How Far Will You Go to Get the Picture?

The stench was making my eyes water and I desperately tried not to scratch the fleabites that covered my perspiring body. I was trying to get comfortable so I could get some sleep on the wooden floor of a hut that was nestling on the side of a garbage dump.

My assignment was to photograph the scavengers who live and work amongst the steaming piles of garbage in a Jakarta dump. Haze and toxic gas surrounds the people as they work day and night, squelching through the trash looking for junk they can sell.

I needed to stay with the scavengers in order to get to know them, as this would allow me to shoot authentic and intimate photographs. But at this time of night the only signs of intimacy were the rats that scurried around me looking for scraps.

Pushing Out of Your Comfort Zone

To get revealing pictures of difficult situations it is sometimes necessary to push yourself well out of your comfort zone; to understand the challenges of people’s lives so as to create sensitive and informed photographs. Insightful pictures only come when you step forward into a situation, not when you stand back.

W. Eugene Smith, regarded as the father of the photo essay, pushed himself further than most when working on his photo essays. While in Japan working on his series about environmental mercury poisoning, Smith was badly beaten by thugs who had been hired by the offending chemical company. Smith stayed on for three years in the small fishing village of Minamata despite the beating from which he never really recovered.

On another occasion W. Eugene Smith drove almost 10,000 kilometres across Spain looking for a suitable village to document for his Spanish Village project. He finally chose Deleitosa because he thought it was neither the richest nor the poorest place he had examined during his mammoth trek.

Days and Nights of Research Before the First Photograph

Another project, his Pittsburgh series, occupied him for four years often working day and night, returning to places many times, taking notes, making sketches and using a compass to check where the light would be at a certain time. Only when he thought he had done enough research did Smith pick up his camera and start taking pictures.

Even when making his prints, Smith went beyond what would be the limit for most photographers. His picture of Albert Schweitzer supervising construction took five days and five nights of working in the darkroom until he felt he had achieved a result that was satisfactory.

David Dare Parker  has spent over ten years working on his project about the islands of Indonesia and East Timor. David’s work is compelling and powerful; it’s easy to understand why he has won national and international awards for his pictures, as well as accolades from his colleagues. David has been threatened by fanatics with weapons, attacked by machete welding rebels and forced to surrender his film to gun toting soldiers. He never gives up. The idea, the project and his determination to get a great picture pushes him to the limit; further than most others would go.

Robert Frank while working on his seminal piece The Americans was threatened, accused of being a communist, vilified for being Jewish and thrown into jail for three days. Frank carried on with the road trip, determined to finish his two-year journey. He went on to make a series of trips across the U.S. and shot about 28,000 pictures documenting the contrasts in American culture.

Into the Mouth of a Volcano

The clock showed 2:30 am, I was back in Indonesia but not on a garbage dump this time. I groaned, rolled out of my sleeping bag and went looking for some water to throw on my face. An hour later I found myself at the Ijen volcano where several hundred sulphur miners were already working. The miners work in the heart of the volcano collecting solidified lumps of sulphur.

Along with my guides I started to climb three kilometres up the steep volcano slope. At the one kilometre mark the guides gave up, “It’s too steep for us,” they said, “We have to rest.” So I picked up my camera gear and continued walking the final two kilometres alone. At the lip of the crater I looked down in to the heart of the volcano. Through the cloudy vapour I could see the figures of miners carrying their baskets of sulphur. Several times a day they carry 90kg of sulphur in baskets up from the centre of the crater to a weighing-station on the side of the volcano.

I headed into the volcano, slipping and sliding down to the centre, into the poisonous clouds of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide gas. When I got close enough I started to shoot pictures but my eyes began burning and my throat felt like it was on fire. I pulled back from the gaseous substance but the wind changed direction and the fumes caught again in my throat and burnt my eyes. Whenever I saw a miner through the swirling fumes I shot as many frames as I could even though there were tears pouring from my eyes and I was gasping for breath.

‘We Brought Your Gas Mask’

Most of the miners have poisoned lungs, dissolved teeth, scarred bodies and many have died due to being overcome by the fumes. In 2011 when the BBC were making a documentary of the miners, the film crew became caught in the toxic gases and the camera they were using ceased to function.

When I had enough pictures to tell the story of the miners I climbed back up to the lip of the volcano where I caught sight of my assistants standing in the sunlight and enjoying the view. They had finally made it to the top.

“Hi there!” they said. “We brought your gas mask. It could be dangerous standing in those poisonous gasses”.