Story of Survival: How the BBC Has Revived Photojournalism

By Bell, Matthew | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), January 9, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Story of Survival: How the BBC Has Revived Photojournalism


Bell, Matthew, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Gazing up at the camera, the Bayaka tribesman collects honey from the bark of a tree, 130 feet above the forest canopy. Only a fraying strip of creeper keeps him from death. It's a dizzying image, showing the ingenuity and bravery of a human at work, and is one of dozens of beautiful pictures captured in the making of the BBC's landmark eight-part television series Human Planet, which begins on Thursday.

But behind the camera lies a story of ingenuity and bravery no less astonishing. Rigged in a harness and pushing himself away from the trunk to get the right shot was Timothy Allen, 39, who spent nearly two years travelling the world to photograph this epic project. Running for eight weeks, the series is the first time the BBC's Natural History Unit has focussed on the ultimate animal - us.

The decision to appoint a photographer to shadow the camera crews was unusual and slightly old-fashioned. In big-scale nature documentaries, it's uneconomical to have both a photographer and a cameraman waiting side-by-side for hours for a shot of, say, a lava pupating. But, as Allen explains, humans operate on knowable and manageable timetables, making a parallel photographic series possible.

The result is an exquisite hardback book, which has already sold out in pre-sales; a second print run has been ordered. For Allen, it has been the biggest job of his career. "Projects like this don't really happen any more in photography," he says. "They used to in the 1970s, in the heyday of photojournalism, when the National Geographic would send you off for two months to find your story."

The tale of how Allen came to land the job begins here at the IoS, where he was a photographer for six years, after which he quit to go travelling. "I wanted to flex my photographic muscle. I was living in London and I knew I wanted a big change. I was single. I sold my house, quit my job and set off, just me and my camera."

Without knowing where to go, Allen turned to Google, and tapped in "the remotest country in the world". Up came Bhutan, and off he went. His travels in that small kingdom at the eastern end of the Himalayas took him to the equally untravelled frontier states of north-east India. It was while a BBC researcher was looking into this underexposed area - ethnically different from the rest of India - that Allen emerged as an ideal addition to the team.

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