Mention Borneo and many people think of wall-to-wall jungle, but actually, the world’s third-largest island has lost most of its original forests over the past few decades in a relentless cycle of clear-cutting and burning. Lowland rain forest, which harbors the greatest diversity of life, has become especially threatened because it grows close to the coast, where most of the population lives.
Some of Borneo’s last intact lowland jungles occur in the northern state of Sabah, where I worked for several months to capture the intricacies of its natural history. Every documentary project needs images that convey a sense of place, but finding vantage points for such overviews can be challenging in the enclosed world of a tropical forest.
I had scouted a number of potential locations, and one of them was an overlook with a sweeping view into a valley of protected lowland forest adjacent to a logging concession. The river winding its way into the center and then disappearing into the distance presented a classic compositional principle that lures viewers into the scene. I returned to the same spot several times, but the conditions for a balanced exposure were never quite right.
Yet one day everything came together. Dappled light from an early-morning sun created highlights and cast a warm glow, while other parts of the scene were still in shade, rendering those tones cooler. The combination of both created a great dynamic color range. Morning mist softened the sun and cross-lighting emphasized the infinite variety of shapes and textures that we associate with tropical forests. Glassy reflections in the river added to the mood of serenity.
This photograph has become a symbol of the glory of a living planet. To me, however, the image has another meaning, because when I stood there documenting the forest before me, I was hearing the bulldozers behind me.
Sign up now for Frans Lanting’s expanded photo workshop program for Fall 2010 at his studio in coastal California. Visit www.lanting.com for more details.