Finding Perspective In The Heat Of Hawaii’s Volcanic Explosions

The volcanic eruptions on Hawaii's Big Island are putting on quite a show, making for stunning and devastating images. Rivers of molten rock flow into the ocean, toxic gas spews into the air and plumes of ash push upward. Since May 3, Kilauea's eruptions have destroyed dozens of buildings and forced the evacuation of 2,000 people.

Getty Images staff photographer Mario Tama is in Hawaii. We talked to him about covering a natural disaster that is beautiful but heartbreaking. While most of the state is business as usual, the residents in the affected area seem determined to forge ahead, Tama says. "It's inspiring to witness."

Seeing their perseverance and experiencing the sheer power of Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, has given him new perspective on the environment.

What happened when you first arrived in Hawaii, ready to photograph Kilauea's eruptions?

I had read that fissures from the volcano opened in the Leilani Estates subdivision, downslope on the volcano's East Rift zone. I drove across the island toward Leilani but was not able to enter the area initially due to security closures. I photographed some local residents setting up a donation site for food and supplies for evacuees nearby. It became clear right away that the community was bonding together. I then photographed evacuees in a shelter along with a church service, before boarding a helicopter the next day to shoot aerials of the lava.

You've covered many natural disasters, from California's wildfires to hurricanes Katrina and Maria. What kinds of precautions do you take? What special gear do you need?

I have received hostile environment and first aid training, and I was fortunate to get good local advice from some great photographers in Hawaii. My respirator protects against sulfur dioxide gas, one of the dangerous gases released during volcanic eruptions. I also brought my fire helmet and boots, which I had in my closet after covering the LA wildfires. My vehicle is stocked with plenty of water and food in case I become stranded, along with a first aid kit and inverter to power electronics via my vehicle's cigarette lighter.

In any disaster zone, I always make sure to touch base with my editors about where I will be driving ahead of time. It is crucial to keep your editors aware of planned movements, and their guidance is critical. Paying attention to government evacuation notices is obviously important, but listening to your gut is often the most important consideration.

How are these eruptions different from other natural disasters that you've covered?

In other natural disasters, recovery usually begins pretty quickly afterward. Here in Hawaii, we are three weeks in, and the eruption is still unfolding. Recovery efforts may not begin for months. I have heard Kilauea's eruptions described as watching trains collide in super slow motion.

My heart goes out to the folks who have lost their homes or jobs. Most of the folks in Leilani Estates who lost their homes did not have insurance, and some had put everything they owned into their homes.

This is also the first disaster I have covered attributed to a goddess. Many local residents believe eruptions from Kilauea are caused by Madame Pele, Hawaii's goddess of volcanoes. It has been beautiful to witness offerings to Pele, such as ti leaves or alcohol, placed in front of homes and on lava. Those whose homes are lost to lava will sometimes say that Pele was simply reclaiming her land.

Weeks of volcanic activity have caused lots of damage, but the sheer awesomeness of nature makes for surreal and stunning photographs. How do you strike a balance between beauty and terror?

It is a process of simultaneous creation and destruction. Most of the activity thus far has advanced at a fairly slow pace across the landscape, allowing some people to interact with some of the activity at a fairly close distance. The truth is, witnessing lava is a powerfully seductive experience, and I suppose one of the main challenges is to document how beautifully terrifying lava flows can be.

When you're making pictures, what's always at the forefront of your mind? What are you focused on?

As a photojournalist, most of what we do is reactive. Generally the idea is to put yourself into a position to be able to best witness and document what unfolds in front of you in any given situation. Light, composition, exposure, timing, serendipity, all play a role.

Lava runs. Rocks fly. Smoke suffocates. Have you had any close calls?

In the situations where rocks were flying or lava flowing quickly, I have tried to keep a safe distance. But there are no guarantees.

The closest call I have heard of regarding a photographer was when a colleague attempted to step across a crack in the ground, only to have a section of the other side of the crack collapse beneath his foot "like a trap door." As he began to tumble down into the crack in the earth, he grabbed onto the base of a tree trunk just before falling fully into the crack. He would have fallen 20 feet below the surface.

What's the story behind a photograph you find especially interesting?

Witnessing the lava flow entering the ocean is considered a mystical experience to many of those living on the island. After the flow reached the ocean, I wanted to photograph the entry point at dawn. A boat tour company picked us up at 4 a.m., and we sped around the east side of the island in choppy seas for about an hour. A large, billowing white steam plume was visible from 5 miles out. As we approached, the plume curved and undulated into the air in a dance toward the clouds as the approaching lava cast a glow behind the plume.

How has witnessing these eruptions over the past month changed you?

I am much more attuned to the ground I walk on. It is a deeply humbling experience to witness a chunk of farmland of many acres transformed into a field of lava in a matter of days. To see the destruction of homes is heartbreaking.

But to hear the terrifying sounds of the earth releasing gases into the air from below is something as extraordinary as witnessing lava erupting. It sounds as if the planet is breathing. To witness some of the newest pieces of earth being formed right before my eyes, in real time, also has been deeply moving.

I've felt like I had stepped back into prehistoric times as I was looking through the lens. I would say I now view the earth we walk on as something akin to a massive living, breathing creature.

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