Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the planet’s largest salt flat, will literally take your breath away. “The air is crystal clear but very thin, which makes it hard to breathe,” the Berlin-based photographer Navina Khatib tells me. “You always have a taste of salt on your lips, and in some places there is a strong smell of sulfur. There is a profound silence, and the colors shine very bright.” Her photographs from Uyuni reflect that sense of breathlessness; instead of recording the reality of the landscape, she captures the sensations of being there, in the middle of nowhere, more than 3600 meters above sea level.
Khatib’s bond with nature started when she was young. “I remember remote forests and grasslands and the sound and smell of the Baltic sea in summer,” she says, looking back on her childhood. “Also, the mountains in South Bavaria had a deep impact on me.” But this world was just her point of departure, and she always felt the pull of a the preternatural realm of fantasy and fairy tales. “I was fascinated by kaleidoscopes, transparent papers, tinfoil and all kinds of lenses, even back than,” she admits. “I was looking at the world through these self-made filters quite often.”
Today, Khatib transforms her surroundings into fragments from a dream. Some of her images are made with prisms, while others are layered multiple exposures. The process of reimagining an image can take hours, but it sometimes takes months. She listens to music throughout, and the sounds help guide the work.
Salar de Uyuni was her perfect playground. In 2011, she worked at an orphanage in the Peruvian Andes and devoted half a year to exploring South America with her partner. “We stayed more than a month in the Altiplano of Bolivia, traveling by bus among the locals, eating local food, sometimes not even knowing where to spend the night,” she remembers. “We were getting to know the incredible landscape raw and unfiltered. A true adventure.”
By doing away with the shapes and contours of real life, Khatib asks us to take flight into unseen territory. The flamingos, who travel here to breed, become emissaries from a magical domain just outside our reach. The photographer describes the salt flat as “a place close to heaven,” and indeed, looking in her photographs, we can see boundary line between us and the world beyond slowly evaporate into thin air.
Follow Khatib on Instagram at @navinakhatib for more.