Kawah Ijen Photography Guide

“Where Men Work Among Blue Fire to Gather the Devil’s Gold”

Photo by Christian Gloor

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Billowing white smoke spirals out of a volcano’s acrid waters, saturating the air with the distinct smell of burnt matches. Deep in the bowels of the crater sinewy men toil, hauling the “devil’s gold” from the surreal landscape. This alien world is Mount Ijen, a picturesque portrait of bone-crushing labour conducted in a world reminiscent of hell.

Kawah Ijen Crater - Photo by Zulfahmi Khani
Kawah Ijen Crater - Photo by Zulfahmi Khani

Kawah Ijen (Mount Ijen)

Kawah Ijen (Mount Ijen) on the island of Java, Indonesia is home to one of the few remaining sulfur volcanoes in the world. Sulfur-laden gases burst forth from the banks of Ijen’s deep turquoise acidic lake, burning skin, stinging eyes, and poisoning the air. Each day local sulfur miners brave these conditions and make the arduous hike up the mountain slopes to the volcanic crater.

Workers in the Sulfurous Smoke at Kawah Ijen - Photo by t-bet CC BY-ND
Workers in the Sulfurous Smoke at Kawah Ijen - Photo by t-bet CC BY-ND

Blue Fires of Kawah Ijen

This gas often is so hot it burns on contact with the air, glowing an other-worldly electric blue. Ceramic pipes capture these gases before they can burn away and condense the vapours into yellow crystalline chunks of elemental sulfur. These hardened blocks are the devil’s gold, and the reason the miners have come.

Day and night, the miner’s battle to corral nature’s chaos. By night they fight the blue fires, cooling the sulfurous gas before it burns away. By day the miners crack hardened yellow chucks from the ground and load them in baskets. Each load weighs 150 to 200 lbs and will earn them approx $5 once delivered to the crater’s edge.

Blue Fire at Mount Ijen - Photo by Dodi Mulyana
Blue Fire at Mount Ijen - Photo by Dodi Mulyana

Controversial Tourism

In recent years tourism has begun to permeate the area, bringing thousands of visitors to the volcanic banks. These voyeurs have sparked a new industry, bringing new money to the hotels, restaurants and families of the region. Now, in addition to the cash earned hauling sulfur from the volcano’s bowels, the miners pose for pictures, collecting tips from the foreigners. This commodification is controversial.

On the one hand, the Instagram generation’s perverse fascination with human suffering objectify’s the plight of the miners. On the other hand, the exposure brought by tourism sheds light on the abhorrent working conditions and brings a measure of economic prosperity to the region. One could argue that the miners now mine the tourists rather than the sulfur, which ins some respects has become a means to an end.

Regardless of where you fall on this debate, the fact remains that photographically this location is one of a kind. Few places in the world present so many unique photographic opportunities. Whether it is the bizarre blue flame burning on the banks of the lake, the penetrating gaze of a miner staring deep into the lens of your camera, or the unique landscape of the crater itself, there is much to be photographed here. The local tourist industry has arisen to meet this demand and offers tours, local guides, and more for those seeking adventure in this unforgiving land.

A Worker Carries Sulfur - Photo by Tiomax80
A Worker Carries Sulfur - Photo by Tiomax80

Photographing Kawah Ijen

Getting There

The closest airport is Banyuwangi which offers limited flights from Jakarta or Surabaya. Once you arrive at the airport, we recommend you stay at the Hotel Baru. From the hotel, you can book tours which will cost around $100, take a bus (which we recommend over the mini-vans). Other options include renting a scooter or hiring a private car. Folks at the hotel can help you set these up. Expect a 1 to 1.5-hour trip to get to the starting point for the hike. The hike itself is relatively tricky and will take anywhere from an hour or two depending on your fitness level.

Guided Tours

Guided tours are highly recommended if you plan on entering the bowl of the volcanoes crater. We recommend Ijen Expedition which is based in Taman Sari township at the base of the volcano. Their guide is fluent in english and you can ensure your money is going to the surrounding community.

Photography Tips

Try to time your trip so that you arrive at the hike start point at 2 am. Pack appropriately for a hike, including water, light load camera gear etc. We recommend packing a good mask for obvious reasons. Also, be aware that sulfur smoke may damage your equipment, so don’t bring that favourite new lens or body you just bought. A high sensitivity camera and lenses with a wide aperture are essential for night shooting. Don’t bring a flash, because blinding someone working in the dark is a jerky thing to do. Finally, have cash if you intend to photograph the workers. Be a decent human being and tip them for their time in front of your lens.

Exercise Caution

Be careful, dress appropriately, pack lots of water and be careful. This is an unforgiving place and not taking the necessary precautions will result in injury. Understand that you accept the risks of visiting this place and that you are responsible for your own safety.

Kawah Ijen Valcano - Photo by Christian Gloor
Kawah Ijen Valcano - Photo by Christian Gloor

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