Photo © Francesco Soave

The Silent Heroes of Kawah Ijen

In the sulfur mines of East Java, backbreaking labor is part of daily life.

Francesco Soave's Profile Image

By Francesco Soave

Travel Photographer

26 Jun 2019 - 5 Minute Read

275
0

I was traveling across the Indonesian island of Java, keeping my eyes open for potential stories. When I found out about the Ijen Crater and its “Blue Fire” – only visible at night – I knew I had to go.

I made my way to the volcano, starting the ascent at 1am.

I was hiking a trail in the pitch dark when I met Supeno, a sulfur miner. He was heading to work. Lead by curiosity, and perhaps compassion and solidarity, I stayed with him for his entire shift at the mine. What happened next was amazing: he invited me to stay at his home. He wanted me to meet his family. I spent four days in his house, in a little village on the slopes of the volcano. And every night I went with him to the crater.

The volcanic crater of Kawah Ijen, with its turquoise, extremely acidic lake. Here, miners carry inhuman loads of sulfur on their shoulders, from the bottom to the peak.
Francesco Soave
The volcanic crater of Kawah Ijen, with its turquoise, extremely acidic lake. Here, miners carry inhuman loads of sulfur on their shoulders, from the bottom to the peak.
The miners trek to the crater at night. It takes them over an hour to reach the summit of the volcano, then another hour to descend inside the crater.
Francesco Soave
The miners trek to the crater at night. It takes them over an hour to reach the summit of the volcano, then another hour to descend inside the crater.

When I first saw the crater, I thought I was in one of Dante’s Circles of Hell – it seemed a vision out of the Inferno. The miners carry more than their body weight on their shoulders, climbing the steep slope of the crater. I tried to lift one of their wicker baskets, and I could barely take a step.

Toxic fumes only increase their torture; they breathe through their mouths, biting wet rags. They do this every day of their lives, for a ridiculously small of money.

Near the lake, sulfuric gas is channeled into ceramic pipes, where it condenses. Liquid sulfur drips and solidifies, quickly changing color from dark orange to pale yellow. Miners break up their own blocks of solid sulfur and load them in their wicker baskets.
Francesco Soave
Near the lake, sulfuric gas is channeled into ceramic pipes, where it condenses. Liquid sulfur drips and solidifies, quickly changing color from dark orange to pale yellow. Miners break up their own blocks of solid sulfur and load them in their wicker baskets.
Walking in slow motion, shifting the heavy load from one shoulder to the other at every step. The fumes are toxic, but instead of wearing a gas mask, most of them breathe through the mouth, biting a wet rag.
Francesco Soave
Walking in slow motion, shifting the heavy load from one shoulder to the other at every step. The fumes are toxic, but instead of wearing a gas mask, most of them breathe through the mouth, biting a wet rag.

I was wearing a gas mask and breathing heavily. My lungs were burning, and my eyes, too, yet I was filled with energy – I had to tell this story.

The peak of Kawah Ijen. This is where the miners’ suffering ends – temporarily. From here, the loads of sulfur are carried down the slope on two-wheeled hand carts. The miners make the exhausting trip twice a day, for very little money.
Francesco Soave
The peak of Kawah Ijen. This is where the miners’ suffering ends – temporarily. From here, the loads of sulfur are carried down the slope on two-wheeled hand carts. The miners make the exhausting trip twice a day, for very little money.

I couldn’t help but think that, if I was born here, their burden would be mine to carry, every day of my life.

The miners were, to me, silent heroes, and I wanted to give them a voice by creating powerful images to celebrate them.


This photo essay was a finalist in the 2018 World Nomads Travel Photography Scholarship.

Discover similar stories in

discovery
3 Likes
Shared
0 Comments
,
Travel Photographer

Francesco Soave is a travel/documentary photographer from Verona, Italy. Through his pictures, he aims to give a voice to the forgotten and the invisible of the globalized world.

Related articles

No Comments

Add a Comment