Story of survival: How the BBC has revived photojournalism

The 'Human Planet' photographer tells Matthew Bell why he wanted a more elevated focus

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. It was he who came across the Khasi people of Meghalaya, who create extraordinay bridges out of living trees.

Working on the series meant travelling to 40 countries, usually for two or three weeks at a time. Four teams, each covering two regions, worked on the eight episodes, often living with the people they were filming. Human Planet visited some of the earth's remotest people. How did they react to the media?

"The more remote the people are, the more welcoming," he says. "But there does come a point when the media corrupts . There are three stages: when people have no idea what the media is, then you get an incredible time. You're given access to everything, you're treated like an important person. In the second stage, they have been corrupted by the media, and they try to get everything they can from you. The third stage is when they don't care any more, and realise the media is not that bad. We're not out to stiff them. But I've never had an experience of not being welcomed."

Intriguingly, he considers his current work to be neither art nor journalism. "Photography is not a great art. What I like about it is that I get to show people something I saw that I liked. This is travel photography."

The downside to travelling so much is the weeks he spends apart from his girlfriend, though he says "she understands the fire that burns in a man's soul when he wants to go and do something." Is photojournalism kinder to men? "Men are luckier in a lot of ways, but actually, I would say women get a lot more opportunities because the female perspective has rarely been told."

After Human Planet, Allen can't complain about opportunities. But more than the photographs, it's the memories he prizes, like hanging 130 feet up a tree to capture the Bayaka honey-gatherer. He underwent extensive training in abseiling for that shot, including a week climbing trees at Westonbirt Arboretum, though he was still terrified. "I'm scared of heights, and I was up there for an hour. The worst thing is that you have to change the position of the harness to come down. It would have been easy to undo the wrong clip. It was incredibly nerve-racking, but it's memories like that that I love."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Junior PHP Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Guru Careers: Front End Web Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: Our client help leading creative agencies ...

Christine McCleave: FP&A Analyst

£36,000 - £40,000: Christine McCleave: Are you looking for a new opportunity a...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot