It’s an unflinching reminder of our planet’s ability to both terrify with its power and stun with its beauty. The photograph of a volcano erupting at night, sending gray plumes of ash skyward to clash with hot, white lightning, was taken in December 2015 by Sergio Tapiro Velasco. The photographer spent nearly a month tracking the activity of the rocky cone outside Colima, Mexico, and his efforts have earned him the top prize of National Geographic’s Travel Photographer of the Year. In addition to his new title, Velasco will receive a prize of $25,000 and a 10-day trip for two to the Galápagos Archipelago with National Geographic Expeditions.
Titled “The Power of Nature,” the image is one of countless photographs Velasco has captured over his decade-long study of the Volcán de Colima, one of Latin America’s most active volcanos. On the night he took his winning shot, he was standing just seven and half miles away from the exploding crater.
The resulting image was selected from over 15,000 entries from participants in over 30 countries. It also took first prize in the annual photo contest’s Nature category; other entries include Tarun Sinha’s aerial picture of crocodiles lounging on the muddy banks of Costa Rica’s Rio Racroles like prehistoric predators awaiting a feast; Yatuka Takafuji’s magical image of fireflies hovering near a Japanese shrine; and another scene of a volcano by Reynold Riksa Dewantara that shows Indonesia’s Mount Bromo spewing a cloud of rust-colored smoke that Turner would have loved to paint.
Other submissions went into the Cities and People categories. The latter was won by F. Dilek Uyar, whose black-and-white photograph of a member of the Whirling Dervishes spinning beneath rays of sunlight is simply radiant; the former by Norbet Fritz, who photographed the modern, impeccably neat interior of Stuttgart’s library. His Andreas Gursky–esque image is one of the entries that causes viewers to reconsider a quotidian scene or moment you might otherwise overlook. Other striking submissions include a shot of a tender interaction between a father and son sitting beneath a blue New Delhi sky and a comical picture of visitors at the Rijksmuseum who appear caught in a staring contest with the men in a Rembrandt painting.
Velasco’s photograph is the opposite of these, centered on a dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. But it’s especially disquieting for its reminder that the earth marches on in its own ways — regardless of whether or not we’re here to witness it.