There is a striking image in Rony Zakaria’s monochrome series Men, Mountains and the Sea where a shaft of light cuts across the center of a valley. Dark forms of mountains can be seen on the horizon, and a volcano lets out a gentle stream of smoke beneath a sky filled with stars. The image highlights the immensity and mystery of our planet.

Zakaria’s series, which he began in 2008, examines man’s connection with his environment in the photographer’s native land of Indonesia. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is spread across 17,000 islands and is home to over 150 active volcanoes. In this land governed by the elements, the sea and mountains are regarded as sacred entities.

Over a period of eight years, Zakaria travelled across Indonesia to document rituals and uncover traditions that have existed for generations. His images pay homage to a land that can be cruel and unforgiving.

“It started when I visited a friend of mine in Yogyakarta — a city in Java, Indonesia,” explains Zakaria. “At the time I was just starting out as a photographer. I hadn’t travelled much—I was curious about everything. What intrigued me the most was how the people in Yogyakarta connected with the sea and Mount Merapi, the active volcano that erupts every few years. My initial idea was to do a series based on this connection between man and nature. I stayed for two weeks. Since then, however, the project has gradually developed as I’ve found similar relationships in places across Indonesia. I traveled to Mount Semeru, which is the highest peak in Java island; Mount Bromo, where the natives have an annual ritual of thanksgiving by offering livestock to a volcano crater; and to a village where whaling is a part of their lives. Just a couple of months ago I visited a seaport town in Sumatra, where once a year its people commemorate their ancestors’ arrival by boat from the sea.”

Shot entirely in black-and-white, each landscape in this series is underscored with mystery. A sense of unease resides in the shadows of these photographs—despite their beauty, the viewer is reminded of the untamable force and fury of nature. Entire civilizations huddle at the base of mountains; a woman kneels waist-deep in a powerful, churning sea; a young girl is dwarfed by the mountain range behind her. For all of these flashes of foreboding, however, we also witness an intimate bond between man and nature that has so far managed to resist the creeping fingers of globalization. An immense power remains in these untouched lands.

Zakaria described the landscape’s emotional power in an anecdote from his travels:

“One experience that I remember vividly was climbing to the peak of Mt. Semeru. At my pace, it takes two days to reach the top. Arriving at the summit, I felt humbled by the strength of my emotions. Not only did I feel satisfaction as a result of my accomplishment, but I also felt pure happiness billowing over me. It was a rare feeling that I will never forget.”

—Rony Zakaria, interviewed by Eva Clifford


More of Eva Clifford’s writing (and photographs) can be found on her personal website or her Instagram feed.