The epic forces that shape the Earth often provide the most compelling and heart rending stories that can be conveyed.
When earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions strike, all living things become defenseless. Many around the world are under constant threat from these forces of nature. Ever since Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, their ruins belonging to Italy’s main tourist attractions, volcanic disasters especially have captured the imagination. Volcanoes can be destructive and beautiful at the same time. They elicit both wonder and primal fear.
Just as painters before them, photographers are often unable to arrive in time to record an actual eruption. In many cases it would be impossible and dangerous to do so anyhow. American photographer George M. Wedding came quite close when Mount St. Helens in Washington erupted on 18 May 1980. The eruption was preceded by two months of earthquakes, which led the government to create a red zone around the volcano where people were not allowed. Still, 57 people were killed when the volcano finally sent a 24km-high column of hot lava and pulverized rock into the air. From a helicopter, Wedding recorded the blast zone, which looked like a moonscape, the overall destruction, and casualties in gritty black-and-white images.
What nature can do to man is reflected in the eyes of 12-year-old Omayra Sanchez, trapped in the debris caused by the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia on 13 November 1985, and photographed by Frank Fournier. The eruption produced thick lahars that virtually erased the small town of Armero, and killing more than 23,000 people. Journalists all over the world hurried to Armero to record the tragedy, including two Colombian photographers, Jorge Eliecer Parga Salcedo and Felipe Caicedo Chacón, and two Americans, Carol Guzy and Anthony Suau. Frank Fournier’s image, that became World Press Photo of the Year in 1986, went all over the world evoking outrage about the authority’s inability to save Omayra and creating a debate on the journalist’s role in these situations.
That same year, the jury also awarded a photo illustrating research into volcanoes, which is crucial for understanding their nature and thus their behavior. Vladimir Chistyakov portrayed several volcanologists at work on the Russian Kamchatka peninsula. The peninsula, with its landscape of active volcanoes, geysers, and boiling lakes, was also the subject of Olivier Grunewald’s 2003 prize-winning story.
Volcanology touches upon fundamental questions about the origins of the universe, the driving force behind the fascination of the famous volcanologist Jacques Durieux. In 1994, Durieux led the first scientific expedition in 20 years to Erta Ale, a volcano in Ethiopia’s Afar region, which had been inaccessible due to the rebellion in Eritrea. The spectacular photos Durieux and his expedition photographer Philippe Bourseiller took of the rare lava lake were awarded in the science & technology category. Bourseiller had also witnessed the eruption of Mount Pinatubu in the Philippines in 1991. Due to accurate predictions by geologists, 75,000 local residents had been evacuated on time. However, the blast coincided with a tropical storm covering the surrounding island of Luzon in volcanic ash. Bourseiller’s story offered a surreal, almost eerie perspective on the situation.
Beauty and danger
Indonesia is strewn with active volcanoes, which are, like Mount Pinatubu, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area where continuous seismic activity occurs. 2010 was an especially active year, when Mount Merapi erupted in late October and Mount Bromo in late December. Although more than 350,000 people had been evacuated from Merapi, the explosion wiped out villages that were located in the supposed safety zone and killed 353 people. Kemal Jufri photographed the strangely serene ash-covered victims and ruins caused by the mountain’s wrath. Photographer and geologist Christophe Archambault came upon the smoking Mount Bromo while on a volcano-chasing holiday in Indonesia. Although not on assignment, he made a compelling story about the daily life of the people living in Bromo’s shadow. When it comes to volcanoes, beauty and danger go hand in hand, as do science and news. In 2011, the jury also awarded a picture featuring the glowing and bubbling lava lake at Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, taken by Olivier Grunewald during a scientific expedition. The 2016 contest also features a breathtaking photo of Mexico's Colima Volcano (Volcán de Colima) erupting with rock showers, lightning, and lava flows.