Lauryn Ishak Travels to Indonesia to Mark a Decade with the New York Times

Jul 22, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

She had little way of knowing this at the time, but Singapore-based Lauryn Ishak’s visit to Indonesia at the dawn of the new decade ended up being one of her last travel assignments for quite a while. Still, any chance to go back to your country of origin to photograph rare wildlife for the New York Times is a trip worth savoring no matter the circumstances.  

In pre-pandemic January and on one of the last travel assignments I photographed, I went back to my roots in Indonesia to photograph a wildlife story — a search for the nation's endemic species with independent tour guides and how to keep their population and the places they inhabit sustainable. 


Lauryn Ishak New York Times tearsheeet

This assignment had me crisscrossing the more than 17,000 island archipelago from Flores to Java to Central Kalimantan in the span of five days. I returned to beautiful places that barely had infrastructure a decade ago but are now popular tourist sites trying to stay sustainable and discovered new off the beaten path ones trying to balance a modern way of travel with the natural world.

Lauryn Ishak New York Times tearsheet Indonesia landscape

The story was written by Jeffrey Gettleman, The Times' South Asia Bureau Chief. He had gone on a wildlife vacation in Indonesia with his family, finding independent guides to lead him. I received a first draft and had all the freedom to interpret the story while following his footsteps. 

Lauryn recently celebrated ten years as a collaborator with the publication. She’s contributed to multiple sections of the paper, traveling to a number of different countries for the assignments. But she’s always grateful to visit the place she spent part of her childhood.

I've been working with the Times for a decade now. My first assignment for them was for the Real Estate section, photographing a beautifully restored shophouse in Singapore. I came recommended as a photographer based locally and, fortunately, the Times liked my work and a long-term working relationship began. 

Lauryn Ishak Indonesia sunset New York Times

I am originally from Indonesia and of Chinese descent. Even though I wasn't born there, I did grow up for a spell in Jakarta and went to elementary school. I still have family and many friends scattered around the archipelago and am pleased to be able to work in the country often. 

This story addresses the balance Indonesia needs to strike between development and preservation. A lot has changed over the last 20 years, much of it positive, but the treatment of wildlife and nature is still being compromised by rapid industrial growth. Lauryn notes that many Indonesians are concerned about this and hopes the authorities will act accordingly.

The changes have been welcomed but worrying at the same time. It's great to see a country progressing and building much needed infrastructure for its population, but the speed at which it's happening combined with the little regulation being enforced can lead to over tourism and environmental damage in the long run. I'm encouraged to see many people, young and old, passionate about preserving nature and wildlife. They're very well informed and are actively campaigning to be sustainable for the future. Let's hope that the government will listen and act, as well. 

Often, when I ask photographers what their favorite shots are from given assignments, I’m met with a “oh, it’s so tough to pick!” kind of sentiment — but not this time around. Lauryn’s pick was fairly straightforward and for good reason.

Usually it's hard to choose — it's like asking which your favorite child is. But this time around, I have to say the orangutans. They were by default the hardest to photograph because in the wild it is not often that you spot them up close.

Lauryn Ishak orangutan Indonesia New York Times

I was extremely fortunate to come across a young one on my last day, in my last few hours on the river as we were sailing back to the harbor. He was sitting calmly by the banks of the river, on a branch, minding his business, chewing his food. It was a magical moment. 

The whole trip was magical for Lauryn, who didn’t have to overcome any major obstacles on the way to creating a lovely batch of imagery for the Times. Hopefully she’ll get to return to her homeland soon!

To travel in Indonesia, in general, requires some precise planning but at the same time, [but also] the flexibility for you to throw that precisely planned itinerary out the window should a flight get cancelled last minute or a boat not show up when scheduled while staying completely emotionally composed. 

Lauryn Ishak Indoneisa Komodo dragon New York Times

I am very much grateful and impressed that I made it all in one piece, without delays or cancellations — a nod to the new and functional infrastructure that's been built. 


Photo Editor, NYT Travel: Phaedra Brown

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