Chaiten; a town digging itself out of the ash – By Frans Jansen

Chaiten; a town digging itself out of the ash.

On May 2nd of 2008, after 9000 plus years, a volcano erupted near the town of Chaiten in Patagonia, Chile. The more than 4000 people who made their lives in this  small town had their lives changed dramatically. The Chilean government temporarily evacuated all the people to other various towns as far away as 200 miles.

A few weeks after the eruption, during heavy rains, the Rio Chaiten which was plugged up with debris and ash, suddenly produced a enormous Lahar (ash/mud slide) flooding 2/3 of the town and swept away many of its houses.

The Chilean Government declared that “the town of Chaiten is destroyed and uninhabitable “. The people of Chaiten were not allowed to return to their homes,  but rather only take a few of their belongings.  They could no longer live in their homes because they were deemed unsafe.

The plan was to build a new Chaiten, north of the old town, protected from the volcano by the mountains. Fifty or so citizens, however, refused to leave their houses and businesses that they had worked for their whole lives. Instead, they persevered;

They dug out their houses, cleaned off their inventory, put in small generators and put water tanks on their roofs that they filled with water from a nearby creek (unaffected by the volcano) and tried to stay open for business.

For two long years following the eruption, these people were left to their own devices of trying to rebuild their lives. They felt that the government had forgotten about them and their town as well as the 4000 other people of Chaiten-now living in various other towns in Patagonia.

Then, finally, as it only can happen in South America, in January of 2011 the Chilean government decided to restore the old town and not to build a new town. New electricity lines were put in and water supply was restored to the houses. Slowly but surely the former citizen of Chaiten are starting to return and things are finally looking up for the town of Chaiten and its people.

Below are a few of the photos I took of Chaiten during the last few years.


  1. 18 years ago I got on the wrong boat and ended up in Chaiten only to discover I’d be stranded there for a week until another boat came by. Over the course of that week, “stranded” turned into blessed as I was completely taken by the town and its people.

    Trust me, there was NOTHING to do. After two days I’d seen and been everywhere; I had to give up hiking as the forest was too thick – even the three army guys I had befriended and who wanted to go with me gave up! But after many invitations to wonderful dinners, fishing with new friends, and lots of talk about life and the world (over a fair amount of pisco…), I was dreading getting on the boat home.

    Hearing about the volcano had a powerful effect on me. Ever since, I’ve avoided images of the destruction as I didn’t want to have my memories overrun by new ones of damage. These photos do the town great justice – it hasn’t changed as much as I had feared (I remember many of the houses!) and the beauty of the images mute the damage. If the people return, then I know I will have to as well.

    Thanks Steve for posting this great article!

  2. .
    DJ ..I know how much that must have hurt to say “..I agree with David Babsky”. Well done. In the spirit of goodwill to all men, please give your X1 a little kiss from me!

    Thanks Frans, too, for your explanation and description. The vertical, black-and-white plume is a great shot – whether taken with an M9 or with a Kodak Box Brownie. (The M9 is, of course, a Kodak camera anyway: that’s a Kodak sensor chip inside it.)

    DJ, you’re an honourable man, and I couldn’t agree more with what you say “This … is what people should be doing with their gear… Taking photos!”

  3. This is going to be a first for me here…I can’t believe I’m going to say this but… I agree with David Babsky. This article was so refreshing because it was all about the images and story, not even a mention of the kit involved.

    This amazing series is what people should be doing with their gear… Taking photos! This could have been produced by a leading Magnum photographer, I really think it’s that good! Yeah we all obviously like Leica on this web site but it should be about the work we produce with the camera as opposed to just talking about the kit itself.

    Bravo Frans again and bravo Steve for publishing this one. I hope peope take inspiration from this and we get to see more reportage photography on this site 🙂

  4. Hi everyone, I’m from Chile. So I can have a little more perspective on this issue.
    Mayority of families from Chaiten now are happy living on other towns, and government gives them money to buy houses and stuff like that, they were not left apart. These other people sure are brave and optimistic but, in such irresponsable act, returned to Chaitén. As HinVan says : a few shortsighted, stubborn people have condemned future generations. They spent LOTS of money just to have bottled potable water, because rivers are SO toxic with ashes. They were given the chance to CHOICE the place to build New Chaiten and have better road access (this town is pretty far from any large city). So, like most chilean people, I think they are irresponsable with such decision.
    BTW, great shots 🙂

  5. A lot of comments already having the word “amazing”, but that’s really the first thing that comes to mind when looking at these pictures! What brave people, they have my utmost respect for their continuing efforts! And a wonderful pictorial series this is!

    A technical question (as we’re all insane gearheads here): what gear have you been using?

    • .
      “..we’re all insane gearheads here..” ..and I’d been thinking that I was odd: so it’s not I; it’s everyone else who’s insane – phew, thank goodness!

      Yup, I’d reckon it’s insane to ask “what gear have you been using?” ..I’d say it’s irrelevant. Here are pictures – but “amazing” pictures? – of a town covered in ash, and the important question is “what gear have you been using?”

      Remember ‘Live Aid’? ..Remember the pitiful images of starving children? The question to ask was “Dear Mohamed” (..the cameraman..) “..which video camera were you using?” ..I’m perplexed: what the *&%$£@ does it matter? ..Next time I see J K Rowling I must ask her what pen, er word-processor, er typewriter she used to write those Harry Potter stories..

      [..’scuse me while I bang my head against the wall ..oh, no, wait; I must remember.. I’m not the one who’s insane, I’m not the one who’s insane..]

      • Couldn’t agree more. Who cares about equipment when a catastrophe hits. Who ever asked a National Geographic photographer which camera he or she used – nope – you just look at the pictures and wonder how it was even possible to make those great images.

    • Hi efix and David,

      Things are really a lot better in Chaiten than even a year ago and I do believe in another 5 years things might be back to almost normal ( I hope!) I posted these pictures because I feel that things like natural disasters are only interesting in the news when they first occur but a few weeks later we switch to the next disaster . Personally I think it is more interesting to see how people deal with these things and see how quickly people get on their feet and try to go on with their lives . Steve was kind enough to post my story and had a huge influence on what cameras and lenses I use , I think my wife would like to ban me from his website so I stop shopping! I currently use a M9 and M6 and for these photos I used mostly the M9 with 50 summicron and 28 elmarit asph.

  6. Very nice photo essay though. The pics really give a sense of the environment, the open plains, the sulking monster, and the frontier feel of the town. Nice work.

  7. They should have burnt the town to the ground so that the people couldn’t come back. I understand the heartbreak at losing ones home, but look at it this way – a few shortsighted, stubborn people have condemned future generations. Families will disappear, hundreds may die, because eventually, the volcano will erupt again and the lahar will follow the same route, just as an avalanche follows a gully, and a tsunami washes the same shores. But hey, thats the future and it might never happen, so for today, I’m OK jack. I wonder if these people thought the same when they ignored warnings:
    So, there’s always two sides to a story, and photos of plucky residents can also portray foolhardy farmers.

    • HinVan,

      Thanks for your reply. The Chilean government did the right thing by evacuating the people of Chaiten. It saved a lot of lives. After the lahars occurred they rerouted the river and reinforced the river banks as you can see in one of my pictures . 1/3 of the town will never be restored because of the possibility of future floods ,however the other 2/3 of the town is on higher ground and hardly was affected at all by the lahars but did get covered in ash from the volcano. After the volcano settled down the government sent in their specialists. This is where, in my humble opinion, things went wrong. Most of these specialist live in urban Santiago in nice mansions and have no clue of how people live in Patagonia. They condemned the town because they saw little wooden houses with rusty roofs with paint falling of the sides, – throw in a little ash- and they declared Chaiten unlivable . The new plan was to build a new town with government housing 10 miles north of the old town. I have been living in Patagonia for over 18 years and have seen government housing in many places in Chile . It is not pretty ! Yes, Chaiten has many houses that have rusty roofs and paint falling of but Chaiten also has a heart and lots of character , which a new Chaiten with government housing will never have. The government did not do anything for Chaiten 2 years and then finally decided to rebuild old Chaiten.
      I have lots of friends from Chaiten, either living in town now, or are waiting to go back and I am proud of them for persevering ! They are not foolish, they are hard working people that just want to go on with their lives in the town in which they were born.
      The people around Mount St. Helen’s are not all fools, nor people in San Fransisco that
      have to deal with possible future earthquakes .
      In my opinion these are some very brave people that I will keep supporting as much as I can.

  8. Amazing images – inspiring story. The black and whites are fantastic – but my favorite is the cow grazing – it captures devastation, renewal and ‘life as usual’ all in one shot.

  9. Exceptional photo essay. Wonderfull images and fascinating article! I had never heard of this disaster but am inspired by the determination and optimism of the Chaiten people. Magnificent work!

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