Behind the lens: Before the descent
It was 4am. The sulfur miners we chatted to at a local eatery in Ijen, on the island of Java, Indonesia, had told my wife and I to get down to the crater before sunrise. That way we could see what they called ‘the blue flame’ and avoid the heat. But here we were, in one of the roughest workplaces on the planet, a dangerous terrain of rubble and jagged rocks all around us. It was dark, and we were lost.
This is when we bumped into Paing, the man in this image. He was just starting his shift, coming down the narrow path with a flaming torch to light his way. But after years of working at Ijen crater, he could probably have navigated the place with his eyes closed.
He showed us the way down, and from that morning we became friends. It was thanks to his friendship that I was able to get an insight into what it was like to work at what I feel is the closest thing to an inferno on earth.
This is a place where hundreds of men come down into an active volcanic crater to extract sulfur. Their tools? Nothing more than metal rods, their bare hands, and a couple of woven baskets joined by a piece of bamboo.
Every now and then, by the ‘vent’ where the sulfur would harden, the volcano belches out sulphuric fumes. If you were unlucky enough to inhale them, it feels like crying, coughing and vomiting, all at the same time.
The sulfur loads the men would carry often exceeded 100kg. I once asked Paing to let me pick up half that weight, using those bamboo baskets. It felt like a dagger in my shoulder.
We stayed at Ijen for five days, and I followed Paing to work every morning. This photo was made one morning at a ridge just before the descent to the crater, where the miners would often stop for a cigarette break.
On this day, and knowing Paing was already overdue a break, I suggested a spot with the most dramatic view. He didn’t care where he sat, so gladly cooperated. He lit his cigarette using the flame torch. I made a few exposures and a few more as another miner walked by.
At the time, I was using my Canon 5D and I had my 24-70mm lens on because I wanted to react to dynamic situations. With the 5D, you couldn’t shoot at very high ISO, so I used a little tripod that my wife helped me carry to keep the shutter speed relatively low.
To me, this is a story image. The miner in the distance with his baskets full hints at the harsh environment and tough work that Paing will begin once this moment of calm has passed.
About the author: Award-winning photographer Mitchell Kaneshkevich is a travel photographer, YouTuber, writer of ebooks and creator of educational photography courses. See more at mitchellk-photos.com.