by Filipe Trueba
Volcanoes represent the majestic power of nature. But they also are tricky bastards to photograph.
Chile is located on what’s called the Pacific “Rim of Fire” and has the second largest chain of active volcanoes in the world after Indonesia. On Wednesday, April 22nd, I was in the office filing pictures of a State visit when the first images were shown on TV. A 17km high column of ash was emerging over the city of Puerto Montt, 1000 km south of Santiago de Chile. The Calbuco, a dormant volcano for the past 40 years had erupted at six o´clock in the afternoon with no previous warning.
I checked flights south – none were available so late and shortly afterwards all flights for the next day had been cancelled. As I rushed home to pack my stuff and organize the trip by car with two other photographers, my colleague Mario was already trying to reach people in the area to get some images on the wire. Time was crucial with deadlines in Europe closing in. The pictures coming from the Calbuco were Dantesque: a giant sunset colored mushroom expanding over the villages around the volcano.
The journey south was an excruciating ten hour night ride – by one o´clock the mountain had started to unleash all its fury with lightning and fire raging from the crater. Images on twitter showed hell on earth… and we were still very far away.
The so called eruptive pulses are spectacular but usually don´t last long. We arrived just after nine o´clock in the morning when everything was calm again. The Calbuco was resting under thick fog and a milky grey sky.
This was my fourth time chasing a volcano and, once again, I turned up too late.
We got to a checkpoint 20 kilometers from the crater. We crossed it by foot and reached an area covered in ashes. After the hasty evacuation from the night before, dozens of residents had returned to collect some belongings or were shoveling the volcanic gravel from the roof of their houses to avoid them from sinking in. Taking pictures in the middle of a moonscape, I felt sorry for the Chilean people struck again by another disaster.
The coverage of a volcano compels you to concentrate all your efforts on a single spot. You drive around, you look for different angles, you discover the best timing for light on the mountain or you play with the exposure. You try different ways to portrait a fuming beast that doesn´t move. A few weeks earlier I had covered another volcano, the Villarrica, 300 km north of the Calbuco. There, I hung out with Franciso Negroni a freelance photographer based in Puerto Montt. Negroni is a real volcano hunter.
When you get obsessed with one of these stone creatures you bring the business to another level: you check its “breathing” by the plume… is it regular?; you talk to the elders and listen to their stories of previous explosions; you keep an eye on the lunar cycles, especially with full moon (for more light in night shots or unusual volcanic activity); you know you’re travelling times from one good spot to another; you stop-watch the minutes you have in order to pass a road before the authorities close it in case of an emergency; you notice when the plume changes from white to grey; you come up with tricks to get a sharp focus on the mountain when it´s pitch dark and the autofocus on the camera doesn´t work; you sleep rough in the car night after night waiting for the giant to wake up.
The rule of “the closer, the better the picture” doesn´t apply to volcanoes. Apart from risking to get hit by pyroclastic material flying around, your angle from underneath won´t be the best. You should know how your “friend” likes to spit fire – is it a Hawaiian, a Strombolian or a Plinian eruption? In many Chilean volcanoes lightning appears during the most violent phase. No, it’s not the pure luck of a thunderstorm passing by at that precise moment. The electrical charges are generated by the collision of rocks, ash and ice particles in the plume that produce static energy. For the next five days in the zone I only saw the Calbuco twice as he hid above low clouds. Together with a fellow photographer we documented the northern parts of the volcano badly affected by the ashes. On the southern slopes of the mountain the destruction came in form of rivers of melted ice and rocks. Lahars had wiped out bridges, houses and salmon farms, an important industry in the area.
This time the volcano didn´t take any lives but severely affected the everyday life of the region. There had been 9000 evacuees, a curfew was still in place and authorities estimated a loss of 30% to the local economy. By the end of the week, the beast was still spewing but I had covered the most important angles of the story. I headed back to Santiago. Four days later the Calbuco erupted again.