How can I create a totally unique image of an orangutan? That’s what I was asking myself when I conceived the idea for this shot.
I wanted to use a wide lens to capture—high in the pristine rainforest canopy—a totally wild orangutan in its element. But while rigging and climbing trees with ropes has been part of my process for years, I knew wild orangutans would be too shy to approach if I were up in a tree. A shot like this was going to have to be made with a hidden remote camera. The big challenge: where to put the camera?
Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park on the island of Borneo is a forest I know well. I've worked for years here on photo and research projects, and it's where my wife and collaborator, Boston University professor Cheryl Knott, runs her orangutan research and conservation program. So one big thing I have going in my favour is the number of wild orangutans that are habituated to researchers.
Most days in the park, I join Cheryl’s research team as they follow individual orangutans, photographing them from the ground with my telephoto lens. But I'm always keeping an eye out for a tree where I might deploy a camera and get my wide-angle dream shot from the canopy.
During a 2014 visit, we find a fruiting Chaetocarpus tree, a wild relative of the chestnut and very popular with orangutans. I climb the tree, rig two hidden DSLRs, and begin the long stakeout. Photographer Trevor Frost, who's assisting me on the shoot, spends at least a full week under the tree, ready with the remote triggers (and reading his way through his iPhone book collection).
Orangutans visit the tree almost daily, but with range problems in the dense canopy, the cameras don’t always fire. And the orangutans, seeming to spot the cameras, take circuitous routes to avoid passing near them. We get a few shots, none satisfactory. But I know the concept is viable. I just need the perfect tree—and better-hidden cameras.
The following year, I'm led to a large canopy tree by a young female orangutan attracted to the fruit of a strangler fig. She climbs up and starts to feed, followed soon by a young male. The tree is unique in that its crown isn't touching any neighbouring trees, so the only way an orangutan can get to the fruit is by climbing the trunk. Perfect.
After the orangutans have gone, I rig a rope, climb the tree, and prepare camera positions. This time, I decide to use small GoPro cameras that are easier to hide and can be controlled by Wi-fi from the ground. For the next three days, I climb the tree several times a day, putting cameras out predawn and recovering them or changing batteries between orangutan visits.
Orangutans come each day until the figs run out, so I have a few chances to get the shot, but it doesn’t happen immediately. Sometimes, the orangutan climbs around the back of the trunk, out of sight of the camera, or the shot is ruined by low light and motion blur.
But finally, on the third day of trying, one frame freezes the moment I've been envisioning—an orangutan in its element.