On a cold December night in 2015, Sergio Tapiro dragged his sleeping bag, camera, and tripod outside and lay underneath the cloudless expanse. Eight miles away, the molten sea beneath Mount Colima thundered to life.
By the time the first explosion pierced the air, Tapiro was already in motion, triggering a series of eight-second exposures on his camera as fire and rock were rapidly expelled from the Earth. When a massive lightning bolt splintered the ash cloud—the biggest Tapiro had ever seen—it was like a giant flash sent from the sky.
“This picture is a gift that nature has given to me,” Tapiro says. “When I saw the camera display I was shocked—I didn’t believe it.”
That image is now the winner of the 2017 Travel Photographer of the Year Contest. “A powerful moment, captured in a beautiful way, Sergio’s image surged to the top of the Nature Photography category by unanimous consent,” says Molly Roberts, senior photo editor at National Geographic and one of this year’s contest judges. “Sergio has focused his lens on the volcano for 15 years, and his masterful concentration is apparent in the beautiful image of the erupting volcano.”
Tapiro started photographing volcanoes in 2002—an endeavor that requires patience and a sense of humor. “I always feel that I’m having a chat with a relative of mine, like an uncle,” Tapiro explains. “Sometimes I think that the volcano is joking. You can be staring at it for 16 hours, and when you finally take down your equipment and you’re driving home, you can see the volcano exploding in the [rearview] mirror.”
That unfaltering patience and optimism is what motivated him to spend a total of 20 days watching Mount Colima in December of 2015. Some nights, he slept in his truck.
Rising nearly 13,000 feet from the ground, Mount Colima is a stratovolcano situated in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and one of the most active in North America. It’s last big eruption occurred in 1913, wreaking havoc on the densely populated region. Scientists believe it’s due for another, and Tapiro plans to be there with his camera in hand.
“I always have the fear that this volcano is going to awaken, and what’s going to happen if I’m not there,” he says. Tapiro even built a modest restaurant in the same place he took the 2015 photo to ensure he's constantly positioned in front of the volcano.
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Tapiro plans to visit around 15 volcanoes throughout Mexico over the next five years—but his home of Colima will always be special to him. When you live in the presence of a volcano it becomes like the North Star, a beacon on the horizon that facilitates all life around it, he says.
“It is the passion of my life. I love this volcano.”