Bird of Paradise, Indonesia, 2010

That shot was taken in a place called the Aru Islands, in Indonesia. I went there on a bit of a pilgrimage because Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary, had spent eight years in the Indonesian Archipelago. One of his main objectives as a collector of natural history specimens and an amateur scientist was to hunt birds of paradise. He journeyed to the Aru Islands because it was the source of the trader in birds of paradise, and he became the first western naturalist to observe birds of paradise displaying in the wild.

I thought it would be cool to go back to the same area, so I got in contact with the villagers, who agreed to take me to a tree where the greater bird of paradise displayed. There’s still a big problem with hunting. But these guys had decided to protect their patch of forest, hoping that tourists might come to see their birds. So, with their help, I climbed up an adjacent tree using a bow and arrow to shoot ropes up into the tree. They then helped me build a blind right across from the tree where the greater bird of paradise was displaying.

I would climb up in the dark, in the early morning, get into my blind and wait for it to get light, as the birds only display for a short time right around sunrise. I was about twenty feet away. This was a particularly nice morning with soft light and a tight frame, which I got using a telephoto lens.

What blows you away is the sheer beauty of these birds. Birds of paradise are an incredible representation of the amazing life forms we have on the planet. I want people to think, “Wow! We live on a planet with birds like this!”

Location: Wokam Island, Indonesia
Photograph Date: 2010
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200

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About the Photographer

Tim Laman

Tim Laman grew up in Japan, where he spent most of his time exploring the natural world. Biology was his first love, but he also used a camera to capture the creatures he was studying. Graduate work on the rainforest canopy in Borneo brought him to the attention of the National Geographic Society, and since then he has used photography to tell stories about Earth’s little-known and endangered species and places. From rainforests to coral reefs, Tim spends many months a year out in the wild documenting the biodiversity of Earth’s richest realms for National Geographic magazine and other top publications.

Q & A

You started as a rainforest biologist—how did that segue into a career as a photographer?

In Japan, where I grew up, there is a lot of nature close at hand. So I was able to spend my summers exploring the mountains and forests. That’s where I developed my interests in nature and the outdoors. I never thought about pursuing photography as career. I was interested in biology. But I took advantage of all the opportunities that field biology gave me to do research and take pictures.

My first connection with Nat Geo was through the grant program. I was doing graduate research on the rain forest canopy in Borneo, climbing trees to study strangler figs and associated wildlife. So I had a great opportunity to photograph wildlife from a unique perspective. When I got back I showed the editor my pictures. I didn’t get an assignment right away, but they liked my pictures enough to say, “If you’re going back to Borneo, we’ll give you free film and see if you can work on an article.” That became my first National Geographic story, published back in 1997.

What inspires you in your work, Tim?

Exploration. It goes back to when I was a kid and wanted to explore the forests in Japan. I’m still pretty much the same. I like going places where few people have been, documenting species that people don’t know that much about. That’s one reason I got so interested in birds of paradise. They are this famous group of birds that everybody’s heard of but that haven’t been well photographed.

One of my broader goals is to inspire people to care about wildlife and wild places, especially endangered species. I love exploring wild places and seeing rare species, but it wouldn’t be worth it if it were just for me. By partnering with Nat Geo, I can be the eyes for the world and tell these stories to a wider audience.

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