Singapore, the educated and sophisticated one out of this awesomely unruly family of countries known as Southeast Asia, is the central hub, literally by location, which is obvious from the air as the amount of ships you see colliding into everlasting high rises is certainly impressive. I came here for a job interview and to photograph the Elephant Parade, not as exciting as it sounds as it’s an art show of painted Elephant statues scattered around the city, not a stimulating Asian Parade even I was hoping for. But the show gave a lot of meaning to my never-ending walkabouts during my three days here in Singapore. In my mind it became a hunt for my next favorite photographing target, as each one was very unique in color, theme, and placement. After being displayed for months around the world, ultimately adding awareness to Asia’s Elephant crisis, the art is then auctioned off with proceeds helping to fund Asian Elephant Conservation.
Life is good in Singapore. It is shockingly clean, efficient, strangely controlled for such a huge city, and obviously flooded with wealth. My theory is that the wealthy from China and India have migrated here, because they can escape their old overcrowded cities. Opportunity is at its’ peak for their next generation, and the shopping is endless. I had a meeting with one of Singapore’s top modeling agency’s that would have been a great opportunity as clothing and marketing is a huge business here, but I canceled after my second day here. Blessed are they who call the city/ country Singapore home, but it’s not mine. I need some grime, edge, and diversity in my life, so I looked at a map. Bordering to the north of me now is Malaysia, a blossoming peninsula where you can taste the old, and the new Asia, and all of its’ people at one bus stop. And surrounding in the south lies the rebellious brother of islands, Indonesia, my new personal infatuation.
Indonesia has by far some of the most bio diverse and resourceful forests and seas on planet earth, yet the country’s people struggle immensely. For years I have studied and read of the conflicts of preservation inside a third world country. It is one thing to preserve a natural environment in a land with the support of tourism and the government, but here from the island of Sumatera, I write of a different ball game. To compete for the livelihood of some of the worlds most amazing and yet desired creatures; the Sumateran Tiger, Clouded leopard, Orangutan, Elephant, and Rhino just to name a few, is a game of hard ball, with no rules and corrupt officials calling the shots. Most visitors are attracted to the island of Bali, where you can check into the comforts of a western resort yet feel the power of separation from your familiar world. But traveling across Sumatera for me is proving to be everything but the comforts of America. That’s ok though, as I am not searching for rest, or even another human being. I am here to see for myself what the Sumateran Tiger is up against, and hope to photograph a primary Sumateran Jungle and life within it. So here I go, through heaven and hell in 6 days.
Early this morning I begin my journey from the glamorous district of Raffles in Singapore city to the ferry station. As I step off the bus I remind myself to have no expectations, Que Sera Sera, as it is not in my control. Remember though, disappointment is. My first boat ride is more like a cruise around Manhattan. I admire the city skyline and for the first time see the humungous water front homes, suburbs Singapore style I guess. It’s a Saturday and I quickly learn that one’s first stop into Indonesian territory, the island of Batam, has become a weekend getaway for golfers and beach goers for their wealthy neighbors. Singaporeans don’t need a visa to enter Indonesia, but as an American, I do. Of course at the moment I don’t know this as I wait in the long line, obliviously watching the one boat for the day steam off to Sumatera, not knowing It’s my ride into the land of destination but I don’t bother, as Batam is inevitably becoming a part of my expedition. Eventually a lady in uniform notices me, I’m guessing because I look different then every one else around, and pulls me out of line and shows me to my line, or lack of. I made an easy transaction to pay for a seven- day entry into Indonesia, got my stamp and turned the corner to be bombarded by taxi drivers. I don’t want a taxi, I want a boat to Sumatera but after the third guy had told me it had just left, I believed them. At this point and from now on in Indonesia, I will be forced to believe in the people in my face, as I really have no other option. I will be lied to, cheated, harassed, judged, appreciated, and comforted; and I will come out powerfully alive, stronger and smarter then I’ve ever been.
After accepting my fate here in honestly unappealing to me, Batam, only because I know the show put on inside these tourist pockets in undeveloped countries, and that’s not why I’m here. I choose one of the lesser aggressive taxi drivers and pull him away from the crowd. He whips out a weathered map of the island and points to the furthest symbol, as I predicted. But no, I don’t want a beach resort on the other side of the island, take me to the local town, into the grime, and maybe I’ll see through the curtains. After a long sob story from the driver on how my money is big and his is little, a speech I’m over after being in South East Asia for three months, I check into a little diamond in the rough hotel, well at least it seemed like one to me at the moment. It was the only hotel amongst this trashed mini city, built for businessmen passing through. My latest bed was a cot on top of a roof in downtown Singapore, so a big bed, a TV, my own shower, and air con felt nice, but I had a hard time accepting it when there are kids begging in the streets. It was pouring rain and I had nowhere else to go, and I was in no position to be wandering this neighborhood with a laptop and camera, so I took it. Tonight I had dinner in the market with fellow Indonesians. They were so kind and patient with me, as I have to start all over again learning the ways of a new culture. They showed me what to eat and how to eat it, and in exchange I posed for pictures with them on their camera phones. Good times.
Morning came quick by the knocking of yesterday’s cab driver on my door at 6:00 am. He knew I needed an early ride, and he needed money, smart man. “Ok, give me five to pack while you go downstairs and eat my continental breakfast, but I get the coffee and then we go.” A good by, thank you, and happy Sunday and I am steaming up the Siak River, straight into the heart of the Island of Sumatera. Not much too see for the ignorant eye, but I notice everything I have read about. Logging villages and unnatural flora that have replaced mangrove swamps, rocking in our wake and in the wake from the occasional suspicious speedboat, which got my brain thinking. What’s under that tarp? What’s in that cage? Why are the only hardwood trees I see, on barges? And why is every one staring at me? I can take the staring, and the discreet photos taken of me that I see from the corner of my eye, only because they lose interest after a minute and give-way to the next person to witness the American guy on board. But this one guy bothered me. He obviously had more money then most as I could tell from his college boy appearance, about my age, way cleaner cut and dressed then I, but so blatantly creepy as he watched me. Eventually I got up and confronted him, gave him an ear full and turned to walk away just as he says,” I’m sorry I don’t mean to.” I stopped and thought; oops he understood what I said? I looked at him, smiled to let him know no worries and went up to the deck.
The questions start up again with the smokers on deck, but I like it, as I am just as fascinated by them as they are with me. They gave me exactly what I was searching for on this boat, a sense of alliance, and a cigarette. They remind me of my brothers back at the Elephant Hospital in northern Thailand, and I am instinctively drawn to them.
The boat stops in a town that I have no idea what it’s called, and as I walk through the crowd of friends and families, I suddenly become the one staring with envy. Amongst all the bumps and pushes I get during the cluster I recognize a gentle tap on my shoulder and I turn around, it was college boy. He asks me the infamous question, “Where do you go?” I answered honestly, ” I don’t know, ” and he offers a ride to Pekanbaru. I never heard of it but ok sure. We bypass the tiny busses that look cartoonish, almost like they are Venice Beach leftovers from the sixties, and approach a black SUV with leather seats and air-con, really? His brother greets him, introduces himself to me, helps me with my bags and we take off on a 5 hour journey up a dirt road, in class.
I am in and out of conversation, some sleep, and stare out the window drugging myself by watching rows and rows of the devastating and infamous to environmentalist palm oil plantations, as they blur by me. Even so, I can’t stop smiling as I vision myself from above. I may not feel a part of a community right now, which seems to be what most people naturally want, but I feel a part of this ENTIRE PLANET. The world is my home, and ya’ll are my brothers and sisters.
I get dropped off at a hotel in Pekanbaru, another Sumateran slummy city, but they are suddenly full after showing my passport. Confused at what just happened, I still got the hint to move on so I pick up all 7 of my little inconvenient yet entertaining bags, and walk across the street through the mud to the other hotel. I check out the businessmen drinking whisky and smoking in the lounge but go straight to the front desk hoping to check in. It was a bit pricey, although everything seemed expensive at this point because I haven’t adapted to the high numbers when using Indonesian Rupees, 1$ = 10,000 Rupees. I talked him down to 200,000 Rupees from 300,000 and scored another big bed, TV with HBO in English, and a hot shower. Still raining and more numb to the mess outside, I don’t even care to explore, mostly because of the pollution. I grabbed a glass of whiskey to go from the bar and spent the night watching a movie filmed in Savannah, my birth- place, writing this story, and researching tiger reserves on Sumatera, trying to figure out my next move. I decided to reach out to other conservationists on the island, and sleep on it.
Good morning Sumatera, as I stare outside my window searching for a sign, but I can hardly even see the equatorial sunrays breaking through the air pollution. With a Muslim Masjid (house of prayer) next door and their morning rituals, I listen through the smog and recognize my sense of higher power, and crack my smile. I have not heard back from any Tiger projects (But I do later and develop an exciting relationship) and although I had been thinking of Kerinci National Park in West Sumatera, at the moment of truth at the bus station I impulsively decide to buy a ticket to Medan, the gateway city to northern Sumatera. I am greeted yet again by hustling ticket salesmen; but now I know I need them to get anywhere. I have two options to get to Medan, leave at 11:00 am or 6:00 pm at night, the day trip being more expensive. I tend to travel through the night, which saves a couple bucks and the hassle of finding a place to crash, this way I can just keep rolling straight to my destination, which is now Gunung Leuser National Park. The guys tell me that both busses arrive at 7:00 am, which ended up being a total lie and making no sense but I didn’t realize it at the time, probably because I don’t even recognize reality anymore. I ended up taking the 11:00am bus, as there was nothing really to do or explore around the station except pose for pictures and eat more street food. So whatever, lets just keep moving.
I actually prefer the local buses all over Asia and stay away from tourist transportation, as you can learn a lot by sharing a moving room with the indigenous for hours on end. Although never convenient, they are always way more entertaining. We spend the day bumping along the dirt roads, blaring cheesy music videos and passing snacks up and down the isles.
The kids keep me distracted by peaking around the corner to look at me and giggle, otherwise I would be frustrated by the chopped down forests and never ending palm oil plantations out my window. I am on day three, constantly moving, and have yet to see any trees other than palms. So sad! I am confused as somebody is making a ton of money, and it’s definitely not the people, but huge Corporations. Most of Sumatera is now covered in Palm and Coffee Plantations and since the discovery of palm seed oil’s use for cooking and chocolates and many house hold items; it has changed the topography of these islands, and Brazil, forever. And even soon prove to change the weather patterns through out the planet. Even at this point, if we used an alternative source the soil now lacks the nutrition to support such flora diversity as it once did, which naturally came from rotting vegetation high up in the canopy, eventually falling to the ground, inducing the new growth by passing on essential nutrients. In effect, Indonesia is now a much dryer and hotter region, as the palms soak up to 40 L of water/ per day/ per palm, leaving little for other living things including humans. Their leaves are also almost worthless when it comes to filtering carbon and producing oxygen, hence the heat and pollution. It was an irresponsible decision that will even prove fatal to human life, as it has been for wildlife, I am sure of it.
The suns sets and we pull over for dinner, family style. I buy desserts to pass around to make up for being so unprepared for the smorgasbord party earlier this afternoon. Back on the bus I drift off to sleep, but am woken by my discomfort. My head is pounding, my nose is running, and my throat is soar, which can probably be explained by all guys smoking on the bus. But never mind that, why am I so cold on the equator? I am in for a long night as we climb the hills on bumpy dirt roads, dodging head on collisions with logging trucks. I’m feeling sad right now, but I like the way it hurts. My fever has started to mess with mind and I start to hallucinate. I even wonder if I have Malaria? Just as I had found a quiet space in my mind and in my heart, the bus stops in Medan, and its 3 am. I swallow my tears, grab my bags and find a corner to curl up in, soon to be joined by others, which comforts me enough to relax, and drift off to sleep.
I am awaken the moment the sun breaks the surface by Muslim prayer over intercom. Did you know that Muslims pray to Allah over the intercom the second the sun appears? The reason being is so the prayer can make its way and be heard revolving entirely around the world. The prayer sounds dark, intense, and beautiful at the same time. I believe prayer should be cheerful at times, but there is something about the recognition of the most powerful and almighty that we owe our lives and sacrifice to that can lure me in, and darkness can sometimes be a way of expressing your intense emotions, even for LOVE.
I got up and sleep walked my way to the sound of the prayer, curious to where it was coming from. It ended before I could find it, and it was then I actually woke up in a dark corner surrounded by broken down busses. Disoriented and a bit scared, I snap out of it and realize I left my bags at the bus station so I ran, grabbed and left. I am so sick at this point that I don’t even care to move on, I just want a shower and a bed so I got a ride with a guy and a motor bike and drove through the city of Medan, a trip that I swear took a year off my life. Gushing through stagnant puddles and clouds of exhaust he finally turned into a hotel, where I am denied a room.
That’s it! Take me somewhere to catch a ride out of here, I will never feel better as long as I am in Medan. We arrive at a corner where a mini bus awaits, my bags are transferred behind my back, I jump in the over crowded van and sit down next to Hasam, my new and needed friend. He spoke English, was my age, and lived in a small village called Bukit Lawuang or “ Gateway to Jungle,” and I’m going with him. In that one moment of transfer my world changed. Crazy cool how this never would’ve happened if I hadn’t been denied a room. I am certainly not ever alone, and neither are you. Trust in your destiny.
As we leave the city I start to enjoy my surroundings as the crowds turn into scattered villages and stop- lights change to lazy cows lying in the road. They make me laugh because when you honk at them to move they are like, “whaaat? What do you want from meeeee?”-cow. Or maybe I’m just still hallucinating? I try to stop myself from closing my eyes, as I don’t want to miss this, so I turn to Hasam to express to him how much I need to go into the Jungle. We share a bit about each other and talk about the Jungle like total Nature Junkie’s, up until I literally start to slur my words. He looks into my eyes and says, Michael you need rest and when you are well I will take you into the Jungle, I promise. That is all I needed to hear, as I was not going to rest until I had made it. At this point I felt close enough.
I do remember waking up once during the trip to a road- block. Through my blurry eyes I saw the police collect money from the driver, but I am not positive this wasn’t a dream.
A few hours later, but felt like a few minutes to me, Hasam woke me up to get off the bus. I sleep crawl my way out, probably making a scene, while Hasam grabs a motorbike from behind a house. I step off the bus and straight onto the back of the bike as If I had made this trip all my life. I remember resting my face on Hasam’s shoulder, inhaling the fresh air blowing into me and staring into the dream world just beyond me, Sumateran jungle covered mountains within my reach, although still a blur. He drops me off at his Uncles little guest house and I crash inside what looks and feels like a giant chicken coop, surrounded by real chicken coops. He says, “ shower and sleep my friend, I’ll see you soon.”
The rest of the day and night I weathered through my fever with sleep, a brutally cold dip in the river, shaking, and even moaning. The intense aching had dug its way deep into my bones, but eventually I woke back up drenched in sweat. My fever had broken and whatever toxin it was, my body had successfully killed.
This morning I woke up able to actually acknowledge where I was on this planet, now that I am back to normal, well for me. I don’t have the energy to trek the jungle yet but I want it back, so I delegate my day to clearing my mind and regaining my strength. I spend my day resting by the river, writing, and eating the same vitamin c packed fruits as the monkeys high in the canopy on the other side. I dream about tigers and imagine seeing the contrast of bright orange stripes, alive with muscle definition, appear from the great wall of green lush.
Hasam finds me lounging and immediately feels my forehead and ties a strip of bark around my head from the same tree wild Elephants seek out to eat when they are ill. All better now, we make our plans to go up into the mountains the next morning and camp over night. He is getting a group together of some cousins and a couple other travelers, guys my age from the UK. This is going to rock my world!
I know that my chances of seeing a Sumateran tiger are slim, even though the country hosts the second largest remaining wild tiger population, but still its not that many. As elusive as they are, what was thought to be around 300 wild tigers on Sumatera has recently been pushed up to approximately 700, with the use of new data collecting practices such as trip cams, or cameras in the wild that take a photograph when triggered by motion sensors, revealing many secrets of the jungle including poachers. There are three subspecies of tiger in Indonesia, the Javan, Balinese, and Sumateran, all which have evolved differently to adapt specifically to their unique island environment. Man has hunted the Javan and Balinese Tiger into extinction over the past 100 years, and if it weren’t for some desperate conservation efforts from some incredible people, the Sumateran would have shared the same fate. The actual size of the island bought the tiger some time while anti- poaching efforts and tiger reserves were put into action before the Tiger snares were planted in the depths of the jungle. The Sumateran tiger is smaller and slimmer than their enormous cousins from India, The Bengal Tiger. The reason being is India is a land of mixed scrub, forests, hills and meadows. The Bengal tiger benefits from growing to 500 lbs, as it will have no problem navigating through those forests, and need every ounce of that weight to take down much larger prey such as water buffalo. This has also benefited the Bengal tiger, as the only thing saving it now is the price change from a dead tiger skin for decoration and bones for traditional Chinese medicine is no match for the ongoing income of tourism, as here in the open meadows of India, visitors are able to observe the Tiger in the wild from a top an Elephant.
The Sumateran tiger is nearly impossible to find in its’ element, almost ghost like. It easily maneuvers unseen through the almost impenetrable forests here using its slender body, narrow stripes, and darker complexion becoming one amongst the millions of shadows beneath the canopy. I have had a relationship with a Sumateran Tiger named Harri, when I was working as a zookeeper in Australia in my early 20’s. He became an obsession to me, and I loved nothing more then watching him eat and talking about him to visitors. I can smell him to this day, and still get chills when I recall hearing him crush bone as he feeds. Thank you for your presence here on earth Harri, and our unnatural relationship. You are the ultimate in my eyes.
Harri, male Sumateran Tiger- Cairns Wildlife Safari Reserve in Australia 2006
Hasam and his cousins claim to have only seen a tiger once, even spending their entire lives in and out of the reserve. I have traveled a long way and I do desperately desire the site of a wild tiger forever fixed in my brain. But there is a moment here at the beginning of our trek when I realize, I am completely ok with letting it go. The thought that I may be trekking the same ground and climbing the same tree as a wild Tiger has before, and will after me blesses me with a tranquil thrill that I can hold on to forever. I respect their space and encourage them to disappear at the faintest scent or sound of man. This isn’t a month long excursion in search of the wild tiger with National Geographic, as much as I would like it to be and can envision it in my dreams. This is a camping trip in the jungle with some buddy’s that ends up being exceptionally special.
So I let go of my annoyance of the loud mouth Englishmen who may scare away wildlife, and let myself laugh. The jokes are shallow and stupid, but most are I guess. I still plan on Jungle talk with Hasam, but bar talk every once and a while does help relieve your fired up muscles in your legs on this treacherous climb. Ben is the chatty one, a hilarious college rich boy from London whose father sent him away to wake the hell up. And Sebastion, also from London but now lives in Malaysia and works as a cameraman for films. Many films are shot there due to low cost yet access to resources. He’s a bit more mature, super cool and likeable to all. I joke around and have fun being in the contrast of Indonesian jungle boys and western world whatevers, but I also take this on as a challenge to photograph wildlife, as we are predicting to see primates in this shaded green ecosystem orbiting my life today. I am inside a primary Sumateran Jungle and I am equipped with my trusty Nikon D80, my 18-55 mm standard lens and a 300 mm zoom lens, an eye for movement, a sense for presence, and a kind heart that means no harm.
Photography is a pure gift to man, from man, but inspired by nature. The digital world these days has made it recreational for anyone with a few hundred dollars. Not only does it bring family, friends, and lovers closer to each other, but also connects us with other life through out our planet. On a different level, for the super creative minds, photography can even enable you to develop your own visions inside your own fantasy. My mind, my eyes, my camera, and this world, all combined, are a powerful tool that will enlighten my entire life, and today I use it to share a dreamy world, with you.
My first animal encounter certainly gave me my first challenge. That is unless you count already being camera ready in hand while trying to climb wet prehistoric root systems covered in slippery fungus. I am able to switch to my zoom lens while using my legs to keep up as my eyes stay locked on my target, a rare White Gibbon. Gibbons are known to be the athletes of the canopies. I picture the proof as I witness him traveling through the trees at speeds unmatched by any other life in the natural world. They have a special ball and socket wrist that enables them to swing amongst branches almost effortlessly, a long with all the typical adaptations of arboreal animals such as huge hands, long and strong arms, short legs, and forward facing eyes that help judge distances accurately. This guy is on the move, defiantly camera shy, and for what little time I have before he disappears I was able to get one shot that satisfies me. It is certainly no submission to photo of the month for Nat Geo, but it does show the acrobatic primate in his element, not in a zoo, and that’s an awesome start.
We are on the move again, just like all creatures of the jungle in search of their next treat from mother- nature. My search, like the tiger, is the animals themselves. There are Orangutans in this forest and if they are around, I believe can be easily noticed as I predict to see and hear the trees snap, fold, and shake in the distance. I am a good trekker and can tackle obstacles and climb trees with little attention, which gives me time to reflect and think about other things while moving and watching. The Gibbon was the perfect preparation that I needed, and he got me thinking like a wildlife photographer.
In my mind I go through certain skills and factors to consider while photographing in this environment, which can be overwhelming in contrast to a camera and confusing to your focus. To get the typically appealing photograph of an arboreal animal (one who lives in trees), first you will need the right equipment. I have and love my Nikon D80 and am excited for the opportunity to use my zoom lens as I have been carrying it around South East Asia but only once had the chance to use it, when Lamae and Bobo got in a fight I wanted to capture the sadness yet still give them space (below), but everything else was within my reach. Today will be its time to shine.
People and galleries want to see a picture from the Apes perspective, high up in the trees in their world. I get it, as a platform high up in the canopy and a harness and rope and some luck, you are sure to be rewarded. But I am not equipped with this sort of sponsorship, yet, so I will have to be creative to ensure I am not sharing a dictionary photo with you. We all know what an Orangutan looks like, but we want to know what they feel like, ya?
A couple hours pass and I think back upon my long fishing days. I have learned the laws of Nature from animals, whether a fish or a tiger. Which brings us to my second skill, Patience- not only a law of nature but when perfected, becomes a virtue. It is way easier to master this in a jungle rather then a human’s world. This is also a focus in Buddhism, which was derived from their harmonious friendship with animals. In such a resourceful setting, if you wait long enough your prize will eventually come to you. Predators such as Leopards practice this. They are ambush hunters and patiently wait hidden in the trees for their prey to come to them. This is not the case in lets say Africa when a herd of dehydrated Elephants race across a desert to reach a water hole or else they all perish. You don’t get much time when you weigh over a ton, but nature has blessed them with some of the world’s strongest senses that can detect water below them and far away in the distance. Isn’t Nature fascinating!
We catch a stroke of luck as expected this far away from the village, an Orangutan nest. This does not mean the Orangutan who built this nest is still here or anywhere near, but to me it is proof they do still exist in this ecosystem. Tracking an Orangutan by acknowledging a nest can be foolish. They are total Gypsy’s who usually just throw together some branches as the sun sets, a place to call home for a night high up in the canopy. It is short lived, as it’s merely a bed simply for rest before venturing off again the next morning in search of their next gift from the jungle, a lifestyle I relate to.
I study the nest in awe of their intelligence, and understand how easily it must have come to them just as you and I making our own bed. The branches chosen make the perfect frame on top of the sturdy base, and the giant leaves just above are not coincidental as they shelter them from the nightly rains. Orangutans are known to use tools, and have even been observed carrying around Elephant Ear leaves as an umbrella, and frequently use twigs and sticks to jab into termite holes and bee hives, slurping up their treat and satisfying their craving for protein. They share 96.4% of our genetic make up, a traight not only proven scientifically but obvious to any one who has taken a moment to look one in the eyes. The name Orangutan has nothing to do with their stunning orange color, it means “people of the forest,” derived from indigenous language long ago. This all comes back to me from my studies at University and I become exceedingly excited for my first encounter with a Wild Orangutan.
My tribe is starting to slack, now I’m actually considering stamina to be my third skill, and time is now of the essence as the mountains are literally trembling from invisible storms developing around us. And my greatest companion, the sun, is abandoning us. We decide to refresh in a stream and let the others rest, as Hasam and I detour through the thicket calling out to our people of the forest.
Suddenly, Hasam freezes and I instinctively imitate. There she was, and there they are. Orangutans are thought to be solitary creatures, usually only witnessed together with their young. But I am certainly feeling blessed as I make eye contact with two adult females, one on each side of me, their youngins dangling close by. Surprisingly after all this, I wait to start shooting even though I have been camera ready all day for this moment. With in their eyes, I can tell they are not afraid of me and don’t plan on swinging away, so I take the time to comfort them back, showing them submission with my body movements. Hasam goes and gets the others and I am left alone in a Sumateran Jungle amongst four wild Orangutans hovering over me. WHOA!
Soon I embrace this moment through my lens, and have the time of my life with it! I tackle similar challenges as the Gibbon earlier as I am still beneath them separated by leaves and branches, only this time my subject is much larger, there are more of them, they are closer, and in no hurry. My friends and I have always preferred using outdoor natural lightening during photo shoots back in Los Angeles, but this is becoming way more difficult to work with than the California sun. The sunlight is broken up into millions of shades, casting heaps of sharp shadows over the Great Apes, a look I am rarely satisfied with, except in these two moments.
One of the most important things to remember when photographing is to always move around. Right now I am not truly satisfied with my angle as the sun is behind them, which can be cool sometimes, but I want to show you their face. There are just too many branches between us, I need to adapt to their world, and quick. If I can go underneath them and climb up that hill with out disturbing them I can zoom in on them at their same level. I make my move, a smart one for sure. The bright auburn color of these creatures against the juvenile leaves blooming all around is phenomenal. Interesting how when beneath them, they can appear completely unnoticed to a tiger or a clouded leopard if they wait it out quietly, posing as a dark blob while the beast passes by, a lifesaving adaptation as both predators are excellent tree climbers.
In an arboreal world though, with other Orangutans, monkeys, and birds, they sparkle like a pop star on stage, maybe even purposely attracting attention, as they seem to enjoy the company of other species, or at least me right now after they learned to trust my presence.
Yes the lighting and coloring has improved impressively in my photographs now, but there always seems to be that one branch in the way. I move around but after a few horrible shots I decide to practice patience by putting down my camera and observing with the naked eye. I have taken probably hundreds of photographs at this point and am already sold on my new favorite model, so I slide down to the base of her tree, sit down and simply look up at them and smile. They are such a joy to watch, especially as the babies climb all over their mothers. Meanwhile the mother keeps her eyes fixed on me and one hand on her baby, in case it loses its grip on her fur.
She is well aware of my climbing abilities compared to hers. One of the babies is older and feistier than the other, a hardy little thing full of chiquiness. He is not bound to his mother at this point and confidently plays just above me in the branches, shaking them and dropping leaves and seeds to keep my attention, just like a human child. While the youngins explore, the mothers gorge, completing their niche in the jungle. As they feed they drop indigestible seeds to the forest floor after swallowing the delicious and brilliantly colored fruit that got their attention in the first place. The small seeds end up on the ground inside a pile of fertilizer, right where I am sitting actually but whatever, I’ll take my chances, as I have fallen in love again.
The guys appear, and although my quite moment is instantly gone, I am happy to share it now with my friends so they may be enlightened as well. The Orangutans begin to stir and all of a sudden we all come alive together. I stand up to be a part of the action just in time for a big male to appear strappingly through the trees. At first I thought the females and babies became aggressive by the presence of more humans, but now I realize they have been activated by the strong male twice their size. In many species, with babies around this is a dangerous situation, but Orangutans are very docile, smart, and loving creatures. He is a fine target for my portfolio, but is he going to accept me? When amongst formidable animals, keep in mind he could rip my limbs off if he wanted to, it is so very important not to show fear. I don’t as I do trust them, but the English guys are obviously nervous and quickly turn their back and scurry off. I sit back down and tell the king, “this is your jungle big guy, I want you to have it. But can I take your photo because you are stunningly handsome?” Weighing in around 120 kilos and noticeably darker and richer in color, I fell inside a photography fantasy. Staring at him as he masters his life, bending the trees just enough to reach the next before it snaps. I play around with my camera and try to replicate to you what I see, in MY life, at this moment.
My attention is now on the male and I fail to notice one of the females descending down to the ground with her baby. I hear a startle from one of the guys so I look around. Out of the thicket appears one of the females, 10 yards from me and closing in, almost in a gallop like manner. I Instinctively sit down in her path, proving my capability of being here in the first place. I snap a photo in my brain as she approaches with her baby in her arms, then I react with my camera to share it with you, just one shot.
Before I even have the chance to lower my camera she was sitting next to me grasping my arm ever so gently. Her fingers by themselves wrapped completely around my scrawny arm, compared to hers, and I looked neither up nor down at her now, but straight into her eyes as if we were about to kiss. Of course we didn’t, although later it became a joke amongst the Indonesians that they will be able to tell the story behind the blue -eyed Orangutan. I am caught in the moment by her baby as he clocks me upside the head with his toy, a stick. As shocking as this moment is, it is simple. Two species, lost in admiration of each other. Why are they so willing to coexist, when we are not? Humans have separated themselves from the natural world, and have claimed ownership over this island. We are not the only rightful keepers of the jungle.
Michael Wysocki at 27 years old
I am off in search of my next Wild “Life”