Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Sight | Perspective

Stunning photos of treacherous sulfur mining on an active volcano

By Kenneth Dickerman, Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville

March 9, 2018 at 6:00 AM

In the early hours of the morning, sulfur miners carrying flashlights make their way up a dirt track to the summit of the Kawah Ijen volcano. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A sulfur miner carries his load past clouds of gas before dawn in the Kawah Ijen crater in eastern Java. Molten sulfur burns with blue flames that give the toxic gases an eerie hue at night. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)

Photojournalists Tommy Trenchard and Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville were traveling across Asia on their honeymoon when they met a few miners who worked in a sulfur mine in eastern Java, Indonesia. Intrigued, they decided to explore the mine. Trenchard said:

“We were drawn to this particular story in part because of the otherworldly visuals up there in the crater, especially the colors, and also because of the incredible human struggle of the miners who climb up there every day at great personal cost in order to support their families.”

The sulfur mine is located in a beautiful and treacherous place: the Kawah Ijen volcano. To get to the sulfur, miners must climb the side of the volcano and descend into the crater, near a stunning lake filled with turquoise water. According to Geology.com, the sulfur comes from sulfur-laden gases from fumaroles near the lake. If conditions allow, the sulfur gas condenses and then solidifies into the chunks the miners are looking for.

According to Trenchard, over 200 miners trek to the sulfur mine every day. After filling baskets with hundreds of pounds of the yellow substance, the miners climb out of the crater to sell their day’s haul. The sulfur is sold to be processed locally to make things such as sugar, fireworks, matches and even cosmetics. Trenchard said that all of this grueling work can earn the miners about $12 a day.

Clouds swirl around the summit of the Kawah Ijen volcano in eastern Java. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
Nurdin, a young sulfur miner, carries a load of sulfur along a rocky track back up the inner walls of the Ijen crater. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A sulfur miner uses a crowbar to break up a quickly solidifying pool of sulfur. The mineral emerges from the ground as a molten red stream but slowly turns yellow as it cools and hardens. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A young miner takes a drag on his cigarette as he breaks up pieces of sulfur at night in the Ijen crater in eastern Java. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A miner displays sulfur trinkets he hopes to sell to the tourists who visit the Ijen crater to watch molten sulfur burning with blue flames at night. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
Wahyudi, 24, carries a load of sulfur out of the crater of the Ijen volcano in eastern Java. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A sulfur miner walks blindly through clouds of toxic gas while attempting to break off chunks of the mineral with a crowbar. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
Miner Pa Bu carries a load of sulfur over a bridge inside the crater of the Ijen volcano. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
Miskadi, a 36-year-old miner, takes a break as he hauls a load of sulfur to the rim of the Ijen volcano. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
Miskadi breaks off pieces of sulfur inside the Ijen crater in eastern Java. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A lone miner gathers chunks of sulfur from the shores of an acidic lake in the crater of the Ijen volcano. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
Miskadi has worked as a sulfur miner for over 15 years. He calculates that he has climbed the crater over 6,000 times, each time carrying over his own body weight in sulfur. He is the third generation of his family to work here but hopes that if he can save enough money to pay for his son’s education, he will grow up with better opportunities. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A sulfur miner navigates his way by torchlight before dawn in the Kawah Ijen crater. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)

More on In Sight:

Heartbreaking scenes of homelessness from a ‘national disgrace’

The hidden costs of cobalt mining

The Tet Offensive: 50 years later, photographs and memories still haunt Vietnam War photographer Don McCullin

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.


Kenneth Dickerman is a photo editor. He previously worked as a photo editor at MSN in Seattle and TIME in New York City. Before that, he worked as a freelance photographer specializing in politics and conflict and his work appeared in The New York Times, TIME and US News & World Report among other publications.

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In Sight | Perspective

Stunning photos of treacherous sulfur mining on an active volcano

By Kenneth Dickerman, Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville

March 9, 2018 at 6:00 AM

In the early hours of the morning, sulfur miners carrying flashlights make their way up a dirt track to the summit of the Kawah Ijen volcano. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)
A sulfur miner carries his load past clouds of gas before dawn in the Kawah Ijen crater in eastern Java. Molten sulfur burns with blue flames that give the toxic gases an eerie hue at night. (Tommy Trenchard and Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/)

Photojournalists Tommy Trenchard and Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville were traveling across Asia on their honeymoon when they met a few miners who worked in a sulfur mine in eastern Java, Indonesia. Intrigued, they decided to explore the mine. Trenchard said:

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