Think of a volcano.
For most of us, that picture is shaded in black and red, a Vesuvian volley of ash and columns of gas, a catastrophic flow of molten lava. Such Vesuvian or Plinian eruptions are named after the huge 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, which destroyed the Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii – and which impressed such iconic imagery on popular consciousness.
But when Florent Mamelle dreams of volcanoes, they also take on the mantis green hues of Dallol’s acid lakes in northern Ethiopia, or the soft blue-purple-red burr of a crater at the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I wanted to show just how different they could be, to create something artistic around them,” said the French-born photographer, who has called Kajang, Selangor, home since 2009.
Mamelle, 49, has been photographing volcanoes – and the life around them – for 20 years. His endeavours are often dangerous, since they involve getting up close and personal with some of the most extreme atmospheric conditions on the planet.
“Each volcano poses a different kind of danger – it could be poisonous gas, the potential of a cliff collapsing, or those lava bombs falling,” he said. “If I go to an explosive volcano, I spend about two days just watching where those lava bombs are landing, trying to see a pattern – but they can still be unpredictable.”
Volcanoes result from a rupture in the earth’s cooler crust, allowing hot magma from its core to reach the surface. They often include lava lakes – there are six permanent lava lakes in the world, and Mamelle has been to five. There are also volcanoes with constant lava flows.
“They’re usually a result of tectonic plates sliding, colliding (or diverging), but there are also hotspots where lava shoots straight up from the earth’s core, such as Kilauea in Hawaii, where the lava flows directly into the sea,” said Mamelle.
Kilauea is the most active volcano in the world.
“Since January of this year, there has been a continuous cascade of lava,” said Mamelle. “This kind of volcano creates new, fertile land, expanding the island when it flows into the sea – but of course it takes a few hundred thousand years to form that new land, since the surrounding sea is 5,000 metres deep.”
This vastness of time and space is at the heart of Mamelle’s fascination with volcanoes.
“They operate on a scale beyond the human mind,” he said. Studying oceanography while he trained to be a marine environment engineer in France led Mamelle to learn about tectonic plates – and subsequently, sparked a life-long love affair.
In 1986, he visited his first volcano, on Reunion Island. “I was 19, and I felt like I was walking on the moon,” he said. “It was just black ash and powder, no lava. But it made me think of the creation of the world, and realise how small humans are in comparison to volcanoes, to the earth.”
Photography and philosophy
Mamelle creates fine art prints, capturing volcanoes in different states and from different perspectives, but never manipulating his photos beyond the natural.
“I don’t like to change their colours beyond what they really are – and I don’t have Photoshop,” he said.
“I may enhance the contrast and purity of a photo, because sometimes the heat and smoke make it too blurry – but that’s all. I want to show the beauty of the world … and that is already there! So I prefer to spend my time finding the best angle, the most artistic way to present it.”
Mamelle uses a prime lens for sharpness – no zoom, because he wants to create large, detailed prints – a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, and a slower shutter speed (and tripod) to capture a greater range of movement. He works with equipment that can handle high atmospheric moisture levels – a tropicalised lens and body – and covers it with a drybag. The rest, is just common sense.
“It’s very simple – a camera is like your own body, it doesn’t like what you don’t like. So if it’s too hot for me, it’s too hot for the camera.”
Mamelle puts much of his work on his Instagram, as well as in some exhibitions. Last year, two of his photos were shortlisted for National Geographic’s Nature Photographer of the Year in different categories – each making it to a shortlist of 70, picked out of 80,000 entries.
Capturing serenity gently a-smoulder, Herculean Stove found itself in the landscape category shortlist. Taken at the Nyiragongo volcano, which boasts the largest permanent lava lake in the world, it’s a remarkable study of colour – and a testament to careful planning and precision timing.
Only after sunset do you get this combination of scarlet lava glow and vermilion crater, coupling with the blue of the sky to create a violet cloud – and the effect is fleeting. “I had 20 seconds to take it!” he said.
“That’s life – if there is something happening, you take it! If you come back five minutes later, the light has changed.”
Another photo, Sparkeling Bombs, was shortlisted in the action category. It was taken at Batu Rara, a volcano on Indonesia’s Komba Island.
“I have been climbing volcanoes for many years, but this was the first time I had witnessed how the gas pushes the rocks. As the crater is partly collapsed, you can see both the bottom of the explosion within the rim, and the full cloud,” said Mamelle.
Preparing for the journeys of a lifetime
In the quest to immortalise volcanoes, Mamelle finds himself travelling to many remote places, often home to people whose cultures have remained unchanged for centuries.
“The salt collectors of Dallol harvest by hand and carry their loads on the back of their camels – as they have done for thousands of years. So this is also a way to go back in history,” he said.
Authorisation is often needed to enter an area – it’s not just governmental regulations that matter, but cultural ones as well. Many communities consider volcanoes to be sacred, such as in Vanuatu or Indonesia. Other times, it’s a matter of entering someone else’s space.
“Like when I went to Dallol, I had to cross a rebel-controlled zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea, on my first visit in 2011. The men in the villages, they were the rebels, all wearing Kalashnikovs,” he said. “It was their space, I needed to respect that.”
To get his remarkable photos, Mamelle must also withstand uncomfortably high temperatures. “When I photographed Dallol, it was 50°C where I was – and 70°C under the surface,” he said. It was imperative that he tread carefully on the strips of solid land mass that honeycomb the crust; one wrong step on the fragile mineral crust – which Mamelle calls the “creme brulee”! – and he would have fallen through to the acid.
Mamelle is part of a network of photography enthusiasts enthralled by the fire and flow of volcanoes. They share information on the best times to go to various volcanoes, the conditions to be found there – volcanoes are mercurial creatures, and you can’t rely solely on the season to guarantee the right conditions for photography.
“Satellite photos will tell me the activity levels – levels one or two will allow me to get close enough to get good photos.”
But even with the best-laid plans, Mamelle says that one out of three of his trips will be “a disaster”, one will birth average photos – but then there’s the one that will result in exceptional pictures. And this fabled one is worth all the effort.
On his expeditions, he pitches a tent – with no fan or cooling devices. The punishing, high-heat conditions necessitate careful planning beforehand.
“About two weeks before I go, I start drinking six litres of water a day,” he said. On-site, he drinks about eight litres daily, and drinks oral rehydration salt solutions as well, to replace the minerals lost by sweating.
“If you run out of that, you can boil water and Coke together and drink that – as a last resort!”
Mamelle keeps fit all year round, with yoga, cycling, walking, swimming and high intensity cardio workouts – a nearing trip sees his fitness regime intensifying.
“If there is climbing involved, I have to climb stairs and cycle in preparation,” he said. “Sometimes, you also need to make sure you have a gas mask, and you always need to wear breathable cotton clothes.”
Packing makes Mamelle think about life. “What do we need in life? I need very little to be happy. Your whole life can be in a 15kg backpack,” he said. A spray bottle filled with water is all he has to cool his face in the heat.
“But when I’m close, I’m too busy taking photos, too excited to feel the heat or hunger or thirst – that is my world, my moment.”
Caught up in these moments, in this world, Mamelle finds peace and the spark of creative expression. His expeditions can be solo, in a small group or led by a guide – but there is always that moment of man and nature meeting in communion.
“Sometimes, tourists come to some of the volcanoes while I’m there,” said Mamelle. “They stay for half an hour, and then the place will be mine again! And I can sit back and once again watch the world being created in front of me.”
Contact Mamelle at email@example.com or follow him on Instagram at florentmamelle. From Oct 23 to 29 this year, he will exhibit some of his new photos of volcanoes in Hawaii and Indonesia at MAP Publika, in conjunction with the 10th KL International Eco Film Festival (KLEFF).