A pair of spectacles sat on top of paperwork, in front of a laptop and next to a phone

A journey to the centre of life

Ulla Lohmann is brave. She feels compelled to explore, and this has taken her on countless journeys and seen her standing at the edge of – and inside – flaming volcanos, camera in hand. But at present she is isolating at her mother’s house, surrounded by reminders of her childhood. Paintings she made when she was 10 years old are still gracing the walls. It is, perhaps, appropriate then that Ulla should be in a place that is filled with memories as she talks about the impermanent nature of life, motherhood and finding joy in the moment.

“Art is fleeting. In France they call it ‘l'art est éphémère’. Volcanos are like that. If you look closely at a volcano and its boiling lava, it feels like a blooming flower. Something beautiful blossoms, then disappears, like everything in nature, it completely fascinates me and it's these moments you would love to stand still. Growing up, I had a perfect world. I lived in a small village with my parents, who were both teachers and gave me lots of knowledge. But when I was 15, my father committed suicide, and suddenly my whole world fell apart. I wanted to know why he did it, why he wasn't happy with life, and why other people live. I began to hitchhike because I wanted to get away from this small place where everybody was feeling sorry for me. With every journey I took, I started deep conversations to understand my driver’s motivation for life. I made sure we had long journeys, all the way to Portugal from Germany, and back and forth to France.

I was attending school at the same time, but I learned a lot through these travels. Many people cried during our conversations, unhappy with their lives. They were travelling long distances for work, away from their families and had busy life schedules. Sooner or later, they cracked because they realised they were unhappy. Sometimes I would ask them to stop for ten minutes and take some time to look at the sky with me. Often, they would cry again and thank me, saying this was the best moment they’d had in many years. This always stunned me. It was 10 minutes of their lives, why hadn't they done this before? I was just a barefoot hippie, a hitchhiker, the girl carrying a pet rat named Woodstock in a cage. I was discovering how weird the world is and it made me question why they didn't do anything about it? Why did they have 100,000 excuses? Change can be hard, but if you really want it, you can do it, otherwise just be happy with what you have. I really believe that many people would be happier by focusing on the 'now'.

A boy stands, playing, on a grey ash beach by the sea, in the background a volcano is erupting against a blue sky. © Ulla Lohmann
© Ulla Lohmann

As a child, I had a vivid imagination and read a lot. My room was full of books. Jules Verne’s 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' was one of my favourites. I could clearly picture the volcano and its lava, so when my father took me to Pompeii, I was really disappointed – instead of seeing a live volcano, I saw how destructive they could be. It took me many years to save enough money to visit a real volcano and when I finally did, it was so cool, but not quite how I had imagined it as a child. I was 600 meters away and I wanted to get closer. To achieve this took me ten years. I had much to learn – rock climbing, understanding volcanoes better, the local language ­– and money to save.

The island of Matupit in Papua New Guinea was one of the most beautiful places in the South Pacific area – a real paradise – until it was destroyed by the Tavurvur Volcano. It has constantly erupted since 1994 and some days 2-3 centimetres of ash falls. I had heard that the volcano was erupting again, so I naively went to Papua New Guinea, with no idea of the country or the people. The volcano was, of course, amazing, but what struck me most were the people around it – they were so happy. I returned back many, many times, probably 15 visits before I was able to take this picture ('Munganau walks home'). I got to know the people and I saw their children growing up. My idea was to picture their connection with the volcano, and I knew the boys would bathe every evening at a certain place, but it took I don't know how many evenings of going there. In the beginning, they were posing and acting, but eventually they didn't even notice me. Of course, I also had to wait for the volcano to blow. Eventually, after a lot of patience, it erupted, and I captured them playing undisturbed in front of the volcano. For me, true reactions are important – and often very hard to get. To be embedded and accepted, you have to photograph until the people are tired of you.

Ulla Lohmann and her son Manuk, accompanied by the quote “life is not well lived if you don’t live your dreams”. Image by Sara Mueller

I love the connection between death and life. The origins of life, even the first bacteria, came from volcanos. They create life and give soil, but at the same time can destroy everything at any second. We are at the mercy of nature and can feel how small we are as human beings. When I see a volcano erupting, I feel humbled that I'm able to witness this and still live. It would be good if a lot more people in our society would realise that life is a gift of nature – perhaps they would take better care of it. I would like to go return and capture Munganau and the other children again, now that they have grown, and the area is a bit greener. I want to show that paradise comes back and that it's worth persisting and accepting your life as it is. They have enough to eat but drink contaminated water from the acid rain of the volcano. Yet these children play barefoot and are happy and carefree. Pictures can show how beautiful life is and can be a motivation for others to realise their dreams. Life is not well lived if you don't live your dreams, and this is what my father didn't do. He had so many dreams, but he couldn't come out of his shell.

It was never my aim in life to be a mother, but then Manuk came along. I had spent a lot of time with indigenous tribes and learned a lot from their cultures, so I took a similar approach – to continue to live my normal nomad life, as the Indians would do. Manuk, named after a volcano in Indonesia, has been to 41 countries so far. I want to teach him to enjoy life, the environment and nature – and to take care of them. Seeing how Manuk sees the world teaches me a lot – every day is an adventure to him. Even in lockdown, stuck at home, there are always little micro-adventures to be had; we’ve discovered a new climbing area near our house and explored the nearby river and nature reserve right on our doorstep. If I can't change the situation, I focus on the beauty in it.”

Written by Ulla Lohmann and Cecilie Harris

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