An Interview with Photojournalist Timothy Allen

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Bhutan

Bhutan

Ever fancied spending a year travelling in some of the world’s remotest countries? That’s what photojournalist Timothy Allen did when he took a year off to explore remote places in the Himlaya. It sounds like a fascinating project and a great way to spend some time. I asked Tim some questions about how he got started in photography.

Interview

How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look/atmosphere/feel do you try and create in your photos?

I’m finding it hard to describe my photographic vision. To be honest, I’ll point my camera at pretty much anything if I find it intriguing. In general, I suppose I tend to focus on thought provoking material, but there are no hard and fast rules to the way I work. I’m a big fan of enthusiasm, and when I’m feeling it I know that I’m doing the right thing whatever the situation.

When did you start taking photos and why? What made you decide to become a photojournalist?

I always enjoyed making albums of pictures of my friends when I was a kid, but the first time I began to shoot photographs consciously was in Indonesia in the early 90s. I was on an ecological expedition living in remote jungle for 3 months and by chance our team of 6 people stumbled across a small tribal group who’d never met outsiders before. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I realized that I was becoming a bona fide photojournalist since I don’t think I had ever consciously set out to make it my job. I still feel that making a good living from photography has always been one of the unexpected blessings of doing the thing I love.

What are the three most important qualities that a photojournalist needs to succeed?

All the inspirational photographers I know take pictures because they love doing it. Success appears to be just a side effect of that passion if that’s what you want. To be financially successful you will usually need to be good at working with people, especially picture editors, although saying that, I know plenty of unsociable characters who make a lot of money in this industry, so my advice would just be to always follow the path that your enthusiasm presents to you and try not to think too much about what everyone else is doing.

I read on your website that you joined an aid convoy to Bosnia to shoot your first year reportage project. I liked this story. What inspired you to take such an extreme step when other students were presumably focused on projects closer to home? How did this help you in your photography career? Is this the sort of project you would recommend to a budding newcomer to photojournalism who wants to break into the field?

I was 27 when I started that course, so it was inevitable that I saw different photographic opportunities to the younger students who were fresh out of school. In retrospect, I feel very fortunate that I was not pressured into a career when I was younger – it took me a long time to discover what my passion was, so of course, by the time I realized it, I could easily put all of my energy into making it work. For the Bosnia trip I approached a local aid organization that were driving convoys overland to Mostar every month and offered them free publicity pictures in return for a seat on a truck. I didn’t know it at the time, but the pictures I shot on that trip would end up getting me my first paid job a few months after I got back when I dropped out of college and started working in London.

If you are a newcomer who wants to break into the field, I would whole heartedly suggest that the projects you choose reflect the life you live and the things you believe in – especially if you are still young because you have unique access to your own subculture, the kind that often eludes older, more experienced photographers. Next time you’re out shooting pictures ask yourself this question “would I be here even if I didn’t have my camera?” If the answer is ‘yes’ then you know you’re probably onto a good thing, so shoot away and don’t hold back.

How did you get job with the Sunday Telegraph and later the Independent? What did you learn from the experience of working for such prestigious publications?

A guest-speaker to my college saw my portfolio from Bosnia and set me up with a meeting with the photographer Judah Passow who founded the agency ‘Network’. With the help of his recommendation I was given a trial at the Sunday Telegraph, which gave me enough work to afford the opportunity of living in London. From there I forged freelance relationships with other publications until I ended up working exclusively for the Independent.

National newspapers are an excellent medium within which to hone your skills as a photojournalist, primarily because the work is so diverse, but also because you have to learn to be a highly efficient operator. The responsibility you carry forces you to find an interesting image in every situation you encounter, no matter how dull or boring that circumstance might be, which is a very important quality to nurture.

Funnily enough, the most profound effect that that period of my career had on me was to inspire me to choose a new photographic path focusing primarily on positive imagery and stories from around the world. I don’t deny that these days my photographs are very subjective. I deliberately choose not to focus on the negative aspects of the places that I visit. I feel very strongly that the media as a whole has an unhealthy obsession with recounting stories of fear and suffering and so it is that I am consciously deciding to show that this is not necessarily the way the world is.

Your work has been published in a lot of magazines, including prestigious glossies. What advice can you give any photographer aspiring to break into these markets? How do you sell your story ideas to the magazines?

When you’re starting out, the most important thing to do is cultivate relationships with the relevant staff at the publications you want to work for. If you have a particular story that you’ve shot then phone the picture editor and ask them to take a look at it. I would suggest you create a web page with a short synopsis of the story and an edit of easily visible thumbnails, or burn something similar to a disk and send it so that you can easily direct people to the story and photos. They’ll make a decision from that point. Don’t be shy to cold-call people, its part of the process when you’re starting out. One thing I would mention – don’t rely on email to get people’s attention – always make a call and speak to the relevant people in person.

After you’ve been working for a few years, selling story ideas becomes a lot less traumatic because you end up knowing a lot of picture editors and journalists. Additionally you will probably become affiliated with an agency and they will often do the selling for you – its up to you. As a freelancer, if you choose to focus your efforts on working for a small handful of publications then they will more than likely supply you with enough work so that you will not need to generate your own ideas. There are many ways to work, more often than not it’s a combination of them all.

You also sell your work through Axiom. What advice do you have for succeeding with an agency like Axiom? What is the best way for a photographer to find a suitable agency to work with?

Agencies can support you in two ways – through assignments and stock sales. Some agencies focus more on generating assignments whilst others are better at stock. Many photographers are affiliated with a number of agencies for this reason. Making money from stock is basically a numbers game – roughly speaking, the more pictures you have in the archive, the more money you make. Of course, if you own the only picture of George Bush being assassinated then this rule doesn’t necessarily apply, the same can also be said of stock sales of celebrity photos which currently generate unusually large sums of money compared to other editorial stock.

To get representation from an agency for assignments you will need to prove yourself before they sign you up. Good agencies don’t normally take on photographers unless they already have made a name for themselves, so my advice is not to worry about that if you are staring out, it’s not important. However, if you feel that it’s the right time to approach an agency, then make sure you have a portfolio of your best 30 or so images and approach the relevant people.

These days you don’t necessarily need to produce a beautifully bound book of your work, most picture editors will be happy to see your edit on a laptop as a slideshow. Just make sure the images you choose are the best of the best that you have, and do show them in person if its at all possible so that you can get as much feedback as you can – if they don’t like your work then make sure you find out why so that you can decide on a future plan of action.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had as a photojournalist?

I’ve never been any good at answering that question. If you look at the pictures I have chosen to put up on my website you can rest assured that I found all those experiences memorable.

Tell us a little about your work in India, Bhutan and Nepal. You have some beautiful and amazing photos from these countries. What is it about this region that interests you so much?

I’ll be honest with you. I ended up in Bhutan because I typed ‘what is the most remote country in the world’ into Google. It was a couple of years ago and I was feeling a bit disillusioned with the rat race back home so I decided to work away from it all for a little while. One thing led to another and I ended up spending a year traveling from Kashmir in the Western Himalaya to Nagaland in the far east. That trip was just what I needed to reignite my passion for life again because there are literally so many lovely people in that part of the world. I’ve already done a few interviews on that trip so if your interested here’s a couple of links which might explain my interest in that region.

http://blog.travellerspoint.com/102/

http://blog.travellerspoint.com/90/

How do you get so closely involved with the communities you photograph? In my experience they can be hostile to strangers with cameras. How do you overcome the initial distrust?

The opportunity to totally immerse myself in a community is not always a luxury that I am afforded in my work, but its something I always strive for. I’m not one of those photographers who can enter into a situation with all guns blazing so to speak. I usually feel too uncomfortable taking someone’s picture without his or her prior consent.

Fortunately, I think I have genuine fascination of other people’s lives, regardless of whether I’m taking their picture or not and I think people acknowledge that when I’m around. If I can feel that someone doesn’t trust me then I won’t take their picture knowingly because that’s not generally a feeling that I want to portray in my images. In all the pictures from the Himalayas I was living with those people in their houses. They are proud of who they are and consequently they are happy to open up their lives to you.

Name three photographers you like and why.

Antonin Kratochvil, because his images inspired me when I was studying photography, David LaChapelle, because he consistently creates amazing and beautiful images, and Abbie Trayler-Smith, because she’s an awesome friend

Do you sell your work solely through Axiom or through other means as well? How do you market yourself? How important is your website for self-promotion?

No, also ‘Eyevine’ syndicate my celebrity portraits. I don’t market myself. Personally, I don’t think my website is that important for self-promotion because I don’t use it to get work. However, as a record of what I’ve been up to recently it’s the best way to see a selection of my pictures without having to trawl through magazines or the Internet.

Where is your photography going? What future photographic project or projects are you excited about?

I have no plans to change my modus operandi in the near future. I’m off to China tomorrow, then South America and after that South Africa. I’m excited about them all.

Links

Tim’s Website: http://www.photojournal.co.uk/

Other interviews:

http://blog.travellerspoint.com/102/

http://blog.travellerspoint.com/90/

Photo Gallery

Ambon Civil War

Ambon Civil War

Nagaland

Nagaland

Taxidermy

Taxidermy

September 11

September 11

All photos copyright © Timothy Allen. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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One Response to “An Interview with Photojournalist Timothy Allen”

  1. Herbert says:

    A very interesting article. In fact your blog is VERY interesting. Will definitely stop by regularly.

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