The destinations themselves are memorable, but it’s the focus and sense of family that make the Alumni Travel Program magical. Always led or co-led by a faculty member with expertise in the region, the tours are not simply sight-seeing expeditions but educational opportunities with a global emphasis, reflecting the college’s ongoing commitment not only to international engagement but life-long learning. And, every participant — whether alum, spouse or friend of the college — shares a connection to Hope that creates a bond of fellowship from the start.
This year’s trip was a 14-day adventure on the northern safari circuit of Tanzania that featured flora, fauna and engagement with the region’s people. It was led by Dr. Eldon Greij, a professor emeritus of biology and respected ornithologist who previously led a Hope May Term to the area, and Dr. Tim Laman ’83, a field biologist and award-winning wildlife photographer who had conducted research with Dr. Greij during his student days and has since been a regular contributor to National Geographic as well as a research associate at Harvard in the Ornithology Department. Considering the setting, amazing photos were probably a given, but everyone’s experience behind the lens was enhanced by Tim’s generously shared expertise.
Artist and Scientist: Passionate about Conservation
By Lynne Powe ’86
Dr. Tim Laman ’83 is the rare embodiment of both artist and scientist. Passionate about nature conservation, he travels to remote parts of the world, immersing himself in the environment for weeks at a time to photograph and document rare and endangered species.
Laman is an award-winning photographer for National Geographic magazine, a research associate in the Ornithology Department at Harvard University, and a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, as well as a videographer of nature documentaries for National Geographic television and the BBC.
“I feel really privileged that I get to go into these remote areas and see things that few people get to see,” he said. “I get to record them as pictures and films and share them with a broad audience.”
As a teenager, Laman never imagined his interests in photography and exploring nature would lead to such a rewarding career.
He grew up in Japan, the son of Reformed Church in America missionaries, the Rev. Dr. Gordon Laman ’56, and the late Evon Southland ’57 Laman. His family summered at Lake Nojiri in the town of Shinano, and he spent much of his time exploring the local woods and lake. His parents’ various interests reinforced his early affinity for nature and his father introduced him to the world of photography.
“My mom was a biology major at Hope College,” he said. “She was the one who was interested in bird-watching in our family. Dad was always interested in hiking and outdoors, and he loaned me an old Kodak manual film camera until I bought my first Canon SLR in high school.”
Laman, who received the Hope College Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016, came to Hope as a student in 1979. He graduated in 1983 with a degree in biology. He credits his Hope College undergraduate research experiences with influencing his decision to continue his education at Harvard University.
“The opportunities that were available to me at Hope to take advantage of working with professors and doing field work had a huge impact on what I did afterwards,” he reflected.
“Every once in a while, a student comes along who blows you away and Tim was one such student,” said Dr. Greij, who is the Edward A. and Elisabeth Hofman Professor Emeritus of Biology, and was one of Laman’s research mentors at Hope.
Greij remembers Laman as a bright and curious student who really enjoyed being outdoors.
“His academic record was exceptional and he did research in four different areas of biology with four different professors. He demonstrated great ability. He loved all kinds of biology and he received a full ride to Harvard University to continue his studies.”
Laman focused his coursework on neurobiology at Harvard, but outside of the lab he diligently honed his photography skills. His photography was self-taught and included reading books and magazines as well as taking photos.
“In grad school I became a much better critic of my own photography,” Laman remarked. “I realized there was a lot more that I could do improve it.”
Soon he had an agent selling his photos. The idea of combining scientific research and photography began to germinate when he realized he did not want to work in a lab — he wanted to work in the field, and coupling that desire with his interest in photography became an appealing option.
When Laman had an opportunity to travel to Indonesia for a year, he took a leave of absence from graduate school and ultimately changed his career focus.
“It was in 1986 when I saw the poster in the hall of the biology building at Harvard. It featured a plate from Alfred Russell Wallace’s natural history classic The Malay Archipelago: Land of the Orangutan and the Bird of Paradise, depicting Dayak natives in Borneo battling a giant orangutan,” recalled Laman in a blog posting. ‘Wanted: Field Assistants for Rain Forest Research in Borneo. Contact Prof. Mark Leighton,’ or something to that effect was typed beneath. I talked to Professor Leighton. I read Wallace. I was off to Borneo for a year.”
“I started getting interested in rain forest birds and I wanted to figure out how to do photography in Borneo,” he explained as part of his motivation for committing to the job. During the experience, he developed a unique approach to the work that has continued to serve him well.
Living in the rain forest under the dense foliage, Laman missed seeing sunrises and sunsets. He had a friend bring out some ropes and began climbing the trees for a different view. He also realized the forest canopy could be an interesting ecosystem to study.
The board members awarding grants at the National Geographic Society agreed. They funded several of his research proposals over the next few years, and he switched his doctoral studies at Harvard University to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. As he progressed in his doctoral program, he was urged to use his photography and popular articles to tell the story of the rain forests.
“Dr. E.O. Wilson, one of my professors at Harvard, said that I needed to include photography in all my scientific presentations and Ph.D. defense,” said Laman. “On the science side he encouraged my research, but he encouraged me to use my photography skills to publish popular books and articles, because reaching and telling your story to a broad audience is important.”
“In 1997 I was able to turn my first Ph.D. project on strangler fig trees into my first National Geographic story,” he explained. “Then in 1998, I had a story published on orangutans from my wife’s Ph.D. program. The third story in the magazine was on hornbills, my post doc at Harvard.”
So far, Laman has had 21 feature stories in National Geographic magazine and 29 articles published in other popular magazines, as well as four books.
Tall and lanky, Laman became very adept at tree-climbing, scaling more than 500 trees while doing research in Borneo. He perfected his technique of using a bow and arrow to shoot a fishing line over a branch, tie a climbing rope and rig up rope-ascending equipment. Those skills came in handy when he realized he could adapt them for rain forest photography, long before drone photography was an option. Thirty years later, Laman is still climbing trees and capturing amazing photographs.
His projects have included an on-going collaboration with his wife, Dr. Cheryl Knott, who has been leading scientific research on Borneo’s orangutan population since 1994. Knott also teaches at Boston University. Laman and Knott spend their summers in Indonesia with their two children, Russell and Jessica, studying the critically endangered orangutans living in Gunung Palung National Park.
“Orangutans are the largest canopy-living animal in the world,” he said. “If you don’t get up in the trees to get a sense of what things are like from their perspective you can’t really tell the story of the lives of orangutans.”
Much of his work has been in the Asia-Pacific region, and especially the Indonesian archipelago. In addition to his devotion to orangutans, Laman has also developed an affection for New Guinea’s colorful birds of paradise. He and his colleague Ed Scholes produced the landmark book Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds, as well as videos chronicling their multi-year effort to document all 39 species.
In 2016, Laman was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the world-renowned Natural History Museum of London, England, for his image of an orangutan in Borneo climbing 30 meters above the rainforest canopy in Gunung Palung National Park. He also received first place in the photojournalism Nature-Stories category for a portfolio of orangutan images.
This May, he and his colleagues debuted a short film, Person of the Forest, at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival with hopes that they might garner funding to do a full film version. They hope to make an even greater impact in saving the orangutans.
While the awards and accolades are gratifying, Laman’s passion remains focused on conservation. He is determined to use his unique skills to educate people and motivate them to protect their own environments.
“It’s pretty special to be witnessing these unique places and amazing animals,” he said. “There is an urgent concern for conservation. We have to think about leaving room for nature in this world.”
As the worlds of still photos and video are converging, Laman has accepted the challenge of learning new technology and expanding his photography skills to include cinematography. In 2008, he did a short video film that led to other projects. In 2015 he worked with the BBC using high-end video to shoot a segment on the birds of paradise for Planet Earth 2, which was released this spring in the United States. He’s currently working on another project for the BBC on orangutans.
While much of his career has focused on educating a broader audience, Laman is also excited to contribute to the science community. He has co-authored 20 scientific articles, including four based on research that he conducted with faculty while a biology major at Hope.
“I’m a scientist by background,” he said. “I’ve been doing well with my photography and filmmaking, and I’ve often teamed up with scientists in the field to contribute to science.”
“Now I’m working closely with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,” he continued. “Ed Scholes and I are going to continue working on our birds of paradise project. Our films and other media products will have conservation goals, but at the same time we are doing new science. We are using film, video and photography to document and collect data on birds of paradise and their displays. We are making interesting discoveries about these birds.”
While Laman never dreamed his career would take him to so many interesting places in the world, he admits it’s a pretty amazing life.
“It’s very rewarding to see the work I do have an impact for conservation. That is really important to me.” he concluded. “I pursued what really interested me, what I was passionate about, and what I enjoyed doing, and I’m really pleased it has worked out.”
Enjoy photos taken by Tim Laman in Tanzania during the Hope College Alumni Association tour: