TLC warned us back in 1995 not to go chasing waterfalls. But volcanic eruptions? Totally fair game — at least if you ask Honolulu-based wedding photographer Jenna Lee.
“I have a reputation for being a free spirit in my work,” Lee told TODAY. “I’m the one climbing trees, hanging off cliffs, coming away with a stick or two in my hair to get the best shot.”
For clients, Lee’s attitude yields more than a great photo — it turns every shoot into an adventure. “I’m always looking to see how wild they’re willing to get and create a cool experience for them,” she said. “I’m just there to curate their love story.”
So when Lee heard that the active volcano Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii had two new lava streams flowing into the ocean — a rare and beautiful phenomenon — she was determined to find a couple who could take the heat.
She found that in Lauren and Alex Michaels, fellow Hawaiians who wed in June after 10 years together. (Some background, for the romantics: The couple bonded over the fact that Lauren is deaf without a hearing aid, and Alex has a deaf parent. The two used a sign language interpreter at their wedding, and Lauren signed her vows in advance of the ceremony in case her voice went out. Ah, love!)
Lauren, a wedding coordinator who knows Lee through work, knew they would be in good hands. Alex was also game for adventure. But their first attempt to shoot on July 22 brought more of it than they bargained for: Tropical storm Darby’s unpredictable weather shut down parts of the island and rendered the already edgy shoot overly treacherous.
Having ordered flowers and flown in from Kawaii for the shoot, the group rerouted, hiking through a steep jungle to the remote Black Sand Beach instead. “Lauren had told me that Alex doesn’t like to get his photo taken, and that he would probably be good for an hour, max,” said Lee. “But he had so much fun, he said we had to reschedule the lava shoot.”
So on Aug. 11, the group reunited for take two. They rented a room at Lava Sanctuary, a remote open-air structure that would put them 3 miles from where the lava was flowing. They planned to hike in at sunrise. “There was no electricity, so Lauren had to do her makeup the day before,” recalled Lee. “We just went wild with the hair and embraced her inner beach babe.”
The dress went in a backpack (“That thing is amazing — no wrinkles!” said Lee) as they hiked out under a meteor shower at 3:30 a.m. While venturing to find the lava is legal and even encouraged, Lee described the sight as “incredibly eerie.”
“It’s so dark, and you can hear the crunch of the lava, and see it way below your feet,” she explained. “Occasionally it bubbles up and breaks through … you have to get over this idea that you could fall through at any moment.”
Since the lava hardens quickly once exposed to air, the top layers were cool enough to go barefoot – which, Lee said, actually helped them gauge where it was safe to stand. “It was like that game you play as a kid … You know, ‘getting warmer!’” she said. “Except you don’t want that.”
Eventually, a break uphill of where they were standing gave way to the now-famous photos of the couple next to a river of lava. “The wind was blowing away from the side where they were standing and taking the heat with it, so they were able to get really close,” Lee explained. While the images almost look fake (and have gotten some such accusations), video footage shows that no, it’s not Photoshop — and the bride is lucky her train escaped!
The group gave thanks to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, when they wrapped. “Lava is very symbolic in marriage,” Lee explained. “There’s an actual ceremony where they’ll take a piece of lava rock and wrap it in a ti leaf, and leave it at the site as a symbol of your commitment.”
And then there’s the symbolism of the shoot itself. “Love is the ultimate adventure,” she said. “To start that by sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience is incredible.”