Interview with award winning travel photographer Timothy Allen Pt. 1

Posted by on February 2, 2015

Escapology interview with travel photographer Timothy Allen

Following his inspiring work for a couple of years already, I recently had the opportunity to interview Timothy Allen, one of today’s best and most renowned travel photographers. Allen, 43 years old and from Tonbridge, Kent, is probably best known for his work with the BBC’s landmark television series Human Planet. In charge of the productions photography, Timothy traveled around the world for two years, to more than 80 locations in more than 40 countries and to some of the remotest locations on this earth. During this epic project, he captured the world’s most incredible human stories. Timothy has dived with sea gypsies 40 meters beneath the South China Sea in the Philippines, climbed huge trees with honey pickers in Central Africa, and roamed the Mongolian Tundra with the local Nomads.

He is a multi-award winning photographer having been commended 13 times in various categories in the prestigious Travel Photographer of the Year awards, including the overall title in 2013.
But Timothy is also an intrepid traveler and backpacker from the pre-internet times who still feels part of the culture of backpacking at heart.
The first part of this two part interview series will shed some light on this lesser known aspect of his biography. Timothy speaks about his history as a backpacker, his opinion about traveling nowadays and how it all changed. The second part will then be all about his award-winning travel photography.

Pa-aling fishermen in the Philippines

Filipino Pa-aling fisherman at work 40 metres below the South China Sea. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: You started backpacking in the late 80s, some might call it the Golden Age, when backpacking was still exotic, adventurous and much more of a challenge than it is today. What has changed since your early days? 

The most poignant thing that has changed since the 80s and early 90s is the Internet. It is the most fundamental change that could ever happen to backpacking and traveling in general.

When I first went away backpacking, I wouldn’t speak to my parents for 12 months. The only contact I would have with anyone was through old fashioned letters. Receiving a letter from my family around Christmas time or around my birthday was so exciting back then. There is nothing that comes close to this these days.
I also remember meeting friends I had made along the way for Christmas at Haad Rin Bay on the island of Koh Phangan, which was just a cluster of beach huts back then. We were a core group of about 30 friends, all traveling separately around South East Asia, and we arranged verbally to meet there. It all happened by word of mouth, no e-mail or social media and it worked out perfectly. Everyone turned up at the same day and we had a great time.

It was a very romantic way of backpacking and the internet has changed all of that. It has kind of removed the romantic sense of traveling far away.

I did an assignment in Peru a couple of months ago and had to stay in Cusco for a few days. I didn’t really know where to stay so I booked everything online and never spoke to anyone. Now that would have been absolutely inconceivable even in the 90s. You would just turn up at places and then figure everything else out from there.

It was a very romantic way of backpacking and the internet has changed all of that. It has kind of removed the romantic sense of traveling far away. Nowadays, you can constantly feel this connection to back home. The great thing about traveling that I used to have was an intense sense that I was on an adventure. The Internet unfortunately takes that away from you.

Crossing the Mekong on a wire

Man on a wire. Laotian fisherman Samnieng crossing the mighty Mekong. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: You are 43 now and you said that you still feel part of this culture of backpacking at heart. How are you still connected to it?

It’s just one of the places I really feel at home.  If I got some free time, which actually doesn’t happen too often anymore – I’ve got a wife and kids now – I still immerse myself into that culture of backpacking. For example, I shot that job in Peru a couple of months ago and I knew I had to do some acclimatizing in the mountains before starting the actual job. So I booked my flight seven days earlier and I just stayed at a backpackers lodge in Cusco for that week. I remember that I just felt so at home when I left the door behind me and put my backpack on.

I can’t deny that feeling in me that wants to explore. I tried resisting it for years in different situations and I never can. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing!

It’s almost like the opposite of what my mother feels when she goes traveling. She’s terrified unless someone meets her at the airport, drops her off at the hotel and takes care of her. But I am the opposite. I know without a doubt that I’ll be able to find a place to sleep. When I arrive in a place and it’s just me and my feet and my backpack – I love it.

Papua New Guinea Highlands

Skeleton Boys. At a small gathering of tribes in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: After 6 years as photographer at The Independent, you said you were at a stage where you felt the urgent need for a change. You sold your apartment and your belongings and set out for adventure only armed with a backpack and your camera. What was the reason for this bold decision and changing your life back then?

I often refer to the movie Fight Club when I think of that time. It’s right at the start of the film when Tyler Durden sits in his apartment, surrounded by Ikea furniture, looking around and disgusted by the life he lives. I had a similar experience where I realized that something just wasn’t right. It was strange because most people I knew thought I was living the dream life. I was the chief photographer at The Independent on Sunday, I shot exciting jobs, I travelled all over the world, I had a great apartment in London – I was basically on a roll. But I felt something wasn’t quite right.

Walking on the frozen Zanskar River in Ladakh

Walking to school over the frozen Zanskar river in Ladakh, India. © Timothy Allen

I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. After a while, I came to the conclusion that my apartment had a lot to do with it all. All of a sudden I realized that if I would sell it, it would affect every other aspect of my life. I knew I had to do it, don’t ask me why, I just knew it. So I did. I put the apartment on the market, a week later I put in my resignation at The Independent, I split up with my girlfriend and gave away most of my possessions to a local charity. I just stripped away all the crap that I had and the things that I didn’t need – and I took off.

Timothy Allen Tripura Kida

Village kids in Tripura, India. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: Did you have a set itinerary or an idea about the places you wanted to see and explore?

Not at all. I was undecided which route to take so I typed into google, “What’s the most remote country in the world” and Bhutan came up. I had seen pictures of the place and read an article by a National Geographic photographer and I thought, “Right, that’s the place I’m going.”

I flew into Calcutta and went up to Bhutan. That was the start of a trip that took me all the way across the Himalayas from Jammu and Kashmir down to the Northeastern states of India. It took one year and a half and it was absolutely brilliant. The last few years of work at The Independent, I felt like an elastic band that had been pulled back and back slowly, and when I left I just went boom! Suddenly, the life came back into my bones again. I went to the most remote places I could think of, the places no one knew about. I just walked with my backpack, following stories. If I heard of a story, I was going to search it and photograph it. I still love all the pictures I shot back then. It was such a liberating time and I would do the same thing now if I could.

A Konyak headhunter in Northeast India. © Timothy Allen

A Konyak headhunter in Northeast India. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: So you started your trip in Bhutan and travelled it quite extensively. How was traveling the country back then? Nowadays, it is much regulated, very exclusive and comparably expensive.

Back then it was exactly the same. But I’ve learned to think outside the box. So I organized a tour just for myself and when I arrived in the country, I told to the guide that I didn’t want to do the tour but rather go off and explore. He eventually agreed and we had an amazing time.

It was so much fun, so joyful walking with these people and just what trekking should be like. It was probably one of my best travel experiences.

Everything is negotiable, especially around India and the Himalayas. We trekked all the way up to the Northwestern province of Laya, home of the Layap tribe. While we were there, we discovered that the government had asked all Bhutanese people to register for a national census. The Layaps lived about six days’ walk from anywhere at that time and there were no roads. So all 1000 Layaps were going to walk across the Himalayas to this one little government office to get their picture taken and registered. We managed to get there and walk with them for 5 days and 4 nights. It was just me and those 1000 Layaps wearing these incredible traditional clothes. It was so much fun, so joyful walking with these people and just what trekking should be like. It was probably one of my best travel experiences.

Children watching a dance in Bhutan

Spectators. Watching a festival dance at Wangdue Phodrang Monastery, Bhutan. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: It sounds like trekking is your favorite thing to do while traveling.

It’s really one of my favorite things. I love trekking but I don’t often like to trek with other backpackers. There are so many great places to go trekking in the world where you don’t have to go with a tour. You can trek with people that walk, that walk to get from one place to another and they do it because there are no roads. I have become almost obsessed with a lack of roads. If I know a place that has no roads or that you can only reach by walking, I’m there. I love those places. That’s almost something that dictates where I go these days. Of course, roads are great for people that live in these places with the main reason being that they get better access to medical facilities, but roads tend to bring an incredibly rapid transformative change to a place. From an outsiders perspective – and I am being pretty selfish here – the road drains the place of people and often their culture. It’s yet another thing that takes away the romance in a place.

Annapurna Circuit Trek

The route down to Muktinath from Thorong La Pass during the Annapurna Circuit walk. © Timothy Allen


ESCapology: You have been around the world, to the most remote regions and you have met people who call these places their home. What are the most important lessons these people and your travels have taught you?

What I have personally learned from my experiences with other people is that one of the most important aspects which was missing in my life was a sense of community. I remember staying a month in the Naisingpara refugee camp in Northeast India, where the Bru tribe lives. That was the place where I had a revelation that I was completely missing a closeness amongst my own people back home. I suddenly realized that I didn’t have a community. The process that started then has culminated in me living where we live now. I and my small family live on a farm here in Wales, quite remotely located, but we know all our neighbors intimately and I never felt more part of a culture than I have ever done in my life. That was a huge lesson and one of the most important things I learned from people while traveling.

Mongolian nomad in the tundra

Real men love flowers. In the mongolian tundra. © Timothy Allen

I hope you liked the interview so far. It’s been an inspiration for me and hearing his stories just makes me want to shoulder my backpack and get out there again.

Next week Tim will speak about his photography and how his work has changed. Until then make sure to check his website and to like his Facebook Page where he shares his amazing work. You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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23 Responses to Interview with award winning travel photographer Timothy Allen Pt. 1

  1. Angelica

    Thanks for sharing this piece, it’s just what I needed to stop worrying so much about my upcoming trek in Nepal. And just how excited I am to be in an isolated and beautiful place again. 🙂 It is true that the internet and the social media has lessened the romance in backpacking and going on adventures. But I think there are still a few places out there where roads are still unpaved, electricity is sparse, and where there’s no wifi – some parts of Burma, Laos, and Nepal still come to mind. Wish he has a book, would love to read his backpacking adventures back in the 80s.

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Angelica, glad the article could give you a little bit more peace of mind. Whereabouts will you be trekking in Nepal and for how long will you be staying. I still have to make it there and it is on top of my list..way on top that is. You are right, there are still places with this lack of modern infrastructure, but you know, civilization is never too far away. We always, in the back of our heads, have this feeling that we are not really far away. We are, in an abstract sense, never really disconnected. And what Tim is saying I think, that this was the case back then. There just was no internet or skype or Facebook. When you were gone, you were gone. You had to communicate via letters that got sent to some random post office where you would pick it up. Imagine these times….

      And you are right, I think a book with all of these experiences would sell very well. I would for sure buy a copy haha. Thanks Angelica..stay tuned for Part 2. Philipp

      • Angelica

        We’ll be doing the Manaslu Circuit, one of the restricted areas, this March. The trek will be around 2 weeks, you are most welcome to join us. We’ll probably look for more people to trek with once we get there. 😉

        That is true, it’s so easy to reconnect now with the rest of the world. How it must have been back then, like you’re really going on an adventure. I especially loved his story where just by word of mouth, they all found themselves in Koh Pangan to celebrate Christmas.

        Can’t wait for Part 2!

        • Philipp Dukatz

          Hi Angelica, I would love to join join u guys but I’ll probably in Canada at that time. Maybe next time then. Please let me know how it was as Nepal is definitely on my list and trekking there especially. With how many people will you be traveling there?
          Glad you liked Tim’s stories….I found it inspiring. Those times won’t ever come back …. Take care Angelica and have a safe trip to Nepal.

  2. dines

    Glad I read this! I honestly didn’t know the man before this. Thanks for the introduction. Have seen some of his works at FB and they are AMAZING!!! I have deep admiration for people who turn away from all that is material and follow what their hearts are longing for! It was a really bold and daring to give up almost everything and start anew. And look where that Mr. Allen has brought him : unforgettable insane experiences, not to mention establishing his name! No wonder you admire him; you can easily associate yourself with him. I think backpacking back then was more challenging and rewarding than nowdays, dunno. I’ll never know !) Eagerly waiting for Part II. Cheers ! Dines
    PS. I’m gonna like his page 😉

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Dines, thanks for your feedback. Good to hear you like the interview and also Timothy’s photography. He sure has a great body of work. And his stories about the early days of backpacking, the places he has seen and the things he has experienced are really inspiring. Stay tuned for the second part to come….. Cheers Dines.

  3. Jeff

    Phillip, this is great! Tim Allen is one of my favorite photographers and you did a great job on this interview. I am 37 and still feel like a backpacker so it was nice to read that. Excellent work.

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Jeff, thanks a lot. Glad you liked it. And yes, same here, same story. It was also inspiring for me. Keeps me going haha. Cheers bro… let’s keep the adventures coming haha. Keep me updated on your plans about Washington State ….

  4. berns

    run out of adjective to describe him.. I think future travelers and backpackers should read this. Its good to know that traveling is not just the adrenaline rush, adventure, the view or the food you ate..its about what you learn with the people on those places you’ve been, I learned a lot about Sir Timothy Allen, well, i love all the pics here, esp the samnieng pic:)

    Thanks Sir Phil for your blog, if it wasnt for you, i wouldnt know how GALING:) he was, hhahaha cant wait for part 2!!good job!!clap clap!

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Bernadette, you summed it up quite nicely. I am glad you liked the interview and also the picture selection. You are right, his stories and views on traveling should give travelers nowadays something to think about. Anyways, thanks again for stopping by … more to come soon ;). GALING

  5. Susan

    Excellent interview Phil! I love hearing travel stories from individuals who experienced it in a much different way than I will probably ever be able to in my lifetime. People like Tim and a kind middle-aged man I met on a train in your home country, actually inspired me to backpack through SEA with no prior experience and a gut feeling it was the right thing to do. Although I do remember a time before my family had a computer and the internet, I’ve never traveled in a world where I could essentially be completely off the radar, and am honestly not sure I would want to. While the idea of it sounds nice, and I sometimes longed for the real connection to other backpackers Tim talked about, and technology takes away, I don’t know if I could be that disconnected from the people I love. I may never be fortunate enough to trek through as much open land as both Tim and the nice man from Germany were able to do, but I certainly enjoy being able to hear about stories from a time now gone. Looking forward to the second half of your interview with Tim. – Susan

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Susan, I am happy you enjoyed the interview. It took quite a bit of work but I am liking the final result. I didn’t know one of my fellow countrymen inspired you to go traveling SEA: How cool is that? Especially on the train. Usually people on trains to stay for themselves. Where has this guy been then and what type of stories did he share with you? Sounds very interesting as well.
      I think it would be cool to be somewhat completely disconnected and off the radar for a while. I think it could be very liberating but then I don’t know because even though I have been traveling off the beaten track, I have never been really off the radar as Tim described it. But I acknowledge that these times won’t come back so let’s make the best out of it. It’s still enjoyable and one of the coolest things.
      Will you be traveling again sometime soon, Susan?

      • Susan

        Well all your hard work seems to have been worth it, because it really is a great interview. I don’t know why, but people often talk to me on trains/planes. I must look friendly or in need of companionship or something. The gentleman I met was actually an American expat who’d been in Germany for 30+ years after falling in love with his wife, so I’m not sure if you’d consider him a fellow countrymen or not..? Either way he was a really nice man and I enjoyed his company. We chatted about my trip to Germany and his life and where we were both headed. From what I gathered he was an avid and experienced traveler, and said he was on his way to Vietnam to do some photography. When I mentioned I’d never been he encouraged me to visit the whole region and talked about how beautiful it was. When we got off the train he made sure I found the correct counter at the airport before saying farewell, which I thought was mindbogglingly thoughtful of him. Not being able to forget any of it, I looked up SEA as soon as I got home. I agree, you have to embrace the world you get to explore the best you can, but I think if you really wanted to be off the radar its possible as long as you chose to give up phones, computers, the internet… anything really that connects you via technology. The real problem is that even after doing so, the amount of places you’d be “off the grid” is limited because of human advances of all kinds.

        • Philipp Dukatz

          Hi Susan,
          thanks for sharing this story. It’s really interesting how random encounters can have an impact on your life and set things in motion. It’s great that you took his advice and went traveling the region. I bet it was a great experience. I also would love to return. Lately I had this thought, that it would be cool to go back to Vietnam and kind of recapture the photos that I have lost due to the theft of my camera in Saigon. Just retrace my journey and take these photos. I would call the “Quest for the lost images” or something, haha. But really, Vietnam, if you know where to go, is an incredible photogenic place. I stayed a month and even that only allowed a mere scratch of the surface. I hope I can return one day. How about you Susan? Do you have any plans of traveling again?
          And yes, you are right, it is also up to ourselves to sort of disconnect. We don’t have to take a smartphone or laptop with us or anything like that. I think most of us just have become too addicted to it all. We can’t be really alone anymore …
          OK Susan, thanks again and have a great rest of the weekend.


  6. berns

    hahah, sorry i was just so overwhelmed of this interview..hehhe hes really great. will wait for the next one:)

    • Philipp Dukatz

      No problem, I am happy you enjoyed reading the interview and his pictures. Part 2 is soon to come.. hope you will like that one as well 🙂

  7. berns

    #abangers:) heheheheh

  8. Sarah

    Hi Philipp, thanks for sharing your interview with I would consider one of the legends in backpacking. I would say through internet more people are introduced to do backpacking or at least challenged to try it. But through your interview with Timothy Allen, it’s like seeing the backpacking in another different perspective. Like when he said that because of internet it removed the romantic sense of traveling far away. When I first read that I didn’t understand right away what he meant, but by sharing how he experienced every journey puts the readers on a different reality of life, giving more depth of what traveling is really all about. So thank you so much for sharing this. Ang Galing!!! 🙂

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Sarah, thanks a lot for your feedback here, I really appreciate. You are right, the inetrnet took away a little bit of the myth around backpacking and hence allowed more people to give it a try. So maybe that’s a good thing. But again, there always pros and cons. I think you summed it up nicely, his story shows what traveling should be about and that it is not about taking selfies all the time and posting status updates on FB every day. It’s about the experiences, the people you might along the way, locals and other travelers alike, and about personal development. That sounds pretty deep but of course, traveling should also just be fun and enjoyable. That’s the main thing…. Thanks Sarah … Galing! 😉

  9. April Violet

    Finally got to read this…you did a wonderful job with the interview. Never heard of him before, but now I do and his work is admirable! All his photos you had on here of his makes me curious of the story behind the photos (ie. the Pa-aling and Laotian fishermen, Skeleton boys)– the last photo in Mongolia made me think of the movie Mongol I saw years back (btw, good movie if you haven’t seen). I like the interesting caption of his photo “Real men like flowers.” He truly is an intrepid traveler and I’d say has to be fit when you mentioned him diving and climbing trees to capture amazing shots. His mention about the internet and roads reminds me of your blog about the Big Paradox…and now I know why I also take long reading one blog since I get distracted by the other links you have that I start reading another one of your blogs then go back to what I was reading. Really need to Focus 😉 Likewise, his mention of contact through old fashion letters thru his earlier travels stood out since nowadays that’s usually unheard of. I personally still write out notes to close friends during Christmas and very grateful when I get a hand wirtten note, although rare now due to internet.
    Anyway, your photos all over your blog are great and inspiring as well that I’m actually considering getting my first DSLR–yes i’m a Beginner. Deciding between Canon vs Nikon, but as you had mentioned in another blog ‘it is not the camera that takes the picture, but the person behind it.”…so agree! But i noticed Tim has a Canon so maybe i’ll stick with that brand 😉
    Btw, the Paolo Coelho quote you have is so appropriate for you and Tim Allen as well. Actually trying to read one of his books now which I had put off for months. Kudos and best wishes to your future works…looking forward to more blogs/photos! You truly have a talent in writing. One more thing, I read that you lived in the US, what state did you live in?…was is for work/schooling? Ok, that’s it…end of novel :p

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi April,
      thanks for your interesting comment. I am happy that you liked the interview as it was a very interesting project for me which I put quite a bit of work and thought into. I think that is the best thing you can say about the photo; that they tell a story or that that you, the viewer want to know the story behind that picture. He is doing an amazing job achieving that effect.
      I also still like handwritten notes and despite the wide spread availability of internet, I still send out postcards to people. Even if they are short and will take a long time, it is still something special and people tend to appreciate it. I know I do whenever I receive a card.
      Concerning your camera. It really doesn’t matter what you have, Nikon or Canon. Both brands produce superb cameras which will allow people to take great pictures. If you have used Canon before, than just stick with it. You will be familiar with the menu and alignment of buttons which is a help already. Apart from that, I would always suggest trying cams of both brands (same price range of course) and then just decide by the feel. How is the handling, how is navigating the menu and those things. If you feel comfortable with a cam, then go with that model. After that, it’s only practicing and more practicing.
      To answer your last question, I lived in the US when I was a high school exchange student. Quite some time ago but still a very nice memory. OK April, take care and keep in touch.. Philipp

      • April Violet

        Thanks much for the tips about the camera…definitely, I need one that’s user friendly. That’s good you have good memory of being an exchange student. I once was thought to be an exchange student by a teacher 😉 haha

  10. Philipp Dukatz

    Hi April, it’s good to do some research online, to compare and then take it from there. Also asking on Online forums helps a lot.