Photos Capture Relationship Between People, Volcanoes

Cris Toala Olivares documents life in the shadow of powerful volcanoes.

person swinging as Tungurahua erupts
A person swings as Tungurahua erupts.

Cris Toala Olivares

When documentary photographer Cris Toala Olivares captured the eruption of the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador, he became fascinated with volcanoes and the people who live near them.

Toala Olivares visited and photographed 13 volcanoes, looking at the relationships between them and local inhabitants. In his new book “Living with Volcanoes” (Lannoo Publishers), he focuses his lens on these powerful forces of nature and the impact they have on their neighbors.

Toala Olivares spoke to Treehugger about his first volcano encounter and how these unpredictable, strong forces influence those around them.

Treehugger: What triggered your fascination with volcanoes? Why do you find them so compelling?

Cris Toala Olivares: My fascination began with a personal project. I grew up in Ecuador with volcanoes and was always intrigued by the myths that surrounded them. In 2014, while on assignment in my home country, I heard that the Tungurahua volcano was erupting and felt a call to go visit “the throat of fire,” as it is known in the indigenous Quechua language. 

On my way there, my colleague and I had two options of where to photograph the volcano. My instincts drove me to the observation deck, La Casa Del Arbol, where they also built a swing and where I captured one of my photos in the book. It was the perfect location that allowed me to take aerial photos. At that moment, I remember seeing a beautiful explosion and took my camera, ready to capture this powerful force of nature. 

Other journalists who decided to witness the eruption from the other location had to flee, as the “pyroclastic” hot ash cloud emerged and headed straight for them. This worked out in my favor as it was just me and Tungurahua.  

Were you frightened?

I was scared but I tried to whisper to the volcano that I’ve just wanted to catch her best side, like a painter might say when trying to depict a person. 

I stayed there for hours, in awe of this giant beauty. This inspired me to wonder about those inhabitants who live so close to volcanoes. Why would they live so close to a mighty force that can take everything away? 

This is what makes volcanoes so compelling to me. Their power is from the center of the earth. They are so dynamic. When you are close to them you feel it.

The Tungurahua sparked something deep within me and I was on a mission to learn everything I could about volcanoes. I spoke with scientists, volcanologists, and geologists to grasp everything I could. One very sad thing is that there isn’t a large budget to fully research and understand how we can work with them. This is where I looked to the local people who call volcanoes neighbors and are the ones who live and clean up after an eruption takes place. 

Volcano erupting in Iceland
Volcano erupting in Iceland.

Cris Toala Olivares

Volcanoes often have a frightening reputation because of the destruction their eruptions can cause. What positive impacts do you focus on instead?

During my travels, I knew I had to photograph Iceland, the world’s largest volcanic island. With 30 volcanic systems, the inhabitants have developed a rich understanding of volcanoes and how to create energy from dead volcanoes. On a particular visit, I explored several greenhouses and to my surprise, I found a greenhouse growing bananas as if it were Ecuador or Colombia! They know how to control the temperature and create fruit like bananas, which is remarkable. 

I realized that not only do the people here have technical skills, but they also understand the nature of their country, and this is crucial for them to interact successfully with volcanoes. Geothermal engineer Steinn Steinsson said to me: “You have to accept what the Earth is giving you.” He explained that “sometimes it will provide a lot, at others it will only give a little or nothing. And sometimes it will destroy.”

I also can say that I had a glass of the most delicious wine, grown on vineyards in close proximity to Mount Amiata in Italy. The Tenuta Luce wine estate grows their grapes in perfect harmony with the rich soil of the volcano. The producers pay very close attention to the climate, the temperature, and work closely with nature, conserving and respecting the Earth. You can taste this in every sip. 

In North Korea, Mount Paektu symbolizes Korean national identity and is a popular worship center that continues to inspire artists to this day. It is not only a volcano but a holy mountain, a place of spiritual and cultural significance. 

Guatemala, in shadow of Agua volcano
Guatemala, in shadow of Agua volcano.

Cris Toala Olivares

How did you choose the volcanoes you visited? What obstacles do you have to overcome to photograph them? 

This project took me eight years to fully understand where it would take me. I purposely didn't go to Hawaii, to Yellowstone. I went to volcanoes with a reputation for history. Volcanoes with a small story but one that is aligned with its community. 

For instance, I originally traveled to Guatemala to see Volcán de Fuego, or the Volcano of Fire but was told by locals to visit Volcán de Agua instead. This volcano was important to the inhabitants and their ancestors for hundreds of years, dating back to the Mayans. The people here respect the Agua volcano and are grateful for its ability to protect and provide for them through the fertile soils on its flanks. In the 16th century, the mudflow from Agua ruined the first Guatemalan capital founded by the Spanish conquistadors, inspiring the local people to view the volcano as a liberator. 

There were several obstacles and more often than not, it was not the erupting volcano! There are also many rules and regulations when visiting volcano sites. I found that many scientists are not actually working on the field but at research centers, away from the volcanoes. This is why speaking with locals was my key to truly understanding the magnificence of volcanoes. 

people in shadow of Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador
People in shadow of Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador.

Cris Toala Olivares

What were some of your more harrowing moments?

When visiting a volcano, you must have respect for what you are encountering and experiencing. You have to ask for permission in a way, and ask, can I climb to the top? We need to respect nature or it can harm us, or worse. I had one experience when I did not ask for permission, where I experienced a pyroclastic flow and was very lucky to escape it while photographing a volcano in Indonesia. But I take every experience with gratitude. You start to understand volcanoes and their true power. 

That is why these inhabitants are alive, they understand, honor, and respect nature. We think these are mountains, but these mountains are alive! 

Fogo, Cape Verde
Fogo, Cape Verde.

Cris Toala Olivares

What about your favorite experiences?

My favorite experience was to witness magic and I did. During my travels, I found that the majority of the people I met are humble and loving people, who work with their environment, not against it. 

One of my most wonderful experiences is the richness of the food in these locations. Volcanic soils often yield nutrient-rich fertile plains to farm and grow pure, delicious food, critical to their livelihood. These locals have formed a special relationship with volcanoes over centuries of worship, sacrifice, and disaster. 

What do you hope people will take away from your images and stories?

Inspiration. I have been creating the “bible of volcanoes” and it has been my passion. Others often focus on one or two volcanoes, but I wanted to explore as many as I could, to see if there is something unique that ties them all together. That is why I traveled around the world, to South America, Korea, Europe, and Southeast Asia, and focused on 13 remarkable volcanoes. 

You will see that all these inhabitants all have one thread in common: their absolute respect and gratitude for volcanoes. Whether I was in Italy or Guatemala, the people who inhabited these volcanoes practiced these virtues daily. Having such a powerful and unpredictable neighbor helps to put things into perspective and reminds people they are small in a larger interconnected world, fostering a sense of humility. I am inviting people to these places and see these volcanoes from a new perspective. 

Nature is huge and it has been formed across so many timelines that are difficult for us humans to imagine. Geology is deep and beautiful, but it also captures a history that we could never imagine otherwise. But it is not an extractive process, the volcano is not providing me a gift. Instead, I am a witness to its power, gracious for the chance to share an intimate experience and have a glimpse into the wisdom it possesses. 

Bali volcano
Bali volcano.

Cris Toala Olivares

What is your background? 

I initially sought to study medicine, but it has led me to where I am now. After my father passed away when I was 11, I was homeless and living off the streets. My neighbor was kind enough to take me under his wing and showed me ways to turn my life around. I would work during the day and attend school at night. Although my childhood was rough, it taught me strength and resilience, and once you taste the bitterness of life, you don’t want to experience it again. 

Following my mother to Europe, I sought a more stable future. I was studying medicine in war-torn Gaza in 2009 and stumbled upon photography while working with Doctors without Borders. It was during this time that I knew photography would be my destiny.

After a few days, I took a photo of a boy who could not cross the border because he was from Gaza. After a few months, I came to learn that the boy had leukemia and needed surgery and because of my photograph, he was able to cross to visit the hospital. I knew then that my choice in life was right there, behind the lens. As a person who grew up on the streets, I realized you can change someone’s life with a camera. 

Cris Toala Olivares on the job, photographing volcanoes
Cris Toala Olivares.

"Living with Volcanoes"

Where else do you like to turn your lens?

The camera has given me an opportunity to not only see the magic the Earth holds, but to share it with others. I’m currently in Ecuador, going to schools to show our young generation that passion can take you so far in life. I was just a kid on the streets and now I get to live my dream. I’ve had two books, been invited to do a TedTalk, and have worked with incredible people and institutions. 

Photographing volcanoes has been my way of inspiring people to see things from a different perspective. Witnessing the volcanoes and learning from the people who live with this neighbor, encouraged me to look at nature and life differently. I hope to do the same with my photographs.