Dealing with on-the-job hazards is just one element of being a photographer. I constantly have to weigh the risk-reward ratio, and often ignore it, if a good picture is a possibility. Of course, there are shooters who, by virtue of their specialties – be it war or wildlife – face danger every day. Some guys even make entire careers shooting inside volcanoes. I am not one of them.
My toughest brush with a volcano came in the form of a sulfur mine in East Java, one of the last of its kind run by hand. This particular mine, with its Kodak-yellow (remember Kodak?) sulfur, happens to be inside the crater of the active Ijen Volcano, and I’d been wanting to shoot it for years. I finally got my chance, after an eight-hour drive from the city of Surabaya, followed by an overnight at a coffee plantation and then another hour-long drive to the base of the volcano. Once there, I had an hour and a half climb to the top of the crater and an hour hike down into its bowels, where the mine sits next to a bubbling cauldron of a lake.
But the tough part of this assignment was not the hours or the hike, but the incredibly noxious sulfur fumes that continually waft up from the open vents where the reddish -yellow liquid oozes out of the ground. Swirling winds blew clouds of it my way, making it difficult to see and breathe. The smoke stings the eyes and numbs the throat, making even speech impossible. Just as quickly as the wind blew the smoldering haze toward me, another gust of wind carried the noxious smoke out again, revealing my subject.
Out came the camera, and I tried to grab what was happening in front of my lens before stuffing the camera back into a plastic bag to protect it from the extremely corrosive gases that can literally eat up its insides. I didn’t want to dwell on what those gases were doing to my own insides, not to mention the bodies of the 100 or so workers who lug 200-plus pound loads of sulfur from the bottom to the top of the crater, three times a day, 200 days a year.
But toxic fumes notwithstanding, I wasn’t about to pack up my camera until I was satisfied I had shot something that conveyed the spectacle I was seeing. I wasn’t disappointed, and the camera never went into that plastic bag. I was too busy shooting the dance of the miners digging the bright yellow mineral, hidden, then revealed by heavy white smoke. As it blew my way, I took a cue from the miners and stuffed my bandana into my mouth, closed my eyes and looked the other way. Between flume-induced tears, I was ecstatic.