Published: January 2008
John Stanmeyer
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

How do you photograph an erupting volcano?

It's one of the most magnificent, awe-inspiring events—it's just unimaginable, unexplainable—yet it is a very simple photograph. The bigger challenge is to photograph a volcano when it isn't erupting. This story is about the sacred nature these volcanoes possess for millions of people. I found that much more interesting.

There are so many volcanoes in Indonesia—how did you find out about the rituals associated with them?

A tremendous amount of research went into this story. I had to delve deeply into each island and on each island the multiple cultures that exist there. Then I had to learn about the relationships that each one of those cultures has with the many volcanoes they live near. When you look at an island like Flores, there are 13 volcanoes that make up that island, all of which are spiritually intertwined with the people. I was fortunate to have excellent fixers and local people who knew the events associated with the volcanoes.

Since there are so many ceremonies, how difficult was it to plan which events to go to?

It was difficult to decide which ceremonies to go to, especially on Java, where everyone is working under a Javanese calendar. There were times when I would go to places and missed events because the calendar calculations weren't done correctly. In Indonesia, there's a Javanese calendar, a Balinese-Hindu calendar, a calendar used on the island of Flores—a myriad of different calendars. Ceremonies are scheduled according to local calendars, so it was a challenge to find out the day an event would actually happen.

What were the ceremonies you really wanted to photograph?

The one event I didn't photograph, but really wanted to, was this boxing event held at Mount Ebulobo. The men box with shards of glass in their gloves as part of a blood sacrifice to the spirits of their ancestors. I scheduled everything around this event—every other thing that I was doing on every other island was scheduled around this event. Tragically, one of their spiritual leaders had died, and so the village canceled the event.

You are stuck in some pretty deep mud in your On Assignment photo (above). Was that a particularly challenging location?

There was a massive amount of mud everywhere. In the places where you could walk, the mud had been around for months, if not over a year, and it was eight to 20 feet (two to six meters) deep but still moist in places. In my case, I had only sunk up to my shins, but you can't get up yourself. You had to have someone pull you out. My assistant went in up to his thighs, and it became quite alarming. I didn't realize that even with another person, you could still get stuck.

What was it like to climb Mount Bromo while it was erupting sulfur smoke?

Everything was erupting on Java at that time—Merapi, the mud volcano, Semeru—but Bromo erupting was on the Indonesia Volcanology team's warning list. There was a warning not to go to the Kasada event on Mount Bromo. It's a magnificent event where thousands of people come and throw offerings into this very large active volcano and inside the volcano are dozens of very poor Javanese beggars trying to collect the food or coins thrown in.

Writer Andrew Marshall, some friends of mine, and I all went to the event together. Andrew and I were trying to climb, but Bromo was just belching sulfur, and the air was crippling. So with still another 200 meters (650 feet) to go, we hid behind a ledge and waited. Because of the warnings, we suspected we would find no one at the event. Finally, Andrew and I said we just had to do this, so we made it to the top. Sure enough, there were people there praying, and the beggars were there. I couldn't believe it.