The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world. With its clear skies and vast landscapes, it sits still atop the northern half of Chile—but, as photographer Jess Gough captured for our latest issue, it’s an extreme, surreal ecosystem brimming with life and movement.
WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY JESS GOUGH
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest areas in the world and is situated at a high altitude, surrounded by volcanoes. Deserts are normally perceived as barren, desolate, and lifeless places, but the Atacama is a series of surrealist landscapes. The stillness and heat make it feel like time itself has slowed down. Looking at the bottom of salt lakes is like peering into a crystallized, frozen world, where organic life has been petrified. There is such a variety in the landscapes, and the surroundings drastically change depending on the altitude: You can be among grassland and fauna in one moment and on a sand dune or in a cactus forest in another. It is unfamiliar and at times otherworldly—an elemental terrain that navigates you through water, smoke, stone, and salt.
It is an extreme ecosystem, an area that experiences one of the lowest levels of rainfall in the world, and yet it is brimming with life and movement. Salt flats and hot springs are home to extremophile organisms such as cyanobacteria, which can survive in the high temperatures of the hot springs and produce beautiful rings of color. These colors change when they photosynthesize, like a light switching on, so the view is constantly in flux. Bacteria containing carotenoids turn whole lakes blood red. Microbialites have also been found in the region: underwater rock-like structures that look like reefs but are made entirely out of microbes. Stromatolites, which are fossilized microbialites, are the oldest evidence of life on Earth and have also been found in the salt flats. There is a perspective and timescale in the Atacama beyond anthropocentric experience, that reveals the immutability of the natural world and the vast expanse of geologic time.
We are living at an ecologically critical point, and in light of this, we must shift the focus away from the concerns of human narrative and confront our separation from the natural world—if only to provide a broadened frame of reference. Nature has a resilience in extreme conditions—constant cycles of flourish and collapse that exist regardless of human experience or intervention. There are physical processes of our world that often go unseen: forces operating beyond our control and shifts and fluctuations that creep just beyond the limits of perception. By stepping back to contemplate this complex and limitless system, by taking the time to marvel at the natural world, we can begin to locate our own place, however small, within it.