“In terms of what it takes - I guess the willingness to be uncomfortable and wet for the rest of the day. My boots and clothes will get wet, and you just have to be ok doing that.”
Not long ago, we came across several photographs of a newly discovered species of Superb Bird-of-paradise, called the Vogelkop Superb. The bird’s striking colors inspired us to create an ultra-dark timepiece utilizing Musou Black paint on the dial, with green-blue dots to highlight the bird’s iridescent chest. We never figured that we’d come to know the actual photographer of the iconic pictures in question, Tim Laman.
Tim has spent over three decades as a wildlife photographer and conservation advocate, braving uncomfortable and often harsh conditions to capture some of the finest photographs of wildlife around the world, with a heavy focus on Asian rainforests. To date he has photographed 39 species of birds-of-paradise, published a fantastic book called Bird Planet: A Photographic Journey by Tim Laman, produced films, lectured as an educator, and written multiple landmark articles with National Geographic. All in all, Tim’s contribution to the field has had a formidable impact both in knowledge and conservation awareness.
The fact that Tim himself now wears a BOLDR Safari Vogelkop Superb on his wrist means more to us than we could ever fathom. We spoke in April 2023, a few days before he was traveling to Mexico to photograph the Scarlet Macaw, an endangered species due to poaching in the region.
Walk us through your background, early life, and family.
Well, I was born in Tokyo, but grew up mostly in the southern island of Kyushu. I spent my childhood in Asia; my parents were Protestant missionaries and my dad was also a professor there, so they worked in Japan for over 40 years. I spent most of my childhood until university in Japan, going back and forth to the States. But Japan was where I first developed my love of nature. We went to the mountains and ocean for holidays because you're never very far from them. I loved getting out and going hiking, snorkeling, and exploring nature.
Can you speak Japanese fluently?
I'm a little rusty but I can still get by. I went to a Japanese public school for four years, and my mom taught me English at home. So I was very fluent as a kid but didn’t stay there long enough to have a full adult fluency.
When did you move back to America?
I moved back to go to university when I was 18. My parents stayed on in Japan while I attended Hope College in West Michigan. It's a small Liberal Arts college with a really good science program, and I was interested in studying biology and wildlife and subjects pertaining to the natural world. So I majored in biology, spending four years there before heading to graduate school for further biology studies at Harvard University.
I was really fascinated with animal behavior and how the brain works, and began studies in neurobiology, but I decided I didn't really want to be a lab scientist. So I took a break and volunteered to work with a Harvard professor in the biological anthropology department who was studying rainforest ecology in Indonesian Borneo.
I spent an entire year in Borneo as a volunteer research assistant at a remote rainforest camp. That was when I really fell in love with the rainforests of Southeast Asia and also worked a lot on my photography. I actually started taking pictures way back when I was in middle school with equipment my dad loaned me, and I became more and more serious about my photography as the years went by. By the time I was in Borneo, I was working hard to get my photography up to a professional level, and figure out how to capture unique images of rainforest life.
For several years, I pursued my photography very seriously while going back and forth between graduate school at Harvard and Indonesia. I did field work, took classes, as well as conducted some teaching, as I worked to complete my PhD specializing in rainforest ecology and evolutionary biology.
How did you become a professional photographer?
I had a dream of publishing an article in National Geographic magazine, and the way I made my first connection with the magazine was via getting research funding from the National Geographic Society via their grant program. Once I had been a grantee conducting research in Borneo, they put me in touch with an editor at the magazine. She gave me free film to start, and it took a couple more years of working on my photography in Borneo on my own, but eventually I had enough good pictures for my first feature article which was published in 1997.
Over the next few years I was still working as a scientist and also for National Geographic on the side. I had several more published articles, so they started giving me assignments. It wasn’t long before I decided to focus full-time on photography and pursue that as my main career.
My research in rainforest ecology was reaching scientists, but not having an impact in generating awareness about rainforest conservation, which became increasingly important to me. When I did a National Geographic article, millions of people would see it. So I felt that with my photography, I could have more impact showcasing and telling stories about the rainforest. This motivated me to keep pursuing my photography and eventually make it my career.
What was your first gig for National Geographic?
My first story was about the Borneo rainforest canopy, with my research centering around strangler fig trees that produce fruit for lots of wildlife. After I sold it to them, I was able to get my first real assignment on orangutans. My wife is also a biologist, and we started working together in Borneo and Kalimantan where she was doing her PhD research on wild orangutans, and documenting her work led to my second story for the magazine on “Orangutans in the Wild” published in 1998. Following that, I did many stories centered around tropical animals such as hornbills and proboscis monkeys in the rainforests around Indonesia, Malaysia. Philippines, and Thailand.
Did you develop your photography skills independently?
Yes, I never studied it formally - I am pretty much self-taught by reading lots of books and magazines. I gradually learned to critique myself through my work with National Geographic. I had developed my skills fairly well when I started working with them, but when they encouraged me and provided my film and plenty of feedback, I learned to be critical.
The hardest thing is to be critical about your own photography, but having a good editor will help develop your eye. I would attribute that to going from ‘good’ to excelling at a pretty high level.
I had a friend, Mark Moffett, also a graduate student at Harvard. He was a biologist with his research subject on ants. He taught himself how to photograph in a way that nobody had done before, and he published several influential stories in National Geographic about ants and other small creatures. He would sometimes look at my pictures and share some of his thoughts, and seeing what Mark was able to do with National Geographic gave me confidence that I could do it as well..
In a nutshell, why do you do what you do?
I think there's like a couple of different aspects to it. Part of it is that I love exploring new places. I’ve always enjoyed traveling from an early age, and I get to see interesting wildlife, go to cool places, and especially the opportunity to document things that few people have seen, eg. birds-of-paradise from the canopy of the New Guinea rainforest.
Another aspect is the photography, of course. It’s very fascinating and extremely satisfying. It brings out the hunting instinct that we’ve inherited from our ancestors - the pursuit of a great capture is very challenging. It fulfills that same kind of satisfaction that a hunter feels when they're pursuing game.
Also, I realized I could have an impact by reaching people with my stories and photographs, particularly about conservation awareness and the importance of protecting biodiversity. That is now my primary focus, which is why I enjoy working with organizations like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that's devoted to protect & promote conservation of birds around the world.
I work closely with my wife Cheryl at her nonprofit which is involved in orangutan conservation. So I do a lot of photography and filming to try to promote awareness about bigger goals.
In the field, there is a photograph of you standing in a river with completely murky water. How do you brave yourself to do such a thing?
I was photographing orangutans in Borneo, and you just have to follow them all day through the forest. They're traveling through the treetops and you're on the ground. So to try to get a shot you have to keep moving and follow them to wherever you can get a view. If they cross a small river, then you have to cross as well. In that photo, I'm very carefully feeling my way across to climb on the other side and keep following the orangutans. In terms of what it takes - I guess the willingness to be uncomfortable and wet for the rest of the day. My boots and clothes will get wet, and you just have to be ok doing that.
How do you protect yourself from the mosquitoes or anything else that wants to kill you?
I do take all the necessary precautions when I'm in a place that requires it, eg. places with malaria would require medication like prophylaxis. I've been fortunate not to get malaria, probably because I cover myself up well, use mosquito repellent, long sleeves and stuff.
Do you always work with the locals at a photography site?
Yes, when I'm going to another country I definitely hook up with the locals, which are either local researchers or I might just hire local guides. Usually if I have a lot of equipment, I hire local porters for assistance. It’s usually a small crew of people who are really knowledgeable about the local wildlife.
For eg. building the blinds to access the canopy for a photoshoot. This was in the Aru Islands, in Indonesia, south of New Guinea, where I was trying to photograph the Greater bird-of-paradise, and I needed to climb a tree. Their display site was up at the top, so I found a nearby tree that would give me a good view. I shot a fishing line over a branch with a bow and arrow and pulled my rope up. Then climbed my rope with ascenders. Normally I would hang camouflaged material around me to make the blind.
But in this place, the local men from the village (who used to be hunters) insisted that they would help me make the blind. They had their own way of doing it with all these superstitions about the correct way to do it, which I happily abided by. Things like not using rope but only vines to tie it together, make the platform with only 12, not more, horizontal sticks for the floor of the blind. They believe the bird won’t come otherwise.
It was built in less than a day, really beautiful and blended well with the forest. I got some great shots from it.
What was it like seeing your first bird-of-paradise in the flesh?
Yeah, that was in New Guinea many years ago. I was on a bird-watching trip and got some glimpses of birds-of-paradise from far away. It was exciting because they're one of the most beautiful birds, just incredibly colorful and they do very interesting displays, so I’ve always wanted to photograph them.
When I finally had the chance to go on a National Geographic assignment that I proposed to the magazine, I couldn’t wait to climb up there.
I waited patiently in my blind and then and then they came right in front of me, you know, just like 10 meters away and I had an amazing view. That was really cool, and knowing that very few people have seen them with their own eyes was a real privilege.
Is Alfred Russell Wallace an inspiration to your work?
Yes, Alfred Russell Wallace is one of my heroes that really inspired me to go to this part of the world. I read his book, The Malay Archipelago about his travels in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia, with the subtitle of the book being “Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird-of-Paradise”. So, he really focused on those two things and it's interesting that those two subjects became the biggest projects for my photographic career as well..
What’s the process of capturing the birds?
With most birds-of-paradise, the peak activity is in the early morning. I hike to the location, climb a tree if necessary, and get my cameras ready for the first morning light while it's still dark. I'm in the blind from around 6 am until 10 am. I might go back in the afternoon for a few hours if it is one of the species that is also active in the afternoon. In order to capture some good behavior from the birds and also have good light, it can often take a week or more at one location to get some decent shots.
A common question from your Instagram followers; is it dangerous being in the jungle?
It has its dangers, but I think most people that live in cities have an exaggerated sense of how dangerous it is. It's quite safe overall, and I think our chance of getting hit by a car in the city is greater than any accident in the rainforest. Things like falling trees, or tigers in Thailand or Bangladesh may be fatal but even they are mostly active at night. If you know what you're doing and where to go, you can be perfectly safe.
The traveling aspect can be dangerous. Poor vehicle quality, difficult roads in remote areas, things like that can be more dangerous than hiking through the jungle.
What is your career’s mission?
I definitely have a stronger sense of a mission at this point in my career. Early on, I was mostly motivated by exploring the world with my camera. This grew into a mission to help protect the planet and raise awareness about endangered species and compromised biodiversity, especially in endangered rainforest habitats. I especially work in areas like Indonesia and Malaysia in conservation efforts of all species that live there. And the same in New Guinea.
I'm working a lot recently in the big island of New Guinea which includes Papua New Guinea and West Papua part of Indonesia. That's the 3rd biggest intact rainforest in the world after the more famous ones in the Amazon and the Congo. It's forests are really important to protect the wildlife and for the sake of global climate change as a carbon store.
Thus one of my missions is to use the birds-of-paradise, which are the most charismatic and exciting species of birds in the region, as a flagship species to bring people's attention to protecting these rainforests. I’m working closely with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other partners in Indonesia to spread awareness and hopefully encourage governments to set aside protected areas, and so on.
The best way to learn more about conservation in the New Guinea region would be to go to our website at the Birds of Paradise Project.
What advice would you have for a budding photographer?
I usually tell budding photographers to find something that they can really dive into intensely. It doesn't have to be on the other side of the world, it could be in your backyard or a park or somewhere you can go to easily, spend a lot of time, and really hone your craft. Build a collection of images that's unique to you - your own style, your own take on a subject, and be critical of your own photography. Sift through and decide what's a good picture and what's not, and how you can improve every picture.
Even in my best pictures, I can still think of ways they could be improved slightly, maybe a little bit more light from this side or a small adjustment one way. Be critical of your own work and try to improve constantly. Just use whatever camera and locality you have access to and slowly build up your skills.
Why do you think photography is so important?
Photography is really important because people are not going to want to protect something that they don't know about. We're very visual animals, so photography and filming has a special way of sticking in your head, I would say still photography even more so than video. There are certain images that just get burned into your memory.
Do you have a favorite picture that you’ve captured?
It's hard to pick a favorite, but I think it comes down to the ones where I really was able to achieve something unique. This one of the Greater bird-of-paradise with the bird up on the branch in the foreground and the beautiful sunrise in the background is one my favorite pictures of all time. The Vogelkop Superb bird-of-paradise is also one of my favorites because that was such an exciting discovery; it is distinct from the other Superb bird-of-paradise that lives in the rest of New Guinea.
What are three key lessons you've learned in your life?
What comes to mind immediately is the need to pursue something that you're passionate about in order to have a fulfilling life. For me it was photography and science, and exploring the natural world. Try to find what really gets you excited.
Another thing that’s been very important for me is finding the right partner. Meeting my wife Cheryl not only gave me a life partner, but because of our common interests, we have a lot of overlap career-wise. She also wanted to study the rainforest, so we were able to form a partnership. She's a professor at Boston University now, and understands when I disappear in the field for certain periods of time because of the many years we spent together in the field when we were younger..
Lastly, having kids has been very satisfying for me. I have two children now, 19 and 22. Raising a family with this crazy career is not easy, but having a supportive partner has enabled us to take our kids with us out on the field whenever possible. During the summer break from school, we would go together to Indonesia ever since they were very small. They have also developed a love of travel and exploring the natural world. My son who studied marine biology is now working with me, sometimes on filming projects, and he's also a good photographer. My daughter is studying biology as well. They’re doing their own things, but I’m happy that my wife and I have been able to raise kids who share our passions.
So a big lesson I have learned that I’d like to share with others is that it is possible to find a way to pursue your passions without sacrificing more traditional values like having a family. In fact, sharing my love of exploring the natural world with my family has made it all the more satisfying for me.
Tim recently dropped by our office in Singapore to sign 2 copies of his book Bird Planet: A Photographic Journey by Tim Laman. We're offering 2 lucky winners a chance to win their very own signed copy! If you've purchased either batch #1 or batch #2 of the BOLDR Safari Vogelkop Superb, you'll receive a notification from us to be in the running.