"When it first happened I never expected it to blow up the way that it did," said Hawaii-based wedding photographer Jenna Lee. Lee took stunning photos of a newlywed couple near flowing lava on Kilauea. The photos have been shared on outlets such as The Today Show, Fox News, Mashable, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and others.
However, the attention hasn't all been positive. Critics believe the photos to be faked since Lauren and Alex Michaels are barefoot. "There are definitely a lot of people out there who are uneducated, uninformed and opinionated," Lee said. Some believe that the couple broke the law and sent death threats.
"I just stopped reading the comments. It is what it is. They're just bored at home with nothing better to do."
The negativity hasn't weighed her down and the fame hasn't gotten to her head. Aside from hiring an office assistant to stay on top of emails, work has been pretty much the same. Lee hasn't even raised her prices though friends joked that she should.
"I'm happy where I'm at. I end up with the coolest clients on the planet. I've never even had one client I didn't enjoy and I feel like I'm in the perfect market."
Lee, 31, graduated from Del Norte High School in 2003 and has been into photography for as long as she can remember. "Ever since I was a small child my dad used to bribe me with new cameras. He'd be like 'If you get straight A's I'll get you that new camera this year!'" As the high school's newspaper and yearbook photographer, her love of the medium only grew.
The newspaper roots helped create her passion for storytelling. As long as there's a person in the frame, like a child, athlete or family, she'll take the photo. Lee calls people her specialty, but she loves wedding photography the most.
"I just love getting to know a couple and being with them on the best day of their life."
She cites her artistic family as a major inspiration. Her cousin Michael Mauro photographs wild animals for clients like Outside Magazine and Cabela's. Lee's mother and stepfather, KimAnna and Mike Cellura-Shields, owned and operated The Organic Peddler.
"She does everything you can imagine; from painting to woodworking to stained glass. My mother is artsy as they come."
Originally from Los Angeles, Lee and her family moved to Del Norte when she was 15. She attended Colorado State University in Pueblo and, armed with her new business degree, moved back to LA to work with her aunt Deborah Kolb recruiting for Wall Street. However, the day she flew out was the day the investment bank Lehman Brothers went out of business.
Luckily, Kolb's true passion was also photography. She hired personal mentors for herself and Lee. "I got to be her model and get the mentoring myself and then I realized that's what I actually wanted to do in life." Lee started her business in 2009, moved it to Colorado and New Jersey and finally cemented herself in Honolulu where she's been for the past five years.
Lee's intimate style is due in part to her gear. She shoots on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a variety of prime lenses, meaning the camera doesn't have the ability to zoom. If the photographer wants a close up then they physically have to move and get close. The lenses also blur the background so that only the subject is sharp. "That way you know they're truly my focus."
The active method of photography is definitely not for those who want to stand around. "I'm the photographer that's climbing up a tree to hang a wedding dress or hanging off a cliff snapping photos. I usually end up with sticks in my hair."
While you'll see Lee be more adventurous than other photographers, you won't see Lee use flashes or any type of artificial lighting. "I'm just all about being as real as possible and generating imagery that'll make you feel something."
That passion for all things natural is partly why the Michaelses are barefoot on the lava rock.
Lee got in touch with Lauren and Alex, who are originally from Broomfield and Aurora, respectively, while planning to shoot photos for a different wedding. Kilauea isn't always active so Lee wanted to seize the opportunity while she could because lava rock is a marriage symbol in Hawaii.
A common ceremony is to wrap a ti leaf around a rock while exchanging vows. "It's just an amazing thing to witness the creation of new earth and to honor your wedding vows with that."
However, she decided it didn't fit the other couple since one was a triathlete and the other was a lifeguard.
"I wanted to stay true to them and their story so I decided to do a crazy water shoot with her. Then I was trying to find the ideal couple to shoot with the lava."
Lauren, who married Alex in June in their home on Kauai, worked as the wedding coordinator and was going to be on the island anyway. The three decided that it would be the perfect adventure.
"I think that love is the ultimate adventure so when you're about to embark on life with your best friend it's so cool because you're able to have an amazing lifetime experience. To be able to do something like that together and capture it is like I think the most epic things you could do. I like to inspire more people to get out there and explore the world more together."
But then Tropical Storm Darby came in and closed half of the island on July 22.
The group switched gears and trekked to Waipio Valley. Entering the valley is notoriously difficult. "It's like a 25 percent grade road; so steep that even though it's paved you have to have four-wheel drive vehicle to get down and up it. And we did not have a four-wheel drive vehicle." They parked near the entrance of the valley and hiked roughly 2.5 miles barefoot in the rain with headlamps on. Their journey was worthwhile—it led them to a black sand beach with wild horses.
"That shoot in and of itself was absolutely amazing."
Lauren and Alex enjoyed the photoshoot so much that they rescheduled the volcano adventure for August 11. Since they all lived on different islands Lauren decided to book a place to stay that was as close to the lava field as possible.
The accommodation, called Jade's Lava Sanctuary, was essentially camping. It had a roof, but no walls or electricity. Lauren had to put on her makeup before the sun went down. To make sure things went smoothly as possible, they scouted out the location the night before.
The crew headed out at 3:30 in the morning. Faint early morning light made both Lee's subjects and the lava stand out better.
With each step they were able to see bright lava from one of the world's most active volcanoes below them. "It's eerie and very surreal as you trek across and see this lava radiating out right beneath your feat." However, the surface is cool and hardens fast enough that they weren't in any danger. Above them, a meteor shower lit up the sky. "It was super beautiful."
Alex and Lauren changed into their wedding attire once they reached the location. Lauren's dress hadn't been washed since the shoot a month prior and still looked good, even though it was stuffed in a backpack. Yet all Alex had was a pair of black sneakers instead of his wedding shoes. Lee told him to go barefoot since it looked nicer and she prefers her clients to be connected with the earth. It also turned out to be the smart thing to do.
Being barefoot allowed them to gauge the temperature around them. "If the ground was too hot they knew not to stand there. You're feeling that heat well before you're in the danger zone."
A river of lava shortly broke open and headed to the ocean. Lee knew they had to move closer to this rare occurrence. "It doesn't move very fast like an actual river. As long as you are semi-intelligent human being and you're being conscience of your surroundings you know you can handle it safely."
Part of Hawaiian culture is being respectful to the land. At the end of the shoot, which only lasted about 45 minutes, Lauren took off her flowers and tossed them into the lava. The act was an offering to the Hawaiian goddess Pele, who lives in Kilauea. She is considered to be the mother and creator of all of the Hawaiian Islands.
"It was very cool because we felt like she granted us this amazing experience."
For Lee's next adventure she has her sights on Iceland. She'll be there from September 26 through the end of the month shooting photos on lagoons and in ice caves. Instead of newlyweds, her clients will be her best friends who are celebrating their one-year anniversary.
"It's cool because she's one of my best friends. I'm just so excited. It's going to be amazing and I'm not even sure what to expect." The group will then fly to Finland to capture pictures inside glass igloos under the northern lights.
In the first week of October Lee will head south towards Cancun. Instead of shooting photos post-wedding, this time Lee is the wedding photographer. She's been researching and hopes to get spectacular shots of the sea caves, pyramids and hot air balloons. "Ideally I want the pyramids with the hot air balloons but we'll see. I might have to pay someone off to launch balloons in the background."
There are no signs of Lee slowing down. She hopes to someday do a bridal shoot on an African safari and she's talking to clients about going to Sri Lanka and Cuba. And yes, she does shoot weddings in Colorado. Lee is going to travel as much as possible and focus on growing her business.
"The next couple of weeks are going to be crazy."
This interview was originally published in the September 22, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier. All photos courtesy of Jenna Lee.