BBC Human Planet photographer Timothy Allen interview

As photographer for epic BBC series Human Planet, Timothy Allen travelled with film crews for nearly two years capturing the world's most incredible human stories

6 mins

BBC's Human Planet series marvels at mankind's incredible relationship with nature in the world today. Uniquely in the animal kingdom, humans have managed to adapt and thrive in every environment on earth.

Each episode takes you to the extremes of our planet: the arctic, mountains, oceans, jungles, grasslands, deserts, rivers and even the urban jungle. Here, series photographer Timothy Allen speaks with Wanderlust editor Dan Linstead about the experience.

Direct download: timothy_allen__ep1.mp3


Dan Linstead: How did Human Planet come about and how did you get involved in the series?

TA: The series arose about four years ago when the BBC natural history unit was thinking of trying to broaden their horizons a bit and branch out from just shooting animals, nature and natural history.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot on the telly about tribal cultures with Bruce Parry’s Tribe, and it is very much something that the public are interested in. They decided to turn their cameras on the human animal for once and that’s how the show came about.

The series has been over three years in the making. We’ve travelled to over 40 countries and there’s been 80 shoots, covering every single human inhabited habitat on the planet.

I got involved, by chance actually, fortunately for me. I had a call from one of the researchers looking for interesting stories for the programme. I had spent quite a lot of time in the north east frontier states of India, which at the time were quite untravelled. One of the stories we spoke about, how the Khasis tribe in Meghalaya create living bridges over rivers in the mountains where they live, ended up in the final programme.

DL: So you translated that enquiry into a job as a still photographer on the series and went out on the shoots. What was that like?

TA: The BBC had four teams working on the series continually. Each team was covering two habitats, for example one team was covering jungles and oceans.

For each program, there were 10 shoots: so that’s a lot of shoots! My task most of the time was trying to work out a schedule to get me to the most prominent shoots possible. But it was impossible. There was no way for me to do all of them.

Photographically, I covered probably half of the stories for the book. We chose them because they were the strong ones that would captivate the viewing public.

DL: So you are shooting stills, not filming, shooting for the book and the website. Are you working alongside the camera crew, or are you seeking out different angles, different stories?

TA: Most of the shoots were so remote that there wasn’t the possibility of me getting out there on my own. Quite often we were hiring planes or aircraft to fly into these places as there was no other way to get there and all the crew had to go out at the same time.

In those instances, I was definitely shooting alongside the crew.

Every shoot was different. It was always my objective to get something a little different from the crew, but often it wasn’t possible, as many of these places there wasn’t anywhere else to go in the vicinity. A couple of shoots I picked up on my own, when I couldn’t make it when the crew was there, so I’d follow it up on my own.

I’d say 70% of the time I was with the crew, but not right alongside the crew, as the photographers out there know, the thing a film crew fears the most is the click of the camera!

Part of my task was to make myself invisible and to make myself sound invisible, which was possibly the hardest part.

Fortunately, the crews were great and we were able to work together well; there was an opportunity for everyone to get the footage they needed.

DL: There is a huge range of shots that has come out of this series – it’s about human beings, but in your photos there are huge landscapes, intimate portraits, arial photos, underwater photos – are these circumstances you were familiar shooting in?

TA: I’ve been doing this for quite a while, but I would say that I was pushed to the extremes of what I would normally do.

For example, I’ve shot a lot of underwater photography, but I have never gone down 100 feet with a bunch of guys taking air from hookah pipes and getting tangled in their lines. That is something that on the whole you don’t come across unless you get involved with a big production like this.

DL: These are normally quite specialist areas of photography – I’m thinking underwater photography, arial photography, are they not? You had to be a jack-of-all-trades for this scale of a shoot.

TA: I can understand why people would specialise – but I don’t think you need to. You have to get your head around a different piece of equipment, but apart from that it is still about what you see and what you point your camera at. I did have to have a crash course in a few things.

BBC series Human Planet starts 13 January 2011.

Timothy Allen will be appearing at the Destinations Show at London Earls Court in the Meet the Experts Theatre on Sunday 6 February at 15:00 

Destinations Show

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