Photograph by Jason Larkin
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A small tunnel along the hillside of the Green Mountain. Created by the British Marines, it formed part of the network of look-out paths needed for passing ships.
Photograph by Jason Larkin

Musings: Jason Larkin’s Mysterious Ascension Island

When I first saw Jason Larkin’s project, A Useless Island, I was immediately intrigued, even though I had never heard of Ascension Island or its history. Larkin’s images filled me with a sense of wonder and mystery. With a name like Ascension and an inlet named Comfortless Cove, it’s not unfair to say the island seems nearly fictional. In 2011, while researching an assignment on nearby St. Helena Island, Larkin stumbled across Ascension and quickly became fascinated with the island and its storied history.

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Looking south from Green Mountain across extinct volcanos. The vegetation has been growing only for the last decade.

Ascension is located nearly in the middle of the South Atlantic ocean. It was passed over by Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle because he believed it was too volcanic for plant life to grow. Seven years later, in 1843, the botanist James Hooker was invited by the British Admiralty to spruce up the island. For the next few years, plant shipments designated by Hooker were sent to the island and thus began a new ecosystem on a once nearly bare volcanic landscape. It became known as Green Mountain.

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Vegetation on Green Mountain.

Today, the island is still controlled by the British military and has a small population made up of mostly U.S. and U.K. military, and Green Mountain has been designated as a park, left to grow untamed.

After embarking on a five day boat trip to St. Helena and another three days to Ascension, Larkin finally arrived on the island. When he explored Green Mountain, the vegetation was thick from heavy rains, the first in 20 years, according to Larkin.

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An area of Green Mountain has been covered in concrete by the British Marines to help collect as much sparse rainfall as possible.

“I wasn’t entirely sure what I would find. From what I read about the Marines’ relationship to the Green Mountain, there are a few reasons for why they created it. The primary reason was to increase the island’s rainfall and subsequently grow their own food. I also imagine it gave them something to do. Life was very slow for them. They watched turtles, spent a lot of time finding water, waiting for ships to come through, watching the Spanish navy and slavers. They were used to being isolated and they wanted a project, because otherwise they were reliant on the outside world. It was a hugely ambitious project. They made roads, created water pipes and farms. They brought organization to the island.”

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Giant Alocasia grows in between some of the original work sheds built by the British Marines near the top of the Green Mountain.

The ecological significance of Green Mountain is what intrigued Larkin the most. According to ecologists, “Green Mountain shows that it is possible, in some cases, to turn largely barren areas into tropical forest in around 100 years, not thousands of years.” The rapid growth has disproved Darwin’s assessment that the island was useless.

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A lone plant grows far from Green Mountain, where vegetation imported to the island was originally planted.

“Most large ecosystems like forests take thousands of years to develop and become sustainable. I wanted to know what that feels like to go into a natural space that has been created in a fraction of that time. I wanted to capture the feeling and mood of the place, the tension between the artificial and natural.”

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Satellite dishes that form part of the European Space Agency program based on Ascension. Due to so few people living on the island and it being so far away from urban centers, Ascension is used by a lot of telecommunications and research centers.

Larkin says the project was a departure from his typical photo stories, which are often complex social documentary projects, such as his project Tales from the City of Gold, which documents mining in Johannesburg, South Africa. Larkin says that he “wanted to give [viewers] a breather, let them be surrounded by vegetation and consumed by a sense of space. It’s a tiny remote island in one of our biggest oceans.”

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Tracks are still present across Green Mountain which are regularly used by the feral farm animals that were let free when the farm was abandoned.

Overall, it ended up being a refreshing creative outlet for Larkin. “Ascension allowed me to fully remove myself from the process of creating a story for a magazine. It reminds me of when I first picked up a camera.”

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Roots grow across a wall of volcanic rock.

For Larkin, the stories of Ascension and Green Mountain speak to wider human truths.

“There’s a deep inherent desire to just survive with whatever means possible. It’s a part of who we are as a human race. It’s incredible to see the lengths they went to to survive.”

Jason Larkin is represented by INSTITUTE.  View more of his work on their website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.