealth. Rapa Nui villages were mostly located near the coastline with groups of statues standing nearby with their backs to the ocean, watching over the island.
The ancestor cult that worshiped the moai statues eventually faded, however. Warriors known as matatoa gained more power as the island became overpopulated and resources diminished. In the late 1700s the Ancestor Cult ended, making way for the Bird Man Cult. Beverly Haun wrote, “The concept of mana invested in hereditary leaders was recast into the person of the birdman, apparently beginning circa 1540, and coinciding with the final vestiges of the moai period.” This cult maintained that, although the ancestors still provided for their descendants, the medium through which the living could contact the dead was no longer statues, but human beings chosen through a competition. This competition was held each year and required the matatoa to climb down high cliffs to the ocean, swim through shark infested waters to a small off shore island and wait there for migrating sooty turns to arrive and begin nesting. The first matatoa to find a turn egg, swim back to the main island and scale the cliffs without falling or breaking the egg was the winner. The title and power of the birdman was then bestowed upon the warrior, or more commonly a wealthy older chief who had hired him to be his representative champion.
Another ramification of deforestation and dwindling resources was fighting among the clans and toppling of each others statues. The European explorers who came to Easter Island in the earlier 1700s reported seeing many statues standing all along the coastline. In 1774, British explorer, James Cook, reported noticing that some of the statues had been knocked over. In 1825 the British ship HMS Blossom arrived and reported seeing no standing statues. The only statues still standing were the ones located on the side of the crater below the rock the quarry where they were carved. This was due to the fact that soil erosion on the steep slope had caused the moai to be partially buried over time, making them topple proof. The toppled statues remained in this state until 1956, when the first statues were re-erected. To date about 50 statues have been put back in their upright positions.
During our five days on the island we photographed most of the main moai sites that have standing statues, some of them multiple times and at different times of day. Since I had previously seen many documentary and archaeological images of the moai, my goal was to create photographs that were unique, dramatic and gave a sense of the statues in their environment. All of the statues are protected and part of the national park system. It is prohibited to touch them or access certain areas, some of the sites are only open during the day and the most popular sites can be crowded during the day and at sunset, so there are some challenges to finding the right composition and not having people in the photos.
For me this was a wonderful life experience. I am happy with the photos I was able to capture, especially the long exposure image of the Tongariki moai group under a full moon. Mostly I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit such a remote spot on the planet and one with such an interesting and storied history and culture.
Sean is a full time photographer and photography educator. You can see more of his images and find out about his video tutorial courses and upcoming workshops, tours and classes on his website at www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com.
Sean is an outdoor photographer, digital image developing enthusiast and photography educator based in Ashland, Oregon, where he resides with his wife and two sons. His previous career as a science teacher makes photography education a good fit. Sean teams up with fellow Photo Cascadia members leading workshops. He also teaches digital image developing classes, lectures and offers a series of Photoshop video tutorials.