A world cre­ated in fire

Pho­tog­ra­pher Florent Mamelle re­veals the of­ten-hid­den facets of vol­ca­noes through his stun­ning pho­tos.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Art - By SUZANNE LAZA­ROO star2@thes­tar.com.my

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!”

Streams of lava flow­ing into the sea from Ki­lauea, the most ac­tive of the five vol­ca­noes that make up Hawaii.

This photo, ti­tled Sparke­l­ing Bombs, was taken at Batu Rara, a vol­cano on In­done­sia’s Komba Is­land. It was short­listed for Na­tional Geo­graphic’s Na­ture Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year 2016 con­test in the ac­tion cat­e­gory — Pho­tos: Florent Mamelle

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