What Photographing Extreme Landscapes Taught Me
I had never thought that during my crossing of Latin America, from south to north, I would encounter such a huge quantity and diverse variety of landscapes. Scrolling through my Instagram feeds, or the gallery on my phone, I can see that scenic shots are all over the map. My close friends on the other side of the Atlantic have texted me, requesting to be sent pictures of myself and not just the umpteenth sublime landscape shot.
South America is a synonym of landscape heaven. Just google any town on this continent and you will see that after colonial churches and old squares, the list of must-see places is filled with natural wonders, that are immediately accessible. It could be a mountain range, a waterfall, a canyon, a desert, jungle, a glacier or a mix of all those, the options are just endless. So I could not help it, and now you must endure the avalanche of landscape shots.
I wasn’t there to take perfect postcard landscape photos. I was here to turn the perceptions and emotions that all those extreme views around were triggering inside me, into images
I’m not talking about the average mountain range, waterfall or canyon. Nature in South America decided to go wild and show off. It created an array of what I would call ‘extreme landscapes’. Despite extensive research and high expectations, the unparalleled beauty of some of these places definitely took me by surprise. Such as the Atacama Desert, the Uyuni salt flats and the borderland that divides Chile and Bolivia. Home to impressive mountain ranges, volcanoes, lagoons, geysers and drylands, the landscape you find yourself immersed in is otherworldly. It is no wonder then that this very place was used several times by scientists to test drones ready to be sent to Mars. In fact, while walking the dry and crumbling paths in Valle de La Luna or creeping through the narrow red canyons of the Valle de Arco Iris, I could not but think about all those sci-fi films where astronauts explore inaccessible moon-like and extra-terrestrial landscapes.
A few months into this trip I came to realise that, for the people who live on this continent the landscape is an intrinsic part of their daily life, no matter how harsh or inhospitable it can be. The bond that ties them to the land is deep-rooted in ancient traditions and is as alive today as it was centuries and centuries ago when the goddess Pachamama (or Earth Mother) began to be revered. Immersing yourself in nature here is undoubtedly a way to engage with local culture and uniquely understand how it ended up shaping the lives of people who has inhabited these lands. This thought is what made me look at these places with a new eye.
Making an exception for the village of San Pedro and other sparsely populated communities on the edge of the Uyuni salt flats, the human presence around the Atacama and the uplands over the nearby Bolivian border is almost inexistent. It is an unmissable chance to face nature almost alone. Skies are pristine, stars burst with light, colours are not of this world, sunsets are eerie and unexpectedly magical. In other words, a Shangri-la for landscape photographers. I found that here, you don’t have to hunt for a perfect scenic spot. You just need to be prepared and try not to be overwhelmed by the abundance of the dramatic scenery all around. In fact, the topographic diversity of the land offers infinite and unmissable opportunities to the greedy eye.
I am not really into landscape photography, but while here I decided to take on the challenge. Even though I do not consider myself an expert, I know that finding a good spot and shooting is definitely not what makes a good photograph. I came to learn that use of good lighting, the right lens, great composition, focus and perspective, are all equally important for the perfect landscape shot. However I also discovered that these elements are not everything you need. As in any other type of photography, you must make that scenic spot meaningful and ‘speak’ to those who see it ether printed or on their screen. In fact, what I found most challenging in this case was trying to give that unique touch to otherwise over-photographed places. Finding meaningful, distinctive and personal ways to record such extravagant sceneries meant trying to contemplate and engage with the surroundings in a variety of potentially deterring situations.
Walking through teeth-chattering temperatures of minus-fifteen, framing the best light possible while fighting altitude sickness, pushing away the exhaustion accumulated through hours and hours of bone-juddering jeep driving, trying to ignore the blinding light reflected by the salt flats were some of those circumstances that can easily put you off. I cursed myself and my plans. I thought this was the worst place to take on a challenge. I tried to tell myself that, after all, I wasn’t there to take perfect postcard landscape photos. I was here to turn the perceptions and emotions that all those extreme views around were triggering inside me, into images. I came to realise that was exactly what would have made my photos, and the landscapes themselves, my own. That would have been the perfect way to get underneath the skin of the place, and learning to see it as locals did.
Eventually, travelling to these remote, uninhabited and extreme places came as a lesson. Photography is a challenge every single time you pull out a camera. No matter what you are planning to shoot. Whether you are trying to engage with a person, an incredible situation, a heavenly landscape or a unique event, what matters is not aesthetic perfection, but rather what that ‘perfect moment’ is telling you. Learning to do so, as mastering the photographic craft itself, needs practice and time. So, while I am still learning, enjoy my perfect moments, hoping they will speak to you as they did to me.