Hawaiian-born Tom Kualii's favourite pastime is getting dangerously close to rivers of lava. As the world's foremost lava photographer, Tom is aware of the risks, but also emphasises how the practice has helped him recover from the trauma of warzone military service. "It takes me away from the war," he explains. "Away from the stress that I was experiencing, and away from PTSD."
But more than a decade after returning from Iraq and adopting photography as a series pursuit, he still finds getting close to volcanoes a heart pounding experience. We wanted to hear more about how the thrill of lava overrides its risks, so we got Tom on the phone. Here he talks about the technical challenges, excitement, and beauty of shooting Hawaii's lava flows.
VICE: Hi Tom, your photos of lava are incredible. How did you start?
Tom Kualii: My photography journey started by taking up a couple of classes in college, but it wasn't until Iraq in 2004 that I bought my first digital camera and started experimenting. When I was on deployment, I pretty much taught myself in the rest periods we had between between missions. It would take me away from what was going on outside—away from the war, from the stress that I was experiencing, and from PTSD.
I did that for a whole year, and then came back home to find myself leaning on photography as a means of healing. There was an eruption and I'm involved with the county as a heavy equipment operator. I always have my camera on me so I went out to take some photos. That's when my whole focus changed to become heavily involved in documenting the lava flow, which really changed my whole career.
How do you get these photos? It looks like you're so close.
When I first started I was really scared. I didn't know what I was doing and it was life threatening, so I used long lenses and shot from far away. But I found that really limiting, simply because lava is so difficult to shoot. The dynamic range is huge and constantly changing. Lava is really bright, so it's like shooting the sun, but it's surrounded by black rock, which is on the opposite end of the range. And then when you're trying to shoot lava pouring into the ocean, it cools and becomes dark, only to go bright again when the waves recede. The window to shooting lava is also very small. The only times we go out to shoot is lava is during the good light, [sunset and sunrise]. The only way to get a good photo is to just keep shooting.
Of course, it's not just difficult to shoot but dangerous. What's the worst thing that can happen?
There are different risk factors at different parts of the flow. For example, the source of the lava is really dangerous—the gases are really toxic. Surface flows aren't too bad but the most dangerous section is where it hits the ocean. This is because it cools as it goes in and builds a temporary land bridge, which we call "the bench." The last time a bench collapsed it took 26 acres with it. That was part of the existing coastline within only a few hours. If you get caught on a collapsing bench, you won't survive. I know of two photographers who died on a collapsing bench.
It sounds like near-death experiences aren't unusual.
My first close call was caused by dehydration, and I almost died. I started at 4 AM and somehow a two-hour hike became a 14-hour round trip. I started getting dehydrated on the journey back, and I vomited and passed out. It really wasn't expected. I really was blessed that nothing else happened. We've had a few deaths due to dehydration out there in the lava fields, the last being a gentleman who had a heart attack. But for us wanting to get the best shots, you have to take the risks.
How do you decide whether a picture is really worth the risk?
There are a few indications about how dangerous a place is—stress fractures along the coast and such. We don't take chances. But even then when I do get close to lava down by the ocean, my heart is pounding. I'm always afraid because I know the potential of what could happen. I always carry a respirator for when we get caught in a plume. That said, it's all gut feeling. If I observe any hesitation within myself I stop. But I can also count a few times when I didn't listen to myself. You don't create this portfolio by just going out once—you go out there hundreds of times. I just always pray for protection and safety before heading out.
Is shooting lava thrill seeking for you? Do you get an adrenaline rush?
Definitely. I'm always excited when I'm hiking out to see something major that I've never seen before. Then there are also days when you're excited hiking out and it really disappoints. But it's that hike out every morning that I'm always really excited about. When you get there and there's lava everywhere, with nice light, sky and clouds. With all those pieces together I just feel this sense of pure excitement.
After 10 years of doing this, what's still the toughest part?
What a lot of people don't realise is that we are dealing with a lot of heat. So there's thermal distortion, and when you're looking through your viewfinder, you can see the distortion. But a lot of people look through their viewfinders, and they're just shooting. They don't see the thermal distortion. Learning throughout the years of going out hundreds of times, you see things things happening. So the difference between us experiencing these situations compared to someone just going out to shoot for the first time, they really don't see the potential for danger. We also get to make friends with geologists out there, and learn from them. This reduces risks and helps us to make better decisions.
Pictures aside, what is the most rewarding part of this job?
The rewarding part is when other well known photographers come to see the images and say things like, "I wish I was there to shoot." Some of them are really once in a lifetime shots, and you cannot predict what nature will do. Sometimes there might be huge lava explosions that go up thousands of feet, and it only happens a few hours, and you're the only person there to have witnessed that.
What's your favourite lava photo you've shot, and how did you get it?
It's hard to choose but I probably have three favourites. One of them is the delta cracking open into the ocean, with the lava falling in. The other is a panoramic of where the moonset which only happens once a month, and it's basically a panoramic of the lava field [at top]. I think it's one of my favourites because it took me 10 months. Sometimes the clouds block the moon, or you won't see the lava properly, but I continued to go out there and shoot it. I always worked out when the moon would set, so it's more personal than just a nice image. The last one is from the day I almost died from dehydration. It's not a very good picture, but it's my favourite because that's the day I took all that effort to get to that place to shoot, one that almost caused my life, so it really comes with a story.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get into lava photography?
If photographers are looking to shoot lava, then go with somebody who understands the dangers. I still don't go out there alone, and as much as possible I always go out with one other person. It's become easier for us because we have indicators like the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website, which gives us a good indication of the activity out there. I also follow other friends or photographers who are guides, and get resources from the guys in helicopters who have a better view. I always do my homework before I go out, it's just the smartest way to do it.
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Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.