An Interview with Timothy Allen
07.06.2007 -17 °C
Who wants to be a "snap-happy tourist"? Not me, and I would venture to guess from looking at Travellerspoint members' photography,that most Travellerspointers would not appreciate having themselves described as such either.
But then there's people like Timothy Allen, who take their photography a step further and actually manage to earn a living off it. Obviously your photos have to be exceptional, as Timothy's work shows. But what else does it take to make it as a career photographer? I asked Timothy if he could tell us a little about his experiences as a photographer and any tips he has for budding photographers out there. Though he's currently on the road, shooting features around India, Bhutan and Nepal, he was gracious enough to oblige us with his words of wisdom.
I noticed that your interest in photography began in Indonesia in your early 20s. Does your love for travel go hand-in-hand with your love for photography?
Yes, I believe so, although I don’t think I knew it in my 20s. Back then my intention was simply to backpack around SE Asia with friends. The idea of being a photographer didn’t enter my mind until some years later and even then it was a slow process to realize the possibility that it was actually a viable career move. These days I still absolutely love to travel but my intention is primarily to take photographs and secondarily to travel and experience new cultures. That is one of the unusual pitfalls of being a photographer – it is sometimes very hard to take your eye from behind the lens and really experience the situation you are in. Sometimes I miss the innocence of pure backpacking although my passion for photography takes me into experiences that I would otherwise have not encountered.
What has been the most memorable place you have ever photographed?
That’s a hard one – the experiences that lodge themselves in your memory aren’t always the nicest ones. I worked for one of the national newspapers in the UK for 6 years and during that time I saw some unpleasant things around the world which have remained memorable. It is in the nature of newspapers to report on such things even if they are not necessarily a true representation of the majority of what’s going on in the world. Recently, all my memories have come from harmonious situations on our planet. One of the places that stands out in my mind is Laya Province in North West Bhutan, on the Tibetan border. This place really blew my mind. In this day and age there are fewer and fewer places left in the world that remain uninfluenced by Western popular culture. I think the reason we travel is to see such places. This border region is a 4 day walk from the nearest vehicle access high up in the Himalayas. The scenery is spectacular and the culture is old and relatively intact. The Layaps wear their traditional dress everyday as they have done for centuries – photographically, that is an important prerequisite for me, although the loss of national dress doesn’t necessarily denote the loss of culture. That kind of place really affects you. It disarms the shield around your heart.
I can’t just mention one place as most memorable because I have just spent 7 months traveling the North East Frontier States of India. These states are like a photographic utopia. Indian Government policy and a healthy dose of wild unfounded rumours keeps most travelers away from the region. I had so many amazing experiences on that tour its hard to pick a favorite. In Meghalaya you can easily find what I believe should be classed as one of the natural wonders of the modern world – the ‘living root bridges’ of the Khasi Hills around the Bangladesh border. Dotted about this area of forest are hundreds of ancient ladders and bridges across the many rivers and waterfalls built by the Khasi tribe from stones and the living roots and branches of banyan trees. A description of these wonders will never do them justice and even the photos struggle to capture their organic beauty. They are still used in the day to day life of the Khasi people who walk the ancient paths of these hills. Entering that area was like stepping onto the set of ‘Lord of the Rings’ - augmented by the beautifully friendly Khasi people who love to take you exploring in the forest.
Do you think being successful in photography is one of those “99% perspiration, 1% inspiration” situations? Is taking great photos about putting in the hard work, or is it all about inspiration?
I think that all good photography begins with inspiration – its what drives us to encounter all these beautiful experiences. However, if I think back to some of my most memorable photos, there was definitely an amount of energy perspired. It can be a trap of the photographer to think that his or her best pictures were the ones that were hardest to get. I don’t believe that this is true - its something you can learn from working closely with picture editors. Often you need an objective eye to distinguish a good picture but I would say that on the whole the secret to taking a good photo lies in an awareness of light. Sometimes its hard to marry a poignant situation together with beautiful lighting conditions. Often when you are working on a specific story you are not always blessed with the luxury of graceful light in every situation – these are the times when the context of the image can override it’s aesthetic. The best images are always the ones that exhibit a unity of these two factors.
Now that you earn your bread and butter through photography, has this depreciated your enjoyment of it somewhat?
Not any more because I am afforded quite a bit of freedom now in my working life, but when money was a greater factor I did find myself in some rather uninspiring situations. I don’t know any photographers who can honestly say they’ve never shot something that didn’t inspire them. By its nature, taking pleasing photographs supplies you with enjoyable feelings and this is normally true even when the subject matter doesn’t interest you at all. However, I think all photographers are at their most happiest when they are shooting something that they would choose to experience regardless of whether they had a camera with them or not. In this day and age it appears to be getting harder and harder for photographers to make a good living shooting with a lifestyle that they love. Personally I don’t believe that’s the case – with the onset of digital photography, the last 10 years has seen unprecedented opportunities to adapt to a new way of working which is presenting photographers with many new options in the industry. I mean, it was only 8 years ago when we traveled abroad with hundreds of boxes of film, complete developing kit, wire machine and all the cumbersome things that went along with that. Today, I can fit all my kit into one small rucksack and if need be, I can supply images to my agency minutes after I shot them very easily where ever I am in the world. That’s a blessing as far as I’m concerned. I believe there was never a better time to become a photographer.
What advice do you have for budding young photographers trying to earn a living with their craft?
Becoming a jobbing photographer is not the mysterious procedure that many people make it out to be. There are many simple ways to get into the industry which have remained unchanged for years, and with the introduction of the internet and online agencies, there are now many new opportunities for carving out a career in photography. In the beginning, you have two main options – do you want to work for yourself, or for someone else? If the latter is the case, then you will need to get a portfolio of your best images together and get as many picture editors and agencies to see them as possible. These days, a portfolio no longer needs to reside in an expensive and beautifully bound book – you can present it online and prospective employers can see it over the internet or in person on your laptop. The most important thing however is to get potential employers to see your work. I very much advocate speaking to picture editors directly on the phone – don’t be shy - if you approach people by email you’re highly likely to get ignored in busy offices. Be prepared for knock-backs – its part of the process for sure. Most publications aren’t actively looking for new photographers and fewer and fewer are willing to give breaks to unknown names. However, by maintaining regular contact with the publications you would like to work for, when an opportunity eventually presents itself, be sure to take it, even if its not what you were expecting. Many great jobs were acquired by being in the right place at the right time, and that means spending as much time as you can around the people you want to work with. One of the pitfalls of working for someone else can be the loss of copyright. Personally, I feel this is the most important issue in the business side of contemporary photography. It is very important to keep copyright on your images in order for them to provide you with a future income. It may be hard to negotiate this when you’re starting out and its a tricky decision you will surely have to face at some point in your career – keep it in the back of your mind at all times because ten years from now you may be surprised at how much income your personal archive can derive - something you may have lost for the sake of the short term gain in the past.
If you intend to work for yourself then your options are very simple. Go out and shoot stories and images and then approach publications and agencies directly with your results. If you’re producing stories for magazines and newspapers, be sure that you have a good understanding of what encompasses a good story and what magazines you’ll be aiming it at, then phone the picture editor up and tell him or her what you’ve been up to – most magazines have the phone numbers of their editorial staff hidden in their pages somewhere. Supplying your images to agencies can be lucrative, but in the beginning you may not see the returns from your work that are sometimes branded around in adverts. Essentially, making money from stock agencies becomes easier the more images you have residing with them. Most of my contemporaries have tens or hundreds of thousands of images available through their agencies, which provides a comfortable income platform from which to work freely without financial constraints. There are many agencies in the marketplace today. Pick the ones who’s content suits you and contact them with your portfolio. They will more than likely give you a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. The world market place for stock images is expanding everyday as the media evolves in emerging countries. Your images can now be seen from New York to New Delhi at the touch of a button – its a great new opportunity for earning a living.
One last thing. Advice is helpful, but also I believe the right career awaits you if you can just follow your own personal passion. Many of the happiest photographers I know currently working in the industry started taking photos just because they love it.....and the rest just fell into place as a result of this passion for their craft. People will notice that passion in you and everyone likes working with people who love what they do.
All photos used with permission.
Thanks for the interview Timothy!
If you'd like to see more of Timothy's beautiful work, check out his website.