From a young age, Susan Seubert was fascinated by the towering statues that punctuate the barren terrain of one of the most remote inhabited places on earth. Over 1,000 monolithic human figures carved from volcanic ash, known as moai, stand on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), an island and special territory of Chile in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Believed to have been sculpted by the Rapa Nui people roughly between 1400 and 1650 A.D., these monstrous statues are nothing short of a human wonder, standing as high as 30 feet and weighing as much as 80 tons.
Due to recent fires that swept through the island on October 5, 2022, the statues have been irreparably damaged. It was just two days before the fires that Susan captured some of the last photographs of the island’s stone statues before the devastation. Her images were featured in National Geographic’s article about the island, its people, and its iconic statues believed to possess a spiritual essence known as mana.
One of the things I always discuss in my lectures is the importance of the photographic record. Whether we intend to or not, the images we make today are a record of human and natural history at this unique moment. This ended up being a tragic example of the importance of the landscape, the archeology and the history of Rapa Nui, as this area ended up being greatly affected by a fire just 48 hours after we left the island.
An award-winning travel and editorial photographer, Susan has photographed more than 30 feature stories for National Geographic Traveler. In 2009, she was invited to be a part of the Expeditions program where she travels with their ships all over the world to remote places to represent the National Geographic Society.
When I am working for the National Geographic Expeditions program, I spend a lot of time teaching people in the field how to approach and document any subject, be it landscape, people, food, etc. This means that I work very hard to not only capture images that I think are strong, but also show people how to think about what they are framing and, overall, how to make better photos. So these images from Easter Island were taken for the purpose of teaching, but also to document this very important place.
The moai have long been a subject of curiosity and study for travelers and researchers alike. The figures are believed to represent ancestral chiefs who were given supernatural powers for protecting their communities. Recently, researchers discovered that the giant statues are not just heads, but also have bodies buried deep underground, which they began excavating in early 2010.
Despite the pressure of only having a couple of hours to visit and photograph the location, Susan’s experience traveling on the National Geographic ships has made her accustomed to this working method. She divided her time in such a way that she could fulfill her duties as a photo guide, but also make photos of the place for herself as well as use the images as demonstrations about composition, exposure, EXIF data reviews, etc. The schedule was extremely tight, so she knew that she had to work quickly.
This experience drove home one of my mottos: take pictures first, ask questions later.
Based in Portland, Oregon and Maui, Hawaii, Susan travels throughout the world shooting a variety of subjects and capturing a sense of place through her wide-ranging imagery. With subjects ranging from Canada to the Caribbean and Texas to Thailand, Susan’s work has been recognized by Columbia University’s Alfred Eisenstadt Award and most recently by the North American Travel Journalists Association. Harvard University and the Portland Art Museum are among the institutions where she lectures regularly about her work.
See more of Susan’s work on her website.