Mark Edward Harris’ Beautiful Orangutan Portraits Highlight Deeper Issues

All images by Mark Edward Harris. Used with permission.

“The older ones like to have me turn my camera around so they can see themselves on my LCD,” Mark Edward Harris tells us. He adds, “I know this sounds a bit hard to believe, but it has happened on numerous occasions. Orangutans have self-awareness.” For the last six years, Harris has been working closely with one of the world’s most fascinating animals – the orangutan. But as eye-catching and interesting as this portrait series is, there’s a serious undertone: one Harris wants to shed light on.

In Borneo and Sumatra, islands located in South East Asia, deforestation is a real issue. During the last three decades, the islands have lost over half their forests. Even worse, these beautiful locations are home to some of the world’s most beautiful – and endangered – animals, including orangutans. Harris’ work shows the true beauty of this wild animal. It sends a powerful message that we all have to ensure we’re doing all we can to protect the other species that share the earth with us.

We caught up with Harris and had an in-depth discussion about the series.

Orphaned orangutans on their way back from Forest School at Nyaru Menteng, Borneo.

Phoblographer: Can you begin by telling us how this series of Orangutan portraits started?

MEH: I was in Indianapolis working on a travel story in 2014, and the visit happened to coincide with the opening of the International Orangutan Center at the zoo there. I did a couple of portraits using an off-camera Nikkor flash and was a bit surprised by the results. Even more so, I was impressed by the awareness of the orangutans to what I was doing. A few years later, I went back to the Center and brought some Profotos. That’s when I “officially” started the project.

Orangutan in the Forest, Kalimantan, Borneo 2019

Phoblographer: Healthy and safety are less discussed aspects of photography. How do you ensure the safety of both humans and animals when doing the work?

MEH: Companies such as World Nomads and Allianz Global are very important partners for projects that take me off the beaten path or even on the beaten path. They have all sorts of travel-focused
travel protection, including evacuation insurance. Obviously, I hope never to use it.  But you have to be prepared. On my most recent trip to Borneo we almost tripped over a cobra in the Danum Valley and back at the lodge that same day there was a python in the kitchen.

“…some of the orangutans there were in the film business or in roadside circuses – some in horrendous conditions – and are very used to the camera.”

– Mark

As for the animals, when I do the orangutan portraits at zoos or rescue centers around the globe, they are either behind glass, a wired mesh fence or have zookeepers with them depending on where I am. If they are resistant to being photographed we won’t attempt to do a session with them. That’s extremely rare though. They seem to be interested in the process.

Orangutan Hugging Tree, Kalimantan, Borneo 2019

As for in the wild, orangutans tend to keep their distance from people and as arboreal creatures, they spend most of their time in the trees. My Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 and Nikkor 300mm f/4 are my go-to lenses for those images. I had to get a thorough medical check before starting my reportage work at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation to eliminate the threat of the orangutans catching anything from me since I was going to be working in close proximity to them.

Phoblographer: How do you communicate with Orangutans? And how do you pose them in a way that gets the shot you’re after?

MEH: There’s definitely a lot of non-verbal communication going on. In places like the International Orangutan Center in Indianapolis, the Singapore Zoo, and the Tama Zoo in Japan, the orangutans are used to the cameras being around. At the Center for Great Apes in Florida some of the orangutans there were in the film business or in roadside circuses – some in horrendous conditions – and are very used to the camera. Since I’m either in an off-limits to the public part of these places and using lights they are much more curious about what I’m doing and seemed to be entertained enough to sit for a minute or two in front of my camera before losing interest.

In order to get the angle I need, I keep my key light – whether it’s a Profoto strobe or a continuous light 8K Stella – on a monopod and move around until I can get eye contact or an interesting look. If I’m able to have a second light I’ll put it on a stand with a grid from the side and back. I have my Nikon D850 in my other hand and adjusting the focal point with my thumb.

Binti and Adi, Singapore Zoo, Singapore 2018

Phoblographer: What’s more difficult to photograph, an Orangutan, or a tense human?

MEH: While a tense human might be more unpleasant to photograph, they would more likely be easier than orangutans in a portrait session. Orangutans don’t have any concern about how they end up looking in a photograph where people do feel that they have some stake in the outcome of a portrait session. Orangutans look where they want, when they want.

Phoblographer: What have been some of the biggest challenges of this series, and how have you overcome them?

MEH: Getting approvals to work in such close proximity with the orangutans isn’t easy but as the series has developed and the people I am approaching see what I’m doing and what my goals are for the project, it’s definitely become easier. Some of the technical aspects of the shoot itself are not that easy.

“National park boundaries and protected areas must be respected and, in some cases, expanded.”

– Mark
Bino, Singapore Zoo, Singapore 2019

Phoblographer: At the risk of giving away your secrets, how do you light your subjects and what backdrop do you use? The images are very studio-like.

MEH: The key is to overpower the ambient light by such a significant amount that everything goes black except for what I want to be illuminated. Grids are also vital to this as well since I don’t want any light to spill over where I don’t want it.

Phoblographer: You’ve traveled to over 100 countries and created an impressive body of work. Out of everything you’ve done, where does this series sit in terms of creative satisfaction?

MEH: That’s a great question. My bachelor’s degree is in history and my Master’s is in pictorial/documentary history – a degree that I created – so I’m always fascinated by world events and various cultures. This puts my work in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq at the top of the list for world history. My series on influential photographers [ranks top] for history as well. My photography in Japan for my book The Way of the Japanese Bath (the 3rd edition has just been released) [ ranks top] as a cultural study, as does the orangutan series because of the crisis going on with them in terms of deforestation in their native Borneo and Sumatra and the very real possibility that they could go extinct in the wild.

Sandra at the Center for Great Apes. Wauchula, Florida USA 2019

Phoblographer: Does the series have a definitive end goal? If not, how do you anticipate the story to end?

MEH: The goal is to see the series in book form with a touring exhibition. There is an exhibition of the work now with the title “Eyes are the Window to the Soul” up at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco. The more I can help create awareness of the crisis facing these sentient and sensitive fellow Great Apes in the wild, the better. Palm oil plantations are having a devastating impact on their natural habitat. But the answer is not simply to end palm oil production, which is not going to happen but, to find ways for people and animals to coexist. National park boundaries and protected areas must be respected and, in some cases, expanded.

Katy, Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center Indianapolis, Indiana USA 2018

Phoblographer: Finally, who has been your favorite subject?

Azy, Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, Indianapolis, Indiana USA 2018

MEH: I’m definitely a people shooter and it’s not a stretch for me to expand into doing portraits of orangutans whose name derives from the Malay/Indonesian words “orang” meaning “man” and “hutan” “forest”. These people of the forest are all interesting to photograph as are all humans; everyone is unique. If I had to pick one or two, “Azy” would have to be one of my favorites since he was the first one who clearly gestured with his fingers for me to turn the camera around so he could see the results. The second would be Sara, a new arrival at the Center for Great Apes, who was the first orangutan to be granted “non-human personhood” by a judge in Argentina. She, along with Katy at the Center for Great Apes, are among the most elegant – to apply a human concept – orangutans I’ve had before my lens.

You can see more of Mark’s work on his website and Instagram page.