The Struggle and Strain of Mining “Devil’s Gold”

In 2014 Italian photojournalist Luca Catalano Gonzaga went to Indonesia and spent ten days inside what he calls “the womb” of the Kawah Ijen volcano in East Java. Here, men toil in arduous conditions to mine sulfur from the depths of the crater—effectively breaking their own bodies in the process.

In their search for “devil’s gold,” as they call it, about 300 miners make a daily climb two miles up the mountain, then head downward more than 900 yards into the volcano, where the sulfur crystals form. Most work without any protection in darkness and stifling heat—all the while breathing sulfurous gas that burns their lungs and makes tears stream from their eyes.

To retrieve the sulfur, they attack it with a metal pole to break it into slabs, then make the reverse journey bearing reed baskets that weigh 150 to 200 pounds. All this for about five dollars a day—ten if they’re able to do it twice. According to Catalano Gonzaga, their average life expectancy barely exceeds 50 years.

Sulfur mining has taken place at Kawah Ijen since 1968. The volcano is famous for the striking blue glow it emits from the combustion of sulfuric gases. As the burning gases cool, they deposit sulfur around the volcano’s crater lake.

Mining companies have sped up this natural process by installing ceramic pipes on an active gas vent near the lake. The pipes route the gas down the mountain and condense it into liquid sulfur, which then drips and solidifies on hard sulfur mats. This solid sulfur is what the miners break up and pack out.

Read more about the Kawah Ijen volcano and its sulfur mining operation here on National Geographic.

I caught up with Catalano Gonzaga over email to learn more about his photographic work.

COBURN DUKEHART: Tell me about this project. How did you come to be interested in covering this community?

LUCA CATALANO GONZAGA: I was aware of the existence of this reality and decided to tell it within one of my wider projects, called “Invisible People,” which tells the stories of men, women, and children whose lives have been forgotten amidst old and new forms of poverty and exploitation.

COBURN: Was it difficult to gain access to the sulfur mines? Were you welcomed there?

LUCA: Before taking photos, I always try to enter into [a] relationship with the community. These people’s lives are ruled by the search for sulfur, and I adapted to their rhythms. In some way, I lived at night, when almost everyone prefers to work.

COBURN: What is the story you are hoping to tell through this imagery?

LUCA: The harshness of an ancient and hard job, practically almost unchanged when compared to time, means, and modernity. Everything is still based on a man’s strength, on his resistance, and on his capability to carry heavy loads on his own shoulders.

COBURN: Was there anything that surprised you about your time with the miners?

LUCA: Rather than being surprised, I was full of admiration for the determination with which the miners wanted their children to have a better future. No resignation, no inevitability is passed down from father to son.

COBURN: Either personally or photographically, what were some of the challenges you faced?

LUCA: There’s no doubt that it was a very hard job from a physical point of view. At times I thought I couldn’t make it. I couldn’t breathe and the heat was really unbearable. Photographically, the biggest challenge was to capture the many shades of light and gases produced in those situations.

COBURN: What are you hoping that people will learn about the sulfur miners through viewing your images?

LUCA: My nonprofit group, Witness Image, was born as a humanitarian photojournalism agency. When the journalist Susanna Bucci and I founded it four years ago, we knew that we should focus on information that brings attention to the “forgotten” and “invisible” people—those who are excluded from the media circuit because they don’t make the headlines.

I made this photographic report of the sulfur miners as a testimony of their everyday struggle for survival.

This project has been promoted by Witness Image and funded by the Nando Peretti Foundation.

See more of Luca Gonzaga Catalano’s work on his website.

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