”Entwined Lives” – The Story Behind the Photo

An endangered young male Bornean Orangutan climbs over 30 meters up a tree deep in the rain forest of Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia (Island of Borneo).


In October 2016, it was my honor to win the “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” award with an image of an orangutan climbing a tree in Gunung Palung National Park entitled “Entwined Lives”. It’s been a few months now since the award, and I would like to share the story behind this image and what this image means to me.

As a wildlife photographer, it was of course a career highlight to win this award – the most prestigious in our field. But for me, it was particularly special because I made the image in Gunung Palung National Park (GP) in Indonesian Borneo. GP is a place that I have had a personal relationship with for nearly thirty years, since I first went there as a research assistant in 1987, and I care deeply about its conservation. Not only did I do my Ph.D. research at GP, but I also photographed my first National Geographic articles there. Not only that, but I am married to orangutan researcher Cheryl Knott, I have been going to GP with Cheryl (and more recently our kids) nearly every year to help with her ongoing orangutan research and conservation program (see www.saveGPorangutans.org). This picture is one of six photos of mine on the theme of orangutan conservation that won first prize in the Wildlife Photojournalism Story category of the competition. All six are now part of the traveling exhibition of the top 100 images that goes to sixty venues around the world. Thus, I am hoping that the exposure from winning this contest and the travelling exhibition will bring some positive attention worldwide to Gunung Palung and the plight of orangutans.

This image has a very unique perspective. In fact, people say they have never seen an orangutan picture like this ever before. So I thought I would take the chance to share what went into making this shot. I have actually had the idea of trying to photograph an orangutan up in the canopy with a wide lens for a long time. Gunung Palung has one of the very best remaining areas of lowland rainforest in Borneo, and intact primary forest is so important for orangutans. I wanted to capture a photograph that really showed the orangutan in the forest it depends on, and convey that feeling of the connection between them.

But getting a camera into position to get this shot was a challenge! This is a wild orangutan and would never tolerate me up in a tree near him. So the only way to get a photo like this is to use a hidden remote camera. The problem is, orangutans are not that predictable and travel through hundreds of different trees in the forest every week. So as I followed orangutans from the ground with Cheryl and her team, I was always looking for the right situation to try this. The only thing somewhat predictable about orangutan ranging is that if there is a tree with a lot of fruit in it, they may visit it several times over multiple days. My hope for getting a shot like this was to find such a tree and then climb and set up remote cameras when the orangutan had left, and hope he or she would come back. Luckily, I had developed the skills to do this as part of my PhD fieldwork in Gunung Palung between 1990-1992 on strangler fig trees, when I did a lot of tree climbing for my research. It was then that I perfected my techniques for rigging ropes in trees and climbing them with rope-ascending equipment, and these skills have been part of my “tools of the trade” as a rain forest wildlife photographer ever since. In fact, soon after I started doing serious wildlife photography from up in trees in the 1990’s I had the idea of photographing a wild orangutan close-up with a wide lens and even carried out some failed early attempts in 1994. So my recent efforts are the result of dreaming about such a shot and mentally planning it for 20+ years.

In 2014, when I arrived at Gunung Palung, one of Cheryl’s students, Robert Rodriguez Suro, had found a good fruiting Chaetocarpus tree that orangutans were repeatedly visiting. I climbed it with ropes and mounted two DSLR’s cameras, hidden in camouflage, and then we had a long stake-out. Every day for about a week, I would climb the tree early in the morning and put out the cameras with fresh cards and batteries. Then photographer Trevor Frost, who was assisting me at the time, waited under that tree for orangutans to show up while I was following and photographing other orangutans elsewhere in the forest. I think Trevor read a lot of books that week while he waited! We had a number of opportunities when orangutans showed up, and Trevor fired the cameras with a radio control. But things didn’t go perfectly. We had range problems with our signals reaching up into the dense canopy so the cameras wouldn’t always fire. And the orangutans seemed to spot the cameras and take circuitous routes into the tree and avoid passing near the camera. Every night, I would climb the tree again and recover the cameras, and see if we had anything on the cards.

All that effort produced one shot that was “almost” there, of a female orangutan named Jumi passing pretty close to the camera one day. The shot (see below) really had that feel I wanted of being up in the canopy with the orangutan, but unfortunately, her face wasn’t visible, and the orangutan was not quite close enough, so it just didn’t quite work. I knew, however, that the concept was viable after this experience, and was determined to keep trying. I just needed the perfect tree, and cameras that were better hidden.



In 2015, we were back in Gunung Palung, and this time, the orangutan, Walimah, led me to an even better tree, the one where I finally got the shot I had dreamed of. It was an Artocarpus tree with a strangler fig (Ficus stupenda) growing on it. The fig tree had a large crop of ripe fruit that had attracted Walimah. She was soon followed by a young male named Ned, so there were two of them in the tree feeding. This tree was unique, because its crown was not touching any other neighboring trees, so the only way an orangutan could get to the fruit was to cross over from a small tree to the lower trunk of the tree, and then climb up the fig roots into the canopy. Perfect. When I saw the orangutan do this, I knew this was the best chance yet to get my shot. When the orangutans left after that first feeding session, I rigged a rope and climbed the tree and prepared camera positions. This time, I decided to use small GoPro cameras that were easier to hide, and could be controlled by wifi from the ground. For the next three days, I climbed the tree several times a day. Putting cameras out pre-dawn, and recovering them later. Walimah and Ned both visited each of those days, so I had a few chances to get the shot I wanted.

To get the prize-winning still image that appears here, I used the time-lapse mode on the GoPro, shooting two frames per second when the orangutan arrived and started climbing up the tree capturing a series of images as the orangutan approached and passed the camera position. Many of them were blurred, and on some visits, the orangutans climbed around the back of the trunk out of sight of the camera. But one of the frames, just as the young male Ned passed near the camera, captured the perfect moment of an orangutan in his element.

I like the title “Entwined Lives” for this image, and I have Roz Kidman Cox to thank for that as she came up with it. For me, it captures my goal to show the connection and interdependence of species in the rain forest. The fig tree depends on its host tree for support – the orangutan depends on the fig tree for food – and by analogy of course, they depend on the entire forest ecosystem. I do believe that photographs can have an impact on people’s appreciation of and understanding of nature, and I hope people will realize before it is too late, how much our human lives are “entwined” with nature on this planet.

[ To learn more about orangutan conservation and research at Gunung Palung and what you can do to help, check out Cheryl Knott’s website at www.saveGPorangutans.org]


Get the Story Behind Tim’s World Press Photo Win

Recently at the World Press Photo awards in Amsterdam, Tim talked about the difficulties of photographing Orangutans in the wild and the conservation issues that face them.  See his interview below.

Tim’s story ‘Tough Times for Orangutans’ won 1st place in the nature stories category of the World Press Photo awards this year.

World Press Photo Win

Tim’s orangutan story has won 1st prize for the Nature Stories category in the 2016 World Press Photo Contest!  You can see his winning story “Tough Times for Orangutans” on the World Press Photo website.


The lives of wild orangutans are brought to light. Threats to these orangutans from fires, the illegal animal trade and loss of habitat due to deforestation have …

Wild Planet Interview


While in London, Tim was interviewed by Wild Planet about winning the portfolio award in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.  The article features 14 questions and all 6 winning images.

2014 – It’s Been Quite a Year!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, Explorer’s Club membership, and a Canon exhibit and ad campaign make for a banner year.

Fieldwork is what I am all about…. Field research and exploration, and spending many months in the wild corners of the planet seeking those elusive, story-telling images of rare species and wild landscapes. This year was no exception, with a lot of field time on my “Documenting Orangutan Diversity” project in Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as shooting in some other locations such as the Maldives, the Sierra Nevada range, and China.

But as the year wraps up, I also realize that it has been a very special year for me. It’s very rewarding when all the hard work in the field yields not only published photos and articles, but also other types of exposure and recognition. These were some of the special highlights of 2014:

Canon’s 100 Million lenses campaign: As Canon reached the major landmark of producing their 100 Millionth lens, they created a print ad campaign in Japan that featured my Greater Bird-of-Paradise image and a shot of me with my camera up in the canopy in the New Guinea rain forest. I have been an enthusiastic user of Canon equipment for over three decades, so it was a great feeling to be selected to represent all the Canon photographers out there and the Canon brand for this ad.


This ad ran in Japanese newspapers as a double spread, featuring Tim Laman and his Greater Bird-of-Paradise image.

This ad ran in Japanese newspapers as a double spread, featuring Tim Laman and his Greater Bird-of-Paradise image.


The Explorer’s Club: As I combine video shooting on Canon DSLR’s more and more with my still photography, it was a milestone for me to receive my first filmmaking award at a film festival in January. We won the “Best Exploration Film” at the New York Wild Film Festival. The Festival was held at the famous Explorer’s Club in New York, and led to opportunities to meet many members and see the club. Subsequently, I was nominated and accepted for membership in the Explorer’s Club, which I am very excited about. I look forward to opportunities to meet more of the renowned explorer’s who are involved with this club, and to continue to make expeditions in the spirit of exploration the club represents.


Explorer's Club Flag



Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award: I’ve been entering photos in this granddaddy of all wildlife photography competitions for nearly twenty years. It is without a doubt the premier competition of its kind in the world. While at least ten of my images have received honors over the years, I had never one a major category or award. So it was a real career high point when my portfolio of six Birds-of-Paradise images won the new Portfolio Award category.


Tim poses with his six winning images in the Portfolio category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, on display in the Natural History Museum, London.

Tim poses with his six winning images in the Portfolio category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year, on display in the Natural History Museum, London.


Canon Gallery Exhibit: In January, my year started out with a real milestone. Something I had dreamed about since I was a kid visiting Canon photo galleries in Tokyo. I had my own exhibit of my Birds-of-Paradise work shown in the Canon S Gallery at Canon Marketing Japan headquarters in Shinagawa, Tokyo. It was a thrill to see this childhood fantasy come true, and to spend time in Tokyo, giving a lecture to accompany the exhibit.


Poster for Tim Laman's Bird of Paradise photography exhibit in Tokyo at the Canon Gallery S

Poster for Tim Laman’s Bird of Paradise photography exhibit in Tokyo at the Canon Gallery S



Meeting Sir David Attenborough: It’s pretty exciting when you get to meet a long-time hero and inspirational figure like Sir David. It was a real pleasure and an honor for Ed Scholes and me to meet Sir David in Bristol, UK this past April to work on a film project together. With our common interest in Birds-of-Paradise, we hit it off immediately. The film will be out in early 2015, so stay tuned!


Edwin Scholes, Sir David Attenborough and Tim Laman outside the BBC studios in Bristol.  It was an honor and a pleasure to meet Sir David a fellow fan of Birds-of-Paradise, and collaborate with him on a film coming out in Jan 2015.

Edwin Scholes, Sir David Attenborough and Tim Laman outside the BBC studios in Bristol. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet Sir David a fellow fan of Birds-of-Paradise, and collaborate with him on a film coming out in Jan 2015.


2014 is going to be hard to beat, but here’s to 2015!


Highly Honored Winner in Nature’s Best Competition

Lesser Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea minor) male displaying high in the rain forest canopy at his display site (lek).

Lesser Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea minor) male displaying high in the rain forest canopy at his display site (lek).

Tim has  been highly honored in the Birds Category of Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards 2013.  His picture of the displaying lesser bird-of-paradise captured the attention of the judges.  This picture was taken in the Vogelkop Peninsula in West Papua, Indonesia.  The winning images will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. this fall.

“Best Exploration Film” winner at the New York Wild Film Festival

Our short Bird of Paradise film called “Paradise Found”, shot by Tim Laman, Ed Scholes and Eric Liner, and produced/edited by Tom Swartwout won the category “Best Exploration Film”.  It was a real honor and thrill to attend the festival this past weekend in New York City at the famed Explorer’s Club.

New York Wild Film Festival logo

New York Wild Film Festival logo

Here is the TRAILER for the festival, which gives you a great overview of the films we saw last Saturday.  You’ll see glimpse of Tim rappelling and birds of paradise performing in the reel.

Go to the festival WEBSITE to see the trailers for the individual films and learn more about the winning films.

1st Place in the World’s Rarest Birds

Tim won first place in the World’s Rarest Birds competition.  His photo of the Marquesan Imperial-pigeon won 1st place in the Endangered category.

1st Place Winner - The Marquesan Imperial-pigeon

1st Place Winner – The Marquesan Imperial-pigeon


This image, along with other of Tim’s images, have been published in the book The World’s Rarest Birds by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash, and Robert Still.  You can see the story, along with the other winners, by the Huffington Post.



Highly Honored in Nature’s Best

Striped Triplefins


In the 2012 Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice International Awards, this picture of two striped triplefins resting on the surface of a sponge was highly honored in the category, Small World.  An exhibition of the winning images will be on display in the National Museum of Natural History starting June 2013.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The Paper-clip SuitorLast week the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition anounced the 2011 winners.  Tim’s picture, “The paper-clip suitor”, was Highly Commended in the Bird Behaviour category.  You can see Tim’s image with the description, comments, and can cast your vote for your favorite picture on the Natural History Museum’s website.