Here’s what one of my worst nightmares looks like: an active volcano spews hot lava near my house; it rumbles so hard beneath my feet I can feel it in my chest; noxious gases are so thick and foul, they start to make me gag.
For Demian Barrios, that exact scene “is just like a dream come true,” he told Hack.
A self-described “lava chaser” in Hawaii for almost twenty years, Demian has spent the last few weeks flirting with Kilaeua – the volcano that’s led to the destruction of dozens of homes, the evacuation of thousands of residents, and a massive hit to the island’s tourism industry.
“This is by far the most impressive and dynamic and majestic flow I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s something I could only have ever dreamed about as a child,” Demian says.
Demien describes getting up close to Kilaeua while it has been erupting as a “pleasure” and a “privilege.”
“It’s changed my life, it’s like a scene out of a movie. I was a really big fan of volcanoes as a child, I had tons and tons of paintings of volcanoes that I’ve done over the years.
“To be here as an adult and actually experiencing it, and doing what I love to do which is photograph them, it’s just like a dream come true.”
What it’s like to get up close to an active volcano
Even though officials have warned locals and tourists against approaching erupting volcanoes, Demien says he’s been lava chasing for years, and says he knows how to do it “safely”. He likes to strap on a respirator and a helmet, wear the clothes that keep noxious gases from irritating his skin, and time the approach right.
“Most of the photos [I get when I’m close], they’re at a certain stage when they’re not violently erupting so you’re able to get pretty close to them. It is very hot, you can smell the vapour and the steam, you can feel the ground rumbling beneath your feet.
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings, a lot of excitement and joy and you really are just stunned by the beauty of it,” Demian says.
Lava chasing is also, obviously, a pretty dangerous thing to do. Demian says he hasn’t had any major injuries apart from some singed hair and cuts here and there, but there was that time he fell into a “hot lava tube”.
“I was taking some photos, took a step back and the area below just collapsed beneath me. I fell into the hole, bumped my tripod on the way down, and I got a pretty good cut on my leg.
“I jumped out, and my lens fell off my camera [into the hole]. I thought I was going to reach in and grab it, but within a second of that lens landing in that hole, it engulfed in flames and turned into ash within a minute.”
The beauty and philosophy of active volcanoes
For Demian, lava chasing is also a philosophical, spiritual experience.
“You do a little bit of soul searching, you think about yourself and your life and it’s really one of those instances where if you let it, you can really have a lot of self reflection. It’s very intense,” Demien says.
Demian goes as far to say that volcanoes erupting are an analogy for life, trauma, and new beginnings.
“We haven’t had this fissure here for fifty years, we’ve had this solid ground. Life is kind of like that in the sense: we all have roots, we all have solid ground we can stand on, but at some point in our lives, that solid ground beneath you is going to crumble – and it’s going to birth into something else.
“The earth is cracking and crumbling underneath us, but that’s the same power that created these islands.
Documenting beauty in the face of tragedy
Demian says part of the complex emotional experience of lava chasing is knowing the destruction that active volcanoes bring.
In the past few weeks, it’s been particularly tough, Demian says; but lava chasing isn’t just about getting the perfect shot – it’s about helping the local community, and sharing the eruption with the rest of the world.
“While you’re down there at ground zero with neighbours, you end up meeting them and helping them. You’re dragging hoses out to spray down chunks of flaming rock.
“It’s a tragic situation. But nonetheless it is a world class and historic event happening.”