Fran Arnau sits in the middle of a rocky landscape completely covered in black ash - even the pine tree next to him has turned grey and looks badly dishevelled. The Spaniard has pulled the hood of his hoodie over his head. He is wearing video goggles and a respirator mask. He looks like a character from a dark, post-apocalyptic computer game. There is indeed a bit of a doomsday atmosphere, because Arnau is currently on the Cumbre Vieja, the 14-kilometre-long ridge on the Canary Island of La Palma, where a still nameless volcano had erupted three weeks earlier.
"The heat, the smell, the sounds - everything is so terrifying."
The Catalan drone pilot couldn't resist and travelled to the island to capture this natural spectacle with his flying cameras. Nevertheless, he differs from the typical disaster tourists who have now also made it here - and who often also get in the way of the rescue forces. With his experience in flying drones, he asked the Spanish company Dron Services Canarias if they could use his support - and they did. "My goal was to document the eruption with photos and footage and thus also help the company, the authorities and the volcanologists in their work to monitor the eruption."
His efforts paid off for everyone - but especially for Arnau personally. "It was the first time for me to witness a volcanic eruption. It was an absolutely unique experience: the heat, the smell, the sounds - everything is so terrifying. But once I was on the drone, the scenery and the images were so beastly beautiful that I literally lost sight of the world around me. It was one of the most brutal experiences I've ever had as a photographer."
Normally Arnau organises drone shows
As surreal as the images the 42-year-old brought back of the lava rivers and the houses and forests submerged in ash, the working conditions were also extreme: "It was always very windy and we had to travel long and high distances with the drones." Arnau flew his DJI drones, which are equipped with both wide-angle and telephoto lenses, at heights of more than 700 metres and distances of more than 1500 metres - distances that private users are not allowed to fly under normal circumstances. On some days and in some areas, Arnau, who otherwise works as an event promoter and organises drone shows, was able to get as close as one metre to the flowing lava and as close as 800 metres to the volcano itself.
Ash clouds and acid rain
But despite all their caution, drone pilots are sometimes simply powerless against the elemental force of nature. "The heat melted the sensors of two of my drones and I spent days cleaning the ash off my equipment. From one drone, the camera gimble still doesn't work to this day because it's clogged." Fran Arnau also remembers what should have been a sunny day when it suddenly started raining. The ash turned this into acid rain, which covered all the bystanders and all the equipment with a black film. Arnau was even lucky: some of his colleagues lost their drones completely after they disappeared in an ash cloud or were carried away by too strong winds.
In addition, there was the human catastrophe and all the suffering caused by the volcanic eruption on the "Isla Bonita", which Arnau encountered on a daily basis: in the course of the eruption, which lasted three months, more than 1600 buildings, more than 70 kilometres of roads and around 370 hectares of the banana plantations typical for La Palma were destroyed. But even those who did not live directly in the affected area could be affected because the ash covered everything and the concentration of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide were very high.
And yet: "The beauty of the glowing lava at night and this Dante-like landscape by day - beyond the human tragedies, this natural phenomenon is just absolutely incredible," says Arnau. Thanks to his pictures, we can now at least somewhat relate to this ambivalence of beauty and destruction.
Spectacular shots are also guaranteed at PHOTOPIA Hamburg from 13 to 16 October, when a wide variety of drones - small and large models - will once again hover in large numbers over the Hamburg exhibition grounds.
Fran Arnaus Instagram-Account: @franarnaudrone
More from Fran: https://youtu.be/lfyGll5wWmA
photo credits: Copyright ©Fran Arnau