An Indonesian Photographer’s Wild Photo Finish

By webadmin on 06:55 pm Jan 06, 2011
Category Archive

Ade Mardiyati

By completing and publishing his first coffee-table book, “Living Treasures of Indonesia,” wildlife photographer and biologist Riza Marlon has finally turned a childhood dream into reality.

The 50-year-old said finishing the book made him feel like he finally “has his two feet back on the ground.”

Riza, known to friends and colleagues as Caca, has had a passion for Indonesian wildlife for as long as he can remember.

As a child, his parents, along with his aunts and uncles, ran a family business exporting animals from the wild to countries such as the United States and the Netherlands.

Looking back, he admits he isn’t sure whether the business was legal, but as a boy he was more than happy to be surrounded by animals.

He was thrilled to live alongside leopards, orangutans, snakes and alligators, creatures that often shared his childhood family home.

He had never seen a book about Indonesian wildlife and so he told himself that one day he would make a book that paid homage to all the animals he loved so much.

“I was often given books on native animals of other countries, mainly Africa, but never about the wildlife we have here in Indonesia,” he said.

As he grew up, Riza became determined to work as a biologist. Realizing that goal, however, was not easy.

When he finished high school in 1979, he made the decision to study architecture, but his studies were interrupted because his parents could not afford to pay his tuition.

Riza worked for three years to save enough money to go back to school.

When he had the money, he decided to use it to follow his childhood dreams. This time, he enrolled in biology classes.

“I still wanted to be a biologist because I loved animals. I did well in my studies because I was familiar with animals, their species and Latin names,” he said.

“Most of my classmates knew nothing about the subject when we started, but for me, it was something I was already used to.”

He said he was motivated by the fact that, despite an abundance of natural resources and being home to a diverse population of stunningly beautiful animals, Indonesian wildlife, especially in the eastern part of the country, had never been well-documented.

“There may have been researchers or outdoor enthusiasts exploring eastern Indonesia but they did not really preserve the photos well,” he said.

“People climbed Mount Carstensz and took good pictures, but did not think about making them accessible for the next 20 or 30 years, like in the form of a book. The photos appeared in magazines or newspapers and then they disappeared, which is really a terrible shame.”

He said it was also sad to see how fast the natural habitat of many of the animals in eastern Indonesia was being destroyed and replaced by things like plantations.

Much of the wildlife you can see there today will likely be gone within five years or even sooner, he said.

The disappearing habitat wasn’t the only challenge Riza faced as he struggled for almost two decades to finish his book.

The project began in the 1990s, when Riza made the decision to focus specifically on wildlife photography, foregoing other, more lucrative opportunities.

“I quit taking pictures for product promotions and weddings,” he said.

“I was aware of the consequences. I knew I would not make as much money.”

He took jobs photographing wildlife with foreign conservation groups and nongovernmental organizations, which enabled him to travel to remote areas in Indonesia.

He was also frequently hired as a guide for foreign productions documenting Indonesian wildlife, including National Geographic.

After 20 years, Riza had amassed thousands of pictures, more than enough to make a series of books.

But he said his first book had to be perfect, and he was determined to fill it with photographs that would show just how passionate he was about his life’s work.

He was also determined that his book be used as a tool to spread his extensive knowledge and love of Indonesian wildlife. He said he planned to distribute 1,000 copies of his book to schools, universities and NGOs.

About two years ago, Riza got serious about turning the book he had pictured so often in his mind into reality.

He began gathering help from people and sending out proposals to companies and institutions asking them to fund the project.

He got an incredibly positive response from a variety of people willing to lend their expertise in editing and printing, but finding a financial backer was a different story.

“Maybe we were just not good at writing them, because no company or institution was willing to be a sponsor,” said Riza, referring to the many proposals he wrote with his wife, Wita.

Undaunted, Riza pushed ahead. He borrowed money from the bank and explained to the different people who helped him that he couldn’t afford to pay them.

“I am lucky to have been surrounded by people who were not only willing to work for free but were also committed to doing what they said they would do,” he said.

On Nov. 5, “Living Treasures of Indonesia” was launched in Jakarta and Riza was finally able to exhale.

“My wife said it was like giving birth to a baby — painful, but you want to do it again,” he said, laughing.

He said the book was not yet available in bookstores and is currently only available by direct order.

This is because of the large amount of money retailers would charge for each book, he added.

“They would charge anywhere from 35 to 65 percent higher than the original price, which would make it difficult for people to purchase. I’m talking about people who are interested in this subject, but don’t have that much money,” he said.

“I want my book to help people learn about Indonesian wildlife and so it is important to make it affordable.”

The book not only presents an enormous range of animal species as seen through Riza’s lens, but it also reveals some of his photography secrets.

“For me, these techniques should not be secret. They should be shared so everyone can learn,” he said. “The fact that Indonesia has very few wildlife photographers really concerns me.”

Riza said that Indonesia held a lot of hidden treasures that had yet to be discovered and explored.

That is why he has repeatedly turned down offers to help document wildlife overseas, more than content to immerse himself in the wildlife here at home.

“Why would I go overseas and photograph wildlife while there is still so much to discover here?” he said.

“I love Indonesia and think that this country has the most amazing species in the world.”

It would certainly take a lot of photographers to fully document the richness of Indonesia’s wildlife.

Riza hopes that more people living in regions where there is a lot of wildlife will pick up cameras and start documenting what they see.

“They know better than anyone what is in their backyard,” he said.

According to Riza, he needs all the help he can get. One hundred wildlife photographers couldn’t begin to cover the whole country, let alone one, he said.

Behind the Lens

Making a book is not easy.

Making a wildlife photography book is three times as hard. Riza Marlon, in his own words, discusses the many challenges he faced in making “Living Treasures of Indonesia.”

“Perhaps the most valuable element of producing good wildlife photography is information. Before a photographer can finally set out for a location, they need to gather as much research as possible, including calculating how many animals can be covered in one trip. If you spend, let’s say, Rp 30 million [$3,300] to photograph only two or three species, that’s a waste of money. You need to know for sure what to expect.

“While collecting information is a must, finding a good local to be your guide is another challenge. I often had the experience of meeting people who said they could show me where animals were, only to have them take me around with no result. But now I have built good relationships with a few of the people I’ve worked with. I also feel grateful for today’s technology, which makes communication in remote areas much easier.

“Some people say the book I made is too expensive. But if you know what I had to go through to make it, you’ll begin to see why the cost is justified. Traveling to the locations alone is expensive. I often got off the plane only to endure another very long journey by car, boat or even on foot, while carrying heavy equipment. To be able to capture a bird that only exists in Indonesia, I once had to build a 30-meter-tall tower that cost millions.

“Photographing wildlife is all about intuition. When you see something that mesmerizes you, the next question is how you will move that same thing into the frame. That instinct is part of what makes photography an art. The more you do it, the better the result. You can buy the most expensive camera on the market, but you can’t buy that intuition.”

For more information, contact Riza Marlon at or