A Look Inside One of Earth’s Most Dramatic Volcanoes

At 2 a.m., this photographer descended into an active volcano where miners extract sulfur from inside a blue-flame spewing crater.

A volcanic dream: I’ve been wanting to document how people live and work in extreme environments, because that may teach us how to adapt to a changing planet. Mount Ijen in East Java, Indonesia, is an active volcano that contains an acidic lake and a sulfur mine. Deep in the crater, in air heavy with toxic gases, miners extract chunks of sulfur. They carry 150- to 200-pound loads to the rim and then down the mountain to sell to factories, which use sulfur in the manufacture of things like cosmetics and sugar.

Essential packing list: We landed in Java and drove for three days to reach Mount Ijen. While preparing for the trip, I learned that the sulfurous gas is unpredictable. Sometimes it’s so thick you can’t see or breathe. If that happens, I was advised, don’t panic—just wait for the wind to move it along.

Ready for launch: At the foot of the volcano, I rented a gas mask. From there we climbed to the mountain edge, where tourists flock after dark to see blue flames from the combustion of gases. But if you just take a beautiful picture of the flames, you miss the human story. The miners choose nighttime to descend into the crater and do their backbreaking labor because it’s cooler. I wanted to go into the mine. At 2 a.m. I followed them into the crater to spend the night.

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