When we speak to Andrea Frazzetta, he’s just got that feeling all photographers crave – he knows he has nailed his latest assignment.
The image in question is of a miner toiling in the Mount Ijen volcano, Indonesia. Looming out of the gathering darkness and sulfuric smoke with only a head torch to guide him, it’s a shot Andrea knows is the core of his project. “I really wanted to capture the miners in the smoke,” he explains, “because these people are literally and metaphorically disappearing; progress is coming and when the work goes, so will the people. It’s a hard life and the conditions are tough, but it’s their legacy, their story. I wanted that symbolism of their culture disappearing, and this was the moment. I knew this image was the one; the centre of my story. And when you’ve got it you feel great!”
Let’s backtrack. Why is Andrea here? His photo story, ‘Sulfur Road’ was commissioned by National Geographic Traveller, and is part of his larger project, ‘Beyond’.
Beyond is all about the relationship between human and environment. Specifically,” he adds in a foreboding tone “extreme environment.
‘Beyond’ started with an assignment for the New York Times, covering the vast Danakil depression in Ethiopia, an area of shifting tectonic plates forming a thin 5km crust over the Earth’s fiery innards; a huge desert of salt, lakes with psychedelic colours, active volcanoes, and deadly 50ºC heat.
In conditions as extreme as this, it’s vital that Andrea has the right kit. On the Sulphur Road assignment he used α7R II and α7S II bodies, thrilling in their mix of image quality and lightness. Andrea’s project wasn’t just about the phsyical elements of the earth though, it was also about the people who live and work there too. “For me as a photojournalist,” he explains, “environmental issues are central, and the whole point is to confront them. We have something to learn. The planet is changing so fast, that maybe these people have something to teach us about surviving.”
After Andrea was commissioned for ‘Sulfur Road’, he needed to get close to the miners. So like most photojournalists the first step was to get a local guide, or ‘fixer’. “As experienced as you get,” he says, “you have to remember that you’re still a tourist. You’re coming from Europe to a very foreign culture, and you only have around two weeks to get the story done.” The need to form a bond with the subjects he is shooting has an impact on his choice of kit, with Andrea using two types of zooms to help him form this connection. “I use the 16-35mm f/2.8 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses”, he explains, “as these two lenses are almost my entire career! But I sometimes also use the 35mm f/2.8 FE Zeiss Sonnar T* which is amazingly sharp, small and light. I never use long lenses, because my work is all about being close and involved with the story.”
For the shoot, Andrea’s guide was a volcanologist, and also an amateur photographer so he had a great understanding of what was needed, but as much as planning is vital, “in the end you never know what you’ll find in the field.”
Part of this, he tells us, is being able to react quickly and be open to the unpredictable. “I wanted to be on top of the volcano on the first day,” he explains, “but it was raining, so it was impossible. We changed it up and that was a real benefit, because it meant we got to spend time at the miners’ village, talking to these guys in their homes. On the second or third night we came to the mine, following one miner in his climb up the volcano and into the crater.” It was a huge pay off, because that’s where Andrea got his core pictures. “It was really important to spend that time,” he tells us, “because it gets you closer to the people, and their reaction improves; it’s not a new thing in reportage, but it works!”
So there Andrea was, at twilight in an active volcano, swathed in boiling smoke, as miners carried sulfur-laden baskets up from the lake on the crater’s floor. Not only an inhospitable environment, but also one that can only be reached by a 9000ft climb and a 3000ft descent into the crater itself. Not the sort of climb you want with an overfilled camera bag, right? “Not at all,” laughs Andrea, “but the two Sony Alpha cameras I take with me on assignments make it easy.”
How about capturing shots in such a dark and dynamic environment, we ask him.
“The core shots of the miners in the smoke were all very low-light,” Andrea explains, “and I needed to convey that atmosphere, so many of these shots were at ISO 6400 and 12,800. I do sometimes use a single off-camera flash, but in these cases it would have killed the mood. So instead I’m shooting wide open at f/2.8 and these high ISOs.”
And how did he feel about the shoot when it was over? “The results were amazing – it was an experiment in really pushing the camera, but it worked.”
"To me photography represents an ideal tool for exploration. A way to discover the world, others and more of myself"