The Otherworldly Beauty of the Worst Job Ever

This piece by video artist Janet Biggs, A Step on the Sun, is a stunning combination of natural beauty and the horror of the worst job ever.  It documents sulfur mining at Kawah Ijen, a volcano in East Java, Indonesia, where virtually unprotected workers are awash in poisonous sulfur dioxide gas while gathering sulfur crystals.

Biggs, based in Brooklyn, has four pieces on exhibit through Jan. 6, 2013 at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in a show that explores her take on geographical and physical extremes. The other three videos focus on experiences in the Arctic.

Inside the volcano is the world’s largest acid lake, which, Biggs says, eats through a tin can in 15 seconds. “I’m drawn to environments that are really otherworldly and extreme,” Biggs told The Link.  “It’s not just the environment, it’s pursuing people that not only survive, but thrive in these environments.”

“It really does seem like Mars. And the yellow of the sulfur is so bright, and that acid lake is this incredible blue. At the same time, it’s the most exploitative thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Biggs, told Washington Post.

Miners carry the crystals out in bamboo baskets.  It’s a 45-minute climb out of the volcano and up to three hours to the weigh station.  The pay for two loads a day is $6 to $8 a load.  The trailer below begins with a weather balloon test, then moves to the drama of the mining site.

A Step on the Sun (Excerpt) from Janet Biggs on Vimeo.

Janet Biggs website, here.

Her biography, here.

Her Vimeo site, here.

12 replies »

  1. She’s probably lucky she got out with her footage, and her life. I’m sure the powers that be don’t want this to be known. Thank you for passing this on. There are other ways to obtain sulfur that are not so dangerous. Probably not at this purity. These working conditions are horrible. I will never look at fireworks the same way again. (Only one of the ways sulfur is used, and perhaps the most frivolous.)


  2. I don’t even know what to say here. The images are amazing, ethereal – otherwordly as she says in perfect. But the entire situation is insane! This is a new one to me. I knew about the diamond mines, the chocolate workers, etc. but this is another level of awful! I wonder how long these workers last before they have to quit . . . or they die?


    • It’s a terrible contrast, I agree. And it’s true this is “another level of awful.” I’ve done a bit of searching on the web, and I don’t see a lot about it. She s an internationally renowned video artist, and this is a relatively new piece. So perhaps it will have an impact.


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