Photographers' Blog

The view from a volcanic edge

By Dwi Oblo

I’ve known about the annual Hindu Kasada Festival for some time now.

For years, I’ve been planning to go but for the past two there have been conflicting events that I needed to cover so this was my first time attending the festival. As I wanted to provide extensive coverage, I decided to arrive a day before the festival started. Along with four colleagues, I headed to Mount Bromo from Yogyakarta. It took us nine hours to drive the 500 km (310 miles) route.

On the morning of August 15, the sunshine slowly warmed me as it reached 16 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit). Coming from Yogyakarta, this was cold for me.

Once arriving in Ngadisari, the last village before Mount Bromo, we decided to rent a four-wheel-drive Jeep. These vehicles were provided for visitors who wanted to reach the volcanic crater of Mount Bromo on foot. After the last eruption in December 2010, the track heading to the crater became sandier, which made it even harder for non-4WDs to navigate. I wore a mask and sealed eyeglasses as strong winds made volcanic dust fly everywhere. My photo equipment also had to be securely protected from the dust when it was not in use. This was the exact same situation I was confronted with when I covered the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi.

Dust was everywhere! I brought two cameras, each with a wide angle lens and a standard lens. I also had a small flash with me. I assumed that this would be enough equipment. With the two cameras I could make overview pictures as well as portraits without having to change lenses all the time — something I wanted to avoided in a dusty and sandy place like Mount Bromo.

I continued my journey by horse to the foothills of Mount Bromo, a trip which took about a half hour. Everyone had to stand in line since the trail could only fit one person and the slope was about 45 degrees. The long line allowed me to take deep breaths as I leisurely counted the stairs. Yep, there were 250 stairs!

An erupting volcano on the horizon

It was Saturday, May 21, and I was returning from a tour with nine friends. We had spent 15 hours climbing a 1420 metre (yard) high peak named Midfellstindur near Iceland’s Skaftafell national park. While driving back along route 1 from Skaftafell towards our hotel, the organizer of the trip Hans Kristjansson said “This is a strange cloud just above the glacier”.

As a hang glider and ultralight pilot I knew right away that this was no ordinary cloud and said to Hans: “My friend, this is not a ordinary cloud but the start of an eruption”. We stopped the car and I tried to use well the last seven frames that I had on my memory card in my Canon D300 DSLR camera. I took seven frames in about 20 minutes. I always take my photos in RAW format to be able to post-process them. It paid off this time. The pictures were taken at N 63° 56.712 W 17° 23.729.

When I got back to the hotel I was unable to view my pictures as my laptop was at home in Reykjavik along with my card reader. The lesson of the trip is that I will never ever travel again without my MacBookPro and my Lexar card reader. And I will make sure that I have ample space on different memory cards!

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures January 30, 2011

Even though the world's gaze is firmly focused on the events in Egypt and Tunisia, top stories continue to break in Asia. Last week during my morning call with Enny Nuraheni, our Indonesia Chief Photographer, she told there was a ferry on fire with hundreds on board, a train had crashed and Mount Bromo was spewing ash, all on the same day.  In Japan Mount Kirishima was erupting, thousands of birds culled to try to stop the spread of bird flu and the economy and government were under pressure.  But all Japanese worries were forgotten briefly as Japan beat Australia 1-0 in the AFC Asian Cup final in Doha. 

JAPAN/ 

Volcanic lightning or a dirty thunderstorm is seen above Shinmoedake peak as it erupts, between Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures, in this photo taken from Kirishima city and released by Minami-Nippon Shimbun January 28, 2011. Ash and rocks fell across a wide swathe of southern Japan straddling the prefectures of Miyazaki and Kagoshima on Thursday, as one of Mount Kirishima's many calderas erupted, prompting authorities to raise alert levels and call on for an evacuation of all residents within a 2 km (1.2 miles) radius of the volcano. REUTERS/Minami-Nippon Shimbun

Issei Kato's picture of Prime Minister Kan addressing parliament is as frenetic as the politics themselves, while Kim Kyung-Hoon's picture to illustrate the economy perfectly timed as the eye is drawn into the frame by all the elements that appear in to be in choreographed perfection. If the apocalypse is coming it is sure to come in one of two forms; the eruptions of fire, smoke and lightening or the eerie silence of spreading disease. We had two pictures giving us a sneak preview of our potential fate. A wonderful image of the sheer beauty of the power, energy, light and colour of Mount Kirishima erupting and the whisper of deadly fumes as fully masked workers with red and blue targets sprayed on their white overalls, cull the hapless birds.  

Always on alert among 17,000 islands

A google map shows Indonesia.  REUTERS/Google

Monday, October 25, 2010.

As I sat in Jakarta’s traffic for five hours, trying to rescue my daughter stranded at her school after the worst floods in Indonesia’s capital for years, I thought about how serious a volcanic eruption at Mount Merapi in Java could become. It was coming at a bad time – Jakarta-based staff photographer Beawiharta was also stuck in the jam trying to get to the airport to shoot it. Then I got a call from regional pictures editor Paul Barker. He told me there had been a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia. Wow!!!

I read on a local disaster monitoring agency via my Blackberry that it was a quake on the Mentawai islands, off the western coast of Sumatra. Being a photojournalist and editor for a news agency, I have to act fast. I contacted a stringer who lives in Padang, West Sumatra, the nearest town to the epicenter, and residents in the Mentawai region.

I had to put all my attention on the quake. It struck at around 9:15pm and I tried to get more details until 3 am. I tried calling the local police numbers, hospitals or locals who live there. But none of them picked up the phone. I had a strong feeling that something was seriously wrong in Mentawai. It was very unusual that not a single telephone land line or mobile phone could be reached. I decided to go to bed. It was 4 in the morning and I knew that I had to wake up at 6am.

An erupting volcano and a local saviour

People run after Mount Merapi erupted at Kaliurang village in Sleman, near the ancient city of Yogyakarta, October 26, 2010.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

I want to share my experiences photographing Mount Merapi’s volcanic eruptions in Indonesia but I will say upfront that this won’t be a blog about suffering. There won’t be stories of those who have lost their homes, of painful deaths, of burns, of the death of valuable cattle or the destruction the volcano has caused.

Instead, this will be a blog about the logistics of getting great pictures in a dangerous situation.

Taking snaps of Merapi’s lava-flow at night is a great assignment for a news photographer but first, I needed to find an ideal spot to take pictures.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures 31 October 2010

In terms of the Ring of Fire, Indonesia had just been too quiet. Warnings that Mount Merapi, which towers above the outskirts of Yogyakarta city on Java island, was about to erupt, were heeded by some and ignored by many. On Monday, a 7.5 magnitude quake triggered a tsunami that hit the remote western Mentawai islands killing at least 343.  A day later, Mount Merapi erupted, killing at least 34.  It took almost three days for Jakarta based photographer Crack Palinggi to reach the scene of the devastation caused by the tsunami. Beawiharta was quicker to scene of the volcano; needless to say it's always worth standing well back when people are evacuating from an erupting volcano.  Bea's picture screams panic, heat and noise of those fleeing as hot ash falls to earth, the drama amplified by the flash blur technique used.  It is in complete contrast to the picture taken a day later of sombre near silence as rescue workers crunch through the muffled ashen landscape like newly fallen snow.

INDONESIA-VOLCANO/

 A woman covers her baby as she runs from ash falling from an erupting volcano at Kaliurang village in Sleman, near Indonesia's ancient city of Yogyakarta, October 26, 2010. Mount Merapi erupted on Tuesday, prompting terrified villagers to flee and join the thousands already evacuated from its slopes, witnesses said.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

INDONESIA-VOLCANO/

Volunteers carry the bodies of those who died after Mount Merapi erupted, at Kinarrejo village in Sleman, near the ancient city of Yogyakarta, October 27, 2010. One of Indonesia's most dangerous volcanoes has killed at least 15 people since it began erupting, forcing thousands to flee mountain villages and blanketing nearby villages and towns in ash, witnesses said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Spitting into the sinkhole

It’s not the first sinkhole the size of an entire block in Guatemala City.

A giant sinkhole caused by the rains of Tropical Storm Agatha is seen in Guatemala City May 31, 2010.  REUTERS/Casa Presidencial/Handout

I had covered an even bigger one in 2007. Two seemingly bottomless, perfectly round holes, swallowed up an intersection and buildings, and in one case a family eating dinner at their dinner table. They both happened at night, both in the rain. On May 29, 2010 I was transmitting late night pictures from the last two sleepless days, covering a volcanic eruption that blanketed the city and country with a cloud of black sand-like ash. Then came Agatha, the first tropical storm of the season, which pounded Guatemala with so much rain that hillsides collapsed on villages and overflowing rivers washed houses away. More than 150 people are counted as dead so far, but they are still searching, digging through the mud to find more.

Workers clean up ash from the Pacaya volcano during tropical storm Agatha in Guatemala City May 29, 2010.  REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

The night the hole was created, it was still raining heavily. We kept the news blaring on the radio. “A giant hole has opened up in Ciudad Nueva!” Again? This time it was closer to my house — less than 2 miles according to the city map. I jumped on the back of my wet motorbike. It would be tough to stay dry. I was there quickly but the police line was already up.

Struggling under the weight of the cameras, tangled with duct-taped plastic bags, a backpack with a laptop in it — all covered with a heavy rain poncho — I ducked under the yellow emergency tape. Standing about 100 meters from the hole, I could tell from the look on the ranking police officer’s face I wasn’t getting anywhere near that thing tonight. I couldn’t even see it. But, what I couldn’t see, I could hear. A great rumbling sound followed by a crash. The sides were crumbling. The hole was unstable and I would be allowed no closer until it settled. Neighbors and evacuees huddled under their umbrellas in the rain. Their faces full of astonishment and worry.

Luck is a funny thing

Sometimes you don’t realize how lucky you have been, though you always seem to realize immediately when you have been unlucky. I can safely admit that with a few exceptions (known only to me), I can truly feel that I have been lucky because of the sight I beheld Thursday night. April 22nd is a national holiday here in Iceland as it heralds the first official day of summer. Never mind that when I drove to the town of Vik it was a white-out blizzard or that the temperature never gets much above freezing during the day. The day was a special one for the whole country, and with clear skies I wanted to make sure I got a good parting photo of my volcano friend before I packed up my bags and headed back to New York.

I was staying in the same hotel as Ingolfur Juliusson (Ingo), the Reuters freelancer based here in Iceland, and Gunnar Bondal, a photographer for Dagens Næringsliv – the Norwegian Business Daily. We decided to head out to get a good vantage point and take some nighttime photos and to take advantage of the rare clear night. During this time of year it does not get dark until after 9pm and even then the sun doesn’t stop illuminating things until 10pm or so. This meant that even though we were in place by roughly 9pm there was a lot of light to take slow shutter speed photos of the lava and ash clouds.

It seems that every day this volcano takes on a different personality. In the beginning, the ash was dark, almost black, and unbelievably forcefully shot skyward in massive and mushroom shaped plumes. After the first day or two, the ash turned to gray and white. And some evenings the only thing you could really see was the lava because the sky and ash were too dark. On this night, the moon was shining and it was possible to get some nice frames of the red glow of the lava and abstract shapes in the ash plume.

Freezing the volcano’s lightning

Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Lightning streaks across the sky as lava flows from a volcano in Eyjafjallajokul April 17, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

I realize that this photograph is pretty much the attention grabber from all those that I have taken in Iceland on this trip so I figured I would write up a little about what it took to get the image. As soon as I got this assignment, a photograph of a volcano erupting with lightning inside of the ash plume was on my mind. I had seen one a couple of years ago from a volcano in South America so I knew it happened. When I was watching the ash during the first dusk I saw plenty of lightning so I knew I had a shot at making this picture.

I have shot lightning a few times before but it tends to be a bit of a fishing excursion because of the erratic habits of lightning bolts, this was less so. I knew exactly where the lightning would be (in the caldera) and I just had to find a good vantage point. Earlier in the day I spent some time with some sheep farmers, who lived directly across the valley from this eruption. I noticed some cars crossing a river and driving northeast to get a better view inside the crater. With dusk approaching, I decided to make a go of that route. I drove my jeep across the river and down a very bumpy road that had been rebuilt through fields of mini-icebergs that had been deposited by a glacial flood triggered by the initial eruption. It was here that I made another of my favorite images showing the “Land of Ice and Fire” that Iceland is known for.

An act of God

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks, the flights were booked, passes applied for and I’d even had my suit dry cleaned especially. One of the reasons I became a press photographer and a big factor in why you aspire to work for Reuters is to shoot major figures and stories, both in the world of news and sport, around the globe. Despite ticking off various world leaders, sporting greats, world cups and Olympics, I’d never photographed a Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI nods off during a mass at the Granaries in Floriana April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Pope Benedict XVI nods off during a mass at the Granaries in Floriana April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

So when I was asked to join the Reuters team covering his trip to Malta I jumped at the chance. This was an opportunity to see first hand how the Pope was dealing with the media spotlight he and the Catholic church are currently under, and also to familiarize myself a little with Vatican protocol ahead of the Papal visit to the UK later this year.

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