Valerie Leonard: Sulfur Soldiers

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Artist's Statement

In East Java, Indonesia lies Kawah Ijen volcano: 11,500-feet tall, topped with a large caldera and a 650 foot-deep lake of sulfuric acid. The quietly active volcano emits gases through fumaroles inside the crater, and local miners have tapped those gases to earn a living. The first miners arrived here 50 years ago. Stone and ceramic pipes cap the fumaroles, and inside, the sulfur condenses into a molten red liquid, dripping down and solidifying into pure sulfur. Miners hack chunks off with steel bars, braving extremely dangerous gases and liquids with minimal protection. Then they load up as much as they can carry to the weighing station, several kilometers away. Loads can weigh from 170 to 220 pounds, and a single miner might make as many as two or three trips per day, barely making $6. The sulfur is then used for vulcanizing rubber, bleaching sugar and other industrial processes nearby.

Artist's Bio

Born in 1961, French-American Valerie Leonard has always been surrounded by a world of images. Her mother was a painter, and her father—Herman Leonard—a photographer. When she presses the shutter, she remembers the doctrine of her father: "Always tell the truth, but in terms of beauty." Leonard strives to embody that search in her work, capturing the truth and beauty of human beings, regardless of their origin or wealth. Far from seeking false compassion, she wants to show the dignity of men and women living in particularly hostile environments around the world—a theme she calls, “Labors of Hercules.” In this theme, Leonard attempts to show her utmost respect and admiration for the nobility and courage of those living in difficult conditions.  

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