Mike Mezeul II, a Dallas photographer, is no stranger to natural disasters. Throughout his career, he has covered a hurricane, wildfires and tornadoes. However, all of his experience got thrown out the window as he drove to meet up with the National Guard to be briefed on his coverage of the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii.
As he drove, he could see the smoke plume, the gases in the air and a giant cloud.
“There’s so much lava that [it] was so hot it created its own weather system, and it created, essentially, this thunderstorm over where the eruption was,” he says. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”
He finally made it to his 10-minute daily briefing with the military, among other members of the media. These were some of the scariest minutes of Mezeul’s life. They were all about to go where no person should ever go. They were being escorted by the military, which did not ensure they would be rescued if they needed it.
At the end of the first briefing, the members of the media were given a choice. If they decided they did not want to go, all they had to do was raise their hands and they would be taken back to their cars.
“My right hand wanted to go up, and my left hand was kind of slapping it down,” Mezeul says. “From there, when I went into the disaster zone, I was scared shitless.”
After being driven through trees — turning corners to find lava spewing in the air — and hovering 3,000 feet above ground in a helicopter, all to document the beauty he sees in these natural disasters, he is finally back home.
He will share some of what he captured during his several trips to Hawaii, along with other shots he’s accumulated over the years, at the Lincoln Experience Center at The Star. His gallery will go up 6:30 p.m. Friday.
The gallery will consist of 22 landscape and night sky images, five of which have never been seen before. The images on display are a result of a lifetime interest in photography, weather and natural disasters.
Mezeul got his first camera for his 15th birthday. It was his dad’s old Yashica MG-1 that he had with him in the Air Force. Mezeul knew as little about photography as his dad knew about that old camera.
“We were always a little bit competitive with one another,” he says. “I kind of heard my dad say, ‘I don’t know how to use it,’ and I was like ‘Well, if you don’t know how to use it, I’m gonna learn how to use it.’”
Mezeul went to the library to check out books about photography and carried a notepad around to keep track of his camera settings. He did not have a car at the time, so he often took pictures of flowers and bugs in his parents’ garden and the stream across the street from his house.
Once he was done with a roll of film, he would save up his allowance to get it developed. From there, he could see what worked and what didn't. Eventually, he would take off the screens of the windows on the second floor of his house so he could take pictures of lightning.
“My parents still tell me, ‘You’ve gotta come over and replace all the screens,'" Mezeul says.
When he turned 16, he got his license. This was game-on for him, he says, as it allowed him to drive to photograph storms.
While he was getting better at shooting, he never really considered photography a career until the city of Allen approached him to shoot an Easter egg hunt in 2010. He has been the official photographer for the city ever since.
He was able to take pictures of lava for the first time in 2016. He was fascinated by it. Although it was dangerous, the lava moved at a sedate pace. Mezeul was even able to walk up to it. After seeing what was taking place in Hawaii, he says, the photojournalist in him kicked in.
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Glued to his phone, Mezeul watched the eruption take place. He kept putting flights on hold that he never booked. He says his girlfriend gave him the last little push he needed to make the trip to Hawaii.
“One night she just looked at me and said, ‘You better go or you’re going to regret this,’” he recalls.
His first visit was incredible, sad and terrifying, but he still felt the need to tell the story of the eruptions, so he went back two more times. A glimpse of his experiences will be on display at The Star for two weeks. He hopes to auction off one of the images and donate the proceeds to those left in need by the continuing eruption in Hawaii.
“Whether it’s a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars, it would be really cool to be able to donate it [to the people of Kilauea]," he says.