Certain professions come with some level of danger, and the sulfur miners of Ijen, in East Java, Indonesia certainly endure one the most hazardous working conditions. Noxious fumes, clouds of sulfur dust, challenging terrains, an acidic crater lake, and perilous hikes are all part of the job. During a trip in 2016, travel, documentary, and landscape photographer Manish Lakhani was able to meet one of the miners and a get a glimpse of their life along the perilous slopes of the so-called “Mountain of Fire.”
Lakhani, who got started with photography using a film camera while working as a network engineer, took up photography full-time in the last six years. As a documentary photographer, his main interest is covering lost culture, rituals, and remote lives. He went to Ijen initially to photograph the volcanic landscapes and the famous blue fire which can only be seen at night. Along the way, he met Madi, one of the sulfur miners in his mid-30s, and decided to tell Madi’s interesting story.
“I stumbled upon Madi randomly, after taking some of the images at the bottom of the Ijen caldera lake. I was following him and tried to talk with him with the help of a friend who can talk a local language. In the end, when I asked him why he was doing this work which is dangerous to health, he replied, ‘I’m not a well-educated person and my father the same in his entire life. But he told us one must do best what he or she is best at, and that’s what I’m doing.'”
Lakhani learned that Madi starts his day around 2:30 a.m.. taking his wheelbarrow to the mining site located 2,799 meters up. He brings with him a small pack of food and empty baskets for carrying the golden sulfur chunks. Miners like him get paid very little for the hard and dangerous work they do. He also learned that the hike up the tall hills was not easy, and wondered how the tough miners could carry so much load with smiles on their faces.
After the hike up, they had to walk down a narrow path next to acidic crater waters. “After a 30 to 40-minute hike, you will see a cloud of smoke in the air. I hiked in the Himalayas for a decade, but this was some of the toughest paths I was able to cross.”
For any documentary photographer, one of the most challenging parts of covering a story can be adapting to the living conditions — dangerous or otherwise — of the locals. He was advised to take a gas mask with him, but having one on and looking into his camera’s viewfinder was impossible. So he had to do what the locals do — or in the case of the miners, do what they can to protect themselves from the sulfur.
“I looked at the people who were working there and saw them putting a wet piece of cloth against their nose and mouth. I followed them and worked for the time being, but I suffered from a cough for almost a month as I inhaled too much sulfur.”
Despite the perils and challenges, Lakhani finds that documenting stories like Ijen’s sulfur miners helps him understand more about life. To those who want to do the same, he said, it’s important to be part of the scene to connect well to the story. Even if what we end up with isn’t a good story or good photos for others for whatever reason, it’s always a great learning experience for ourselves.
“When I document something, for me, it’s the aspect of living some moments that others are living almost every day. I’m not sure about others, but it helps me a lot to understand life. We complain about the smallest things, and most people may not have an idea that something like dangerous sulfur mining is happening, and they are happy without knowing.”