A series of images shot in Ijen, Indonesia on the miners and their lives and livelihood that can easily be one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Located on the western Gunung Merapi (meaning mountain of fire) volcanic range, Ijen is the hub of sulfur mining.
As a normal traveller, I initially thought it was a mid-night or very early morning trip to see the ‘blue flames’ emitting out of the cracks of the active volcanic crater. As I made a steep climb and finally a steep descent into the crater, I saw workers and tourist pacing around the crater, the later mostly came to see the blue flames as I did, but then this quickly turned into a documentary style of photography. I was deeply moved by the state of miners who works here and followed them around for hours documenting their work, talked to a few of them and particularly followed 2 miners in the crater.
On the ridge of the crater where the steep assent ends and a steep descent starts. The light trails are left behind both by the miners and the tourists who come to see the Blue Sulfuric Flames emitting out of the cracks.
The blue flame that emits from the cracks of mountain is sulphuric gas on fire, extremely hot and highly toxic. Only visible during the night, it is a mesmerising sight.
The active volcano that erupted around 50 years ago still spews thick toxic sulphur fumes. On a normal day in a human life this would be considered highly dangerous to health and safety. The miners normally works in the dead of the night with flash lights, this is partly due to unbearable heat from the sun coupled by the heat that comes out of the crater and cracks that constantly spews flames and liquid sulphur.
Water from the pipes are sprayed into liquid sulphur that vents out of the ceramic pipes to speed the crystallization process, chunks are then broken with iron rod into smaller pieces and then carried on baskets. Nothing in this process is easy. To make things even worst, the miners do not wear gas masks, they use pieces of clothes to cover their mouths from inhaling the toxic fumes. I had heavy duty gas mask and many times I was gasping for air, tears rolled down my eyes and at times I could not see a thing.
This crystallised sulphur are carefully broken and balanced on the 2 baskets connected with a bamboo staff, then carried on the shoulder on a steep and treacherous climb of about 300 meters up to the rim of the crater and then gradual slope for 10 minutes and then steep downhill. Many miners haul the load on to push carts on the lip of the crater and then downhill to the factory or nearby melting place where the sulphur again is melted. The weight of the basket is approximately 80 kgs, the workers normally makes 2 trips a day making them $15 on an average.
This sulphur is then used by the factories to purify sugar and as an ingredient for beauty products.
Upon my research, I could not find out anything on long term impact on the worker’s health due to prolonged period of inhaling these fumes, I believe the study is still being done. For the normal people visiting the crater immediate impacts are respiratory problems, prickly sensation in the eyes and profound coughing that results in severe breathlessness. On numerous occasions I saw my travel buddy during the time violently coughing and rubbing his eyes, we laughed during the time to see each other struggling to breathe even with our heavy duty masks on (like a riot police). But what really impacted me was more from the humanity angle; we complain about our lives atleast once in a day, I came out of this crater ever grateful for what I have. Now I think about these miners before I make a disgruntled comment on my life and how my life has been unfair to me.
Miners in Ijen have been covered by major publications from different perspectives, I immediately started to read these articles back at the hotel. I was not there to cover a story but my images quickly turned into documentary.
The wound that never heals. Carrying load for long period of time doesn’t allow the wound to fully heal. Saron is proud of what he does; he even flaunted his biceps at me once, but says it is hard work none the less.
At the rim of the crater, I took this final image when the air was a bit cleaner, the sulphuric smog was thin and I could have a clearer perspective and refection on where I had been, 300 meters below this crater rim is also a lake that is highly acidic, I had a strange curiosity to touch the water but a miner stopped me from doing that.
This place is strangely beautiful and surreal. I am from the Himalayas, a different mountain range altogether, I believe every mountain has a story and it will always have men in them. This is Ijen, the volcanic mountain that has embraced men to her bosom to burn with her.
About Pravin Tamang
Pravin Tamang is native to the Himalayas. Brought up in Darjeeling he is now based in Delhi. Works in the travel industry that takes him to places and people and this is where his real passion lies, places and people who live in it. Primarily a travel and documentary photographer, he takes time out for photo assignments for clients and his works have been featured on various online and print media. A regular contributor to Intrepid Travel Blog, he is currently working on a number of series project ranging from tea, water crisis, community-based tourism, clean energy and currently between his long-term abstract project titled ‘Guardian Spirits’. Pravin believes in finding significance in something insignificant around the world and being loyal and honest in his approach to his subject. He derives his inspirations from masters like Sally Mann, Robert Kapa, Fan Ho and Michael Kenna.
Pravin uses a Leica Rangefinder Camera and a 2 prime lens almost all the time.
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All the pictures in this post are copyrighted Pravin Tamang. Their reproduction, even in part, is forbidden without the explicit approval of the rightful owners.