Most of the miners work without any protection, often in darkness or in the stifling heat of the day. Breathing sulphurous gas burns their lungs and makes tears stream from their eyes. To retrieve the sulphur, they attack it with a steel pole to break it into slabs. Then they make the reverse journey, carrying reed baskets that weigh up to 90kg. They do all this for about five dollars a day—ten if they’re able to do it twice.
While travelling through the island of Java, I planned to visit Mt Ijen to photograph the ethereal blue glow the gases give off at dawn and dusk. But once there, it was the plight of the workers that moved me the most. I befriended a number of them who invited me to stay for three nights. I slept on an old cold stone floor in the village beneath the volcano. Long before dawn, we woke up and made the journey over the crater rim. As you step into the gas it enters your nostrils, burns through the oxygen in your lungs and leaves you caught somewhere between panic and fear. But I was only swinging a camera while the real workers were swinging iron bars.