Last week I introduced you to Timothy Allen, one of today’s most renowned travel photographers. Timothy is probably best known for his work with the BBC’s Emmy awarded landmark televisions series Human Planet. 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.
In the first part of this interview series Timothy talked about traveling, his connection to backpacking and how it all changed over the years. This part is all about his photography. Timothy speaks about travel photography, how recent developments have changed his work and about a very special picture of his which might surprise you.
ESCapology: As we said before, traveling has become so much easier nowadays. With this development, travel photography has become extremely popular. But what in your opinion is travel photography? What defines it?
I resisted the label of a travel photographer for many years. It’s only since the last couple of years and by sheer brute force that I have resigned myself to the fact that this is what people think I am. It’s the box that people have decided to put me into.
However, when I started, there were photojournalists and then there were travel photographers. Photojournalists generally sneered at travel photographers. Even Steve McCurry would have called himself a photojournalist rather than a travel photographer. The difference was photojournalists concentrated on important issues and travel photographers shot those fluffy happy things. I still see that difference. I see photojournalists – and this of course a generalization – often concentrating on the negatives whereas travel photographers concentrate on the positives.
I have been traveling for 30 years now and I know that the world is a wonderful place full of wonderful people.
When I left photojournalism, I was propelled to leave in part by the disdain that I had for the fact that we were always focusing on the negative things in life. But I have been traveling for 30 years now and I know that the world is a wonderful place full of wonderful people. For me, that approach was just too isolated, too one-sided. So for ages, I just called myself a photographer who travels. But, even nowadays, I still shoot stories like I did when I was a photojournalist. That is what my work is about, getting out there and shooting stories. But travel photography now, I think is really anything. There is no definition. Just look at the Travel Photographer of the Year contest. You will see a bit of everything, not only people with traditional colorful headdresses – and that’s great.
ESCapology: Over the years photography has changed and still does at a very fast pace. The rise of the Internet and social media, the crisis of print media and new technologies. How have these changes affected your work?
It fortunately hasn’t really affected my actual work. Back then, I voluntarily left the world of commissioned work and I was quite fortunate to do so at the right time. When I left The Independent, we had 10 photographers and within 5 years all of them have been made redundant. I didn’t know what my next step would be, I just wanted to get out and go traveling but I also moved into a realm where I created my own jobs and projects. It became much more fluid. But things have definitely changed. For example, I used to have a very comfortable income from my archive and that is probably 20% of it was ten years ago now. So I have to get out and earn my living a bit more. I am doing quite a bit of speaking engagements and I run workshops as well. Social media is probably the one thing that had the biggest effect. It has become the framework of the Internet, and it created a whole new group of photographers. Photographers who no one had ever heard of but were rising high at a fast pace. When I became aware of these developments, I started investing in social media and I now know that I should have done so even earlier. It is probably safe to say that social media now is the backbone of my business.
ESCapology: People are probably most fascinated by your shots of far away, remote and exotic places and especially the people who live in them. But in a recent interview, you said that one of your favorite portfolios is of a woman who lives in a mud dwelling in a remote forest close to your home in Wales. What makes this series so special to you?
Simply because I know how hard it is to find a great story like that in this country. There is no denying that shooting in exotic places is very easy, especially because of the fact that people in remote places tend to be incredibly friendly and uncynical. Here in England, we have a very cynical culture and people are suspicious of the media, and rightly so because they know exactly what can happen to a photo. So often the places we go to are far away from all these preconceptions about image making and consequently this makes images incredibly easy to take.
In my own country, it is very hard to shoot photos and to connect with people. So, finding a story here that I love and that is beautiful excites me. The ironic thing about that story is that it is my most shared picture ever on social media. Emma, who is pictured in her home, just lives less than two hours from my front door.
It’s great to travel a long way to find your stories, but it’s very exhilarating if you can find one on your own doorstep because it is far harder. Photography is a visual medium and sometimes our countries here in Europe can be visually uninspiring places. Our culture has lost that unique visual aspect that these remote foreign countries still have. Finding a good story at home has become a rarity and that’s why I like that series of pictures so much.
ESCapology: That special picture series is just an example of the defining element of your work which is the human element. It is what makes your photos so unique. How did that focus on people evolve?
I don’t think it evolved in me. From looking at my own pictures, I realized that the ones I was most interested in were the ones with people in them. Nothing is more boring than someone coming back from their holiday and showing you a bunch of photos with no one in them and large parts of the population shoot pictures like that. These pictures are lacking the most fundamental element of the human condition. I have seen really beautiful pictures of landscapes. But if you show me a beautiful landscape with a human element in it, it will be a rarer picture and probably a better version of that landscape. It wasn’t a conscious thing for me. I am just interested in people on the whole.
ESCapology: In terms of photography you have been extremely successful and inspired thousands of others. But as in photography, life is all about the light and shadows. Do you remember any darker moments or difficult times in your life?
I have had a pretty good life and I can say that I have been lucky. I had a very supportive family. I grew up with a sense that it was okay to do what I wanted to do rather than to do what was expected of me. I would say my real life started once I left school and started university, and not because it was an academic thing but because I met people there who I really got on with and who expanded my mind.
I never worried too much about tomorrow and I always felt that everything will turn out right. And it does.
That was also when I first went traveling. I have been lucky I guess because I never worried too much about tomorrow and I always felt that everything will turn out right. And it does. For example, my career in photography – I pursued photography because I just loved it. I never wondered if I was going to earn a living from it but I eventually did. I think it’s also because I have a very low threshold for comfort as well. I don’t need the trappings of modern life and I just don’t desire certain things that others might find important. So I guess this combination of a supportive upbringing, my personal attitude and a bit of luck kept these darker moments to a minimum.
ESCapology: If you wouldn’t have discovered photography for yourself, what do you think would you have done with your life?
Let’s put it this way, if I could lose my past and wouldn’t feel the urge to carry on doing what I do, I would probably run a garden center. I would grow plants in the nursery on our land here and I would sell them. I really love growing things and I already do it when I have the time. But to be honest, I have come too far down the road as a travel photographer to ever give it up now. It’s too much a part of who I am. And after all, the traveling and photography have also become too much of an addiction already.
5 final questions:
What’s your favorite lens? I have none. I always go out with all of them.
Most important trait a travel photographer needs to have: Acceptance of other people.
Biggest mistake travel photographers can make? Shooting too much with their long lens.
Number one country you haven’t been to but want to visit? The Wakhan corridor in Afganistan and certain parts of Russia.
Most important item in your backpack? My Petzl head torch.
This is it. I hope you liked this interview series with Timothy Allen. For me it was a pleasure, an honor and a true inspiration. All I want to do now is go out there again, explore and improve my photography. I want to thank Tim for taking the time and his ongoing support. It was a great project.