How close can I safely get a model to molten lava? What if the ground breaks under our feet? Will our shoes melt or catch on fire?

These were a few of the many questions I had for lava expert and photographer CJ Kale as I was planning my first ever photoshoot on the constantly changing lava flows on the Big Island of Hawaii.

(psst. there's a longer video at the end of this post!)

Not only can Lava reach up to 2000 ºF and be surrounded by a toxic cloud of sulfur dioxide, it also happens to be very hard to track which made planning for the shoot more like a “cross-your-fingers and hope it’s epic” sort of adventure.

Luckily for us, Pele was kind enough to bless us with breathtaking epic surface flows that allowed us to bring this project to life.

lava portrait Von Wong
Sony A7r-II16-35mm F4 | ISO 8000 | f/4 | 0.25s (1/4) – 1x Broncolor Siros L behind the model, 1x 600EX-II through a white T-shirt on the right.

From droughts to devastating hurricanes – it seems almost impossible these days to turn on the news without being exposed to the latest extreme weather event. For me, this has always led to a feeling of hopelessness – something that I’ve never been good at dealing with.

The desire to do something, anything – led to the birth of this shoot featuring a tribal character facing a desolate landscape. My hope was to bring attention to indigenous communities at risk from climate change and to donate 100% of print profits to victims of Hurricane Matthew.

lava portrait Von Wong
Sony A7r-II16-35mm F4 | ISO 1250 | f/4 | 0.2s (1/5) – 1x Broncolor Siros L behind the model, 1x 600EX-II through a 90×120 softbox on camera left

Preparing for this project was a delicate dance between trying to be ready for anything, and bringing as little gear as possible.

Unfortunately for the team, being ready for anything, meant me wanting to bring a whole lot of extra things just in case – from smoke balls, a 2L water sprayer and a battery-powered smoke machine.

valentina_hawaii-68-x3Combine that with my Siros L lighting kit, camera gear, video setup, custom costumes, props and stands – CJ’s advice to travel light fell on mostly deaf ears.

Our trek began at midnight, with the team lugging our entire kit over miles of uneven jagged volcanic rock. We navigated by the clouds, hunting for the signature soft red glow of lava in the distance.

It took us three hours and almost four miles to reach the lava flows.

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No Flash
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Flash
lava portrait Von Wong
Sony A7r-II16-35mm F4 | ISO 3200 | f/4 | 0.3s (1/3) – 1x Broncolor Siros L behind the model, 1x 600EX-II through a 90×120 softbox on camera left

valentina_hawaii-49-x3-copyDesigning the lighting for the shoot was like choreographing a dance.

Every time I changed my composition, Tama, one of my intrepid assistants, would have to navigate the fields of lava while juggling a 5kg Siros L and light stand. He would then hide himself directly behind Tau, our model. Similarly, any time Tau would move, Tama would also have to compensate to get into the right position.

That one single backlight was critical to create the intricate texture of the hardened lava. Without it, the scene would go from an epic apocalyptic moon-like surface, to boring red glows within a sea of darkness.

lava portrait Von Wong
Sony A7r-II16-35mm F4 | ISO 8000 | f/4 | 0.25s (1/4) – 1x Broncolor Siros L behind the model, 1x 600EX-II through a white T-shirt on the right.

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Once the backlight was nailed with the Siros, we began testing out the different special effects that we had available – smoke & water.

The 2L water sprayer ended up being the the true MVP of our shoot, not only creating an ethereal glow that resembled steam rising out of the cracks, but also serving as a safety spray to make sure our model stayed cool as he inched closer and closer to the lava.

lava portrait Von Wong
Sony A7r-II16-35mm F4 | ISO 3200 | f/4 | 0.25s (1/4) – 1x Broncolor Siros L behind the model, 1x 600EX-II through a 90×120 softbox on camera left

Shooting on the lava fields, was a reminder to the team how small and fragile we are in the face of nature.

As a privileged city dweller, I don’t often have to face the whims of nature; yet there are billions that are less fortunate. This shoot was an opportunity to give back.  To support the cries of the indigenous that have been talking about climate change for years. To give back to the most vulnerable victims of the latest disaster following Hurricane Matthew.

For this project, we’ve chosen to support the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, a Haitian charity with Haitian staff that focuses on providing affordable health care to those in need. They have maintained a 4 out of 4 star rating on Charity Navigator  for 10 years in a row and are currently in dire need of support.

It is hard to not feel helpless. But as Obama once said: “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.”

Buy a print or donate directly

Longer BTS for those who want more:

Media Requests

  • Feel free to quote and publish the photos on your online publication (please credit & link back to the original). High-rez press images, BTS and more can be found in this dropbox link.
  • Commercial requests and rights: suzy@suzyjohnston.com
  • Interview requests: ben@vonwong.com

Credits

Announcements

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From Left to Right: Andreas Knüttel, Emmanuelle Néron, Tamahere McCabe, Valentina Vee, Tau Samuels, Von Wong, Paulo Mendes, CJ Kale

MORE AWESOMENESS:

  • Travis Keyes

    once again beautiful and powerful work…

  • Manderstudio

    Incredible set of Images, and with a beautiful concept and mission. You and your team rock. Breaking boundaries all around. Keep changing the world!

  • Ronn Murray

    Awesome images! Just curious why you wouldn’t have used Hawaiian models?

    • I did. Tau is Hawaiian.

      • Ronn Murray

        Gotcha! Is this traditional Hawaiian clothing? I’ve never seen it before.

        • Ronn Murray

          Either way, this is incredible! Well done!

  • Awe inspiring and stunning!

  • Martin Zvonár

    You are pushing limits to heights nobody imagined possible. Great Work!

  • Another epic shoot man! I can’t wait to see how you will top this one! I’m sure you have some more crazy ideas up your sleeve. 😉

  • Wow, what a badass series. So cool!

  • Kenny240

    Great series! Love the creativity!