What It's Like to Photograph World's Oldest Living Organisms (Pics)


Spruce Gran Picea #0909-6B37 (9,550 years old; Fulufjället, Sweden); all photographs provided by Rachel Sussman

Rachel Sussman photographs our planet's oldest living organisms. From trees dating back perhaps as far as 7,000 years to Siberian Actinobacteria that could be as much as 600,000 years old, she travels the globe to fine, and photograph, the inconceivable. But how does she find the organisms, and what's it like to be that close to living history? Sussman took some time to answer a few questions we have about her curious and amazing quests. You photograph some of the world's oldest living organisms. What draws you to these subjects?
Each individual organism in the project is fascinating in its own way, but looking at them collectively, and across disciplines, is what inspired me to take on this global endeavor.
For many, many years I've been making photographic work the deals with the relationship between humanity and nature. But I was also looking for something more - I wanted to weave together my interests in nature with an inquiry into some weighty philosophical questions through my photographic practice.


Jomon Sugi, Japanese Cedar #0704-002 (2,180 to 7,000 years old; Yaku Shima, Japan)

After a trip to Japan in 2004 where I visited the supposedly 7,000-year-old Jomon Sugi (a Japanese Cedar said to date back to the Jomon era, though likely is only 2,180), the idea gelled to create an original index of continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older.

The idea was to start at "year zero" (calling out the arbitrariness that we consider it to be "2011" right now), and work back from there. I think of my photographs of these organisms as portraits, photographing the past in the present. I was also really surprised to discover that there isn't an area in the sciences that studies this idea of 'global species longevity,' if you will. The nature of scientific inquiry is ever-specializing, and this subject matter is simply too broad. So, not only did I find a way to explore themes of Deep Time and the natural world through photography - I also stumbled upon an area of scientific potential that I think deserves further attention.

For me, the best art answers a few questions, but also asks several more. I also think it's our mandate as artists to help create connections where they previously didn't exist.

How do you find out about these organisms? And how do you verify their age?
I started by using good, old-fashioned Google searches. (In fact, if I had taken on this project in the pre-internet days, I probably still just be scratching the surface at this point.)
I had to begin by figuring out what it was that I was even looking for. There are the obvious candidates like the Giant Sequoias and Bristlecone Pine, but things got interesting pretty fast. My list grew and got more complex as I started to understand the potential scope of this project. I also had to define my terms. For instance, I decided that it was important to include organisms that are growing clonally - organisms that have grow vegetatively (as opposed to reproducing sexually), maintaining their identities as a genetically stable single organisms, even though they might appear as distinct individuals.


Pando, Clonal Colony of Quaking Aspens #0906-4711 (80,000 years old; Fish Lake, UT)

One of the best illustrations of this is "Pando," an 80,000-year-old clonal colony of Quaking Aspens living in Utah. What looks like a forest is in a sense only one tree - each tree is in fact a stem coming up from one giant, genetically indivisible root system. It also happens to be male, which I find amusing. All clonal organisms could potentially be immortal - if conditions remain favorable, they could, in theory, self-propagate forever.
But I digress. I started looking for scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals such as PNAS - I aim to be as accurate as possible with the scientific information. Once I know who is doing active research, I write them a note introducing myself and the project, and this often leads to invitations to meet the scientists directly in the field, That way I can both make my photographs as well as pick their brains on their research. In some cases there would be no way for me to find the organisms without the help of the scientists.

As word as started to get out about my project, I sometimes get scientists contacting me with their discoveries, which is absolutely wonderful. My sense has been that they are very happy to share their highly specialized research with an audience outside of the scientific community.


La Llareta #0308-23B26 (Up to 3,000 years old; Atacama Desert, Chile)
What's been your favorite organisms to photograph? What really made you stop and say "wow...."?
It's really is hard to pick a favorite, but if pressed I would probably have to choose the Llareta (sometimes written as "Yareta" in English.) It's become the poster child for the project, mainly because it is so strange looking (something along the lines of an alien topiary.) At first glance, the Llareta looks like moss or lichens covering rocks, but they are actually shrubs comprised of thousands of branches, each with clusters of tiny green leaves at the end. These branches are so densely packed together, you could actually stand on top of them. (Not that I recommend that - the Llareta lives in the high altitude deserts of South America -- this particular individual lives at a dizzying 15,000 feet elevation.)

This Llareta is around 3,000 years old. I've since seen told about individuals that are larger, and most likely older, so I hope to get a chance to seek them out. There are a couple other things of note about this strange plant - one is where it lives. Parts of the Atacama Desert literally have zero recorded rainfall, and are known as 'Absolute Desert.' There is of course some rainfall to support the Llareta, but it was truly remarkable to have to drive through a landscape that looks like the surface of the moon before getting back to some scrubby vegetation. And lest we take this all too seriously, I always get a kick out of the fact that the Llareta also happens to be a relative of Parsley.


Siberian Actinobacteria #0807-tV26 (400,000 - 600,000 years old; Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen)

Are there any environmental threats to the organisms you've photographed so far? Any of them that are currently under protection?

There definitely are threats to the organisms I've already photographed - some more pronounced than others. The clearest example is the Siberian Actinobacteria, which is also probably the oldest living thing on the planet, clocking in at half a million years old. The bacteria lives in the permafrost, and is remarkable in that it is doing DNA repair below freezing, meaning that it is living and growing at sub-zero temperature - not dormant or a state of suspended animation. Even though it is the oldest, it is probably also the most vulnerable. Simply put, if the permafrost is not in fact permanent, it will not survive.

Protection for these organisms varies greatly. Some of them are protected via UNESCO World Heritage status, while others have no protection whatsoever. In the coming years, I'm hoping to help facilitate some real-world conservation efforts for the entire group. There are organisms over 2,000 years of age on every continent, (including Antarctica where I plan to photograph 5,000-year-old moss banks later this year.) Their protection is really a global concern.

What do you think is the biggest benefit we get from seeing these ancient, yet still living things?
I think there are a lot of things we can learn from these organisms by looking at their survival strategies. A number of similarities have started to emerge when looking at them collectively. For instance, many of them live in fringe environments where other organisms would fail to survive, let alone thrive. Now, I'm not suggesting that people should start embedding themselves in the permafrost, but it is pretty interesting to find that a large percentage of Earth's oldest inhabitants live in harsh conditions such as extreme temperatures, high elevations, low rainfall, low nutrient availability, etc - yet they are uniquely adapted to thrive in these conditions, often with limited competition for resources.

I think of the oldest living things in the world as a record and celebration of our past, a call to action in the present and a barometer of our future.

More on World's Oldest Residents
How Old Is the World's Oldest Tree?
Oldest Animal Under the Sea: The 4,000-Years Old Deep-Water Coral
TED Talk: Rachel Sussman Photographs The World's Oldest Living Things (Video)

Tags: Artists | Arts | Conservation