Biologist-turned-photographer Chien C. Lee is fascinated by animal hide and seek and wishes he could have the camouflaging abilities of a leaf-tailed gecko.
This elusive forest-dwelling lizard from Madagascar blends in so well with its environment, thanks to its mottled pattern, that you wouldn’t even know it’s there.
“Just imagine all the wonderful wildlife I could see without being detected!” says Lee, 50, who has spent nearly half his life photographing wildlife in the jungles of Borneo and other tropical rainforests. Born in the United States, Lee is now based in Kuching, Sarawak.
The self-proclaimed nature geek was in Kuala Lumpur recently to launch his latest Masters Of Disguise exhibition at the GMBB mall, a wildlife photography series that zooms in on the kinds of camouflage and mimicry employed by insects, reptiles, birds, and even plants – with many species hailing from Sabah and Sarawak.
This new exhibition highlights how animals have remarkable adaptive capabilities and “extravagantly detailed outfits”, which are necessary in their never-ending quest for survival.
Masters Of Disguise continues Lee’s fascination for the deep jungle.
His flora and fauna-based Borneo’s Tree Of Life exhibit in KL opened in early 2021. It received an extended run at GMBB, making it one of the longest-running photography shows in recent times.
Lee’s other exhibitions include Jungles (2019), Birds Of Borneo (2015) and Carnivorous Plants And Their Biotopes (2010).
His photographs have been widely used by international publications, including National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and the BBC, as well as numerous Malaysian publications.
Stay hidden, stay alive
Masters Of Disguise needs visitors to keep a sharp eye and be extra patient in the gallery.
“This is a subject that has fascinated me for a long time. Being able to deceive your enemies or dupe another creature into helping you survive is a very clever strategy. Mother Nature is the original trickster,” says Lee.
From the barely visible Black-Throated Lichen Spider in Sarawak that hides on the back of suspended dead leaves, to the Common Potoo in Colombia, a bird that mimics the posture of a tree branch, these animals possess some of the most well-concealed designs in nature.
“I really enjoy encountering these creatures, when I have to double back and realise what’s actually there that wasn’t a cute beetle after all but a spider!
“This shows that the disguise is working and that you have entered the realms of these creatures. It’s a great honour, actually,” he adds.
Masters Of Disguise collects a total of 69 photographs that span 13 years of Lee’s work in Borneo and other rainforests in Sumatra, South America, Central America, Madagascar and New Guinea.
Nearly 70% of the collection features flora and fauna species from Sabah and Sarawak. These works are accompanied by actual jungle recordings, as well as scents (by OLFAC3).
The exhibition, which runs until Jan 15, 2023, is presented in a darkroom setting at GMBB. Visitors entering the room can enjoy the “atmospheric feel” of the exhibition.
There’s even a cool interactive feature that shows what these creatures actually look like when they are not camouflaged.
Into the jungle
Knowing your way around the jungle is a big help.
Lee, who moved to Kuching in 1996, has spent the better part of the past 25 years deep in the Bornean rainforests.
His tip in finding these camouflaged creatures is to look for them in the night. These animals, which hide during the day, are active at night and can be found lurking about.
The photographer mentions there are useful and basic methods to track down these natural tricksters.
“If you know where they are at night, just return the next morning and you will be able to find them nearby but now, concealed,” says Lee, who has a biology degree from University of California.
“Another key element is learning about your subject as much as possible. Being able to understand the story behind these creatures is what makes the photography have depth to it,” he adds.
Throughout the exhibition, Lee’s photographs turn the spotlight on woodland creatures (mostly insects, spiders and invertebrates) which go to great lengths – from background matching, disruptive colouration, masquerading and aggressive mimicry – to keep from being eaten.
Even for someone as experienced as Lee, a professional wildlife photographer since 2003, coming across these animals in disguise in the wild was no easy task.
“I must have walked by millions of these creatures and never noticed them,” says Lee.
When you eventually find them, he adds, there is a sense of satisfaction.
“The more clever the disguise, the more rewarding it is when you figure out what it is,” he points out.
There is no doubt that Masters Of Disguise has a strong visual appeal, but Lee’s well-researched exhibition notes are equally important for an insightful gallery experience here.
One of the highlights of Masters Of Disguise is the Moss Mimic Stick Insect, which was photographed in January this year at Cartago, Costa Rica. The photograph shows the intricately camouflaged, almost unnoticeable species of the stick insect, endemic to the mossy cloud forests of Central America.
“This is a species that I have wanted to see for 30 years. We spent weeks in Costa Rica looking for this insect and on the very last night, I finally found one. It’s something so elaborately camouflaged, it’s a real treasure to be able to look at its intricacies. Now, I can finally tick it off from my bucket list,” shares Lee excitedly.
A more curious and bizarre piece is a photograph of a slug moth caterpillar taken at Matang, Sarawak in August last year. This rare stingless species has a pure white colour and its softly textured tubercles bear a striking resemblance to the filaments of a deadly fungus.
“If you’re not fluent in the different types of things in the rainforest, you may not even realise that it’s a caterpillar. But when you realise what exactly it’s mimicking, that really adds a lot of meaning to its methods.
“My hypothesis is that it’s mimicking, or has an adaptive resemblance, to a spider that has been devoured by a pathogenic fungus. It’s certainly an advantageous look-alike because animals wouldn’t want to eat this fungus-ridden spider and the caterpillar looks just like it. This caterpillar has one of the most interesting mimicry (methods) that I have ever seen,” elaborates Lee.
While photographing rare and exotic wildlife is part of Lee’s job, he admits that these deceptive creatures have also deepened his knowledge of the natural world.
“When we look at a camouflage or mimicry in nature, we can’t help but look at it from our perspective. But what we need to understand is that we’re not the target audience. We are not the predator. They are trying to fool something else completely with a different set of skills than us.
“And whenever we try to understand more about these deceptions and their astounding intricacies, we better understand the roles of sensory perception, biological evolution, and the web that connects all living things,” concludes Lee.
Masters Of Disguise is on at Darkroom Gallery, GMBB in KL until Jan 15, 2023. Free admission. Facebook: GMBB.