During my Secrets of Melanesia voyage with Heritage Expeditions in 2019, I visited a series of incredibly remote islands from the Solomon Islands on down through Vanuatu. Ambrym was the last island that I visited before ending the expedition in Port Vila. It is known as the “black” island due to its twin volcanoes which cover much of the island in volcanic ash as well as being renowned for its mysterious “black magic”. This magic is showcased by the famous Rom Dance which is restricted to only the village men. The masked dance is a ritual that stretches back centuries and recounts the age-old tale of good versus evil. It is also believed to influence harvests and is a privilege to witness. In order to view the performance, all of us had to hike along the shoreline and then up hill to the ceremonial site. Once we arrived and settled down, the village men began their enthralling dance. The ground shook and the sound reverberated off of the trees as the men drummed their feet in unison. I was trying to figure out how to best photograph this mysterious spectacle and decided to use a slow shutter speed to record the motion while zoomed in with my telephoto lens. For a brief moment, rain began to pour down adding another secretive element to my image.
I have not photographed a lot of people over the years. It is not that I do not know how, it is just that I have only done it for my family and friends since I focus on landscape and wildlife photography. However, during my recent travels to Vanuatu, I had several opportunities to photograph the beautiful people of Tanna Island. I created this slow shutter image on a day when I was invited to attend a traditional ceremony of three tribes gathering to celebrate their young boys entering manhood. It was a beautiful but hot afternoon filled with singing and dancing. I was honored that I was even allowed to celebrate with them, let alone be able to take photos.
I recently returned from an adventure that I had been dreaming about and attempting to do for over a decade. Years ago when I first started photographing lava, I learned about the Yasur Volcano located on remote Tanna Island in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. It is not the easiest place to get to and the amenities won’t meet most people’s requirements, but it is an incredibly accessible and rewarding location to shoot. I spent a week working with a local chief which allowed me and my frequent travel partner Steve Levi special access to the volcano.
The first time we approached the crater rim via the relatively short but steep hike from the parking area, the deafening explosions and sulfur filled air overwhelmed my already excited senses. When I finally observed my first strombolian eruption, I began to question my sanity. I had heard stories about lava flying through the air and impacting way too close for comfort. Of course, one of the two times this happened to me was during my very first visit to the caldera. It was one of the most brief and horrifying moments of my life, but fortunately the lava landed safely to my left. At least I had gotten that experience out of the way.
Over the course of my week long exploration, I visited the volcano 9 times. Sometimes it was cloudy, sometimes it was clear. There were even a few times where it was raining so hard, that there was no point in even trying. I had a lot of 4am and 4pm starts with all of my best images created during the 30 minutes before the sun rose or after the sun set during the beautiful twilight light. The volcano exploded about every 5 minutes on average. I can not adequately describe the incredible experience of glimpsing and then being blasted with the shock wave while standing in this location with my camera set up on my tripod. I pushed my camera’s shutter button on every explosion, but it was the extraordinary large ones like this that allowed me to create my best images.