When the world around you isn’t enough, wanderlust knocks on your door. Born in Tonbridge in the South East of England in 1971, Timothy Allen has been exploring and photographing every corner of this planet relentlessly. He comes back from each trip with surreal images which have made of him one of the most awarded travel photographers in history, but, nonetheless, his life itself is a journey that has turned him into a story-teller; a pretty fascinating one, if you ask us.
I enjoy talking about the things I do; I just came back from the U.A.E but my next trip isn’t until the end of next month, when we are going to Siberia for three weeks; there’s minus 50-60ºC. I used to travel a lot more, about 11 months a year, but I have three small children now. It hurts too much to be away from them.
If there’s no roads in a place, then I love being there. It’s one of my favourite places to be, you know?
“In the last 25 years I’ve seen large areas of the world become available to drive, where it didn’t use to be the case. Obviously, roads are a great thing for local people, but not for me. It makes it too easy to get there so I tend to go off looking for places where you can’t get around by car, for instance where we are going in Siberia, we’ll travel in the back of sledges for 2 to 3 days. Anywhere where it’s hard to travel you’re going to get less people visiting from the outside.”
“I often shoot pilgrimages where people need to walk. Often, it’s just me on my own, there aren’t many photographers choosing these things, because they’re much harder, you know. I’ll travel anywhere I can, but I prefer if the journey is harder. It’s not even the challenge, it’s the story which hasn’t been covered by hundreds of people, and those tend to be one of two things: they’re either in places that are hard to get to, or there are places where people don’t really want to go – war zones, boring places… For instance, Russia is huge and most of it is off the tourist map. No one would think of going to a little town in the middle of Russia, but that’s actually where a story that has never been shot before is happening. The culture in former Soviet Union countries is fascinating.”
These days when you see a picture of a place that is very popular, you can’t help yawning a little bit. I’m looking for pictures of places that I’ve never heard of before. Most people I have to say are quite unoriginal; they see something they want to do and they just go and do it. Because they see someone else do it.
I did my dose of war photography when I was in press photography in the 90’s, and it was exciting; but it wasn’t my thing, mainly because I couldn’t live with the paradox of shooting in war zones. You have to justify being there, basically. Why are you photographing people who are basically dying and having the worst time of their lives? And I think a lot of photographers justify that by saying “Well, I’m reporting on this war therefore it’s a good thing, because it’s going out into the media and it’s helping people”; but I’ve never believed that, having visited wars myself. I felt I was going there out of pure curiosity, in all honesty, because if I actually wanted to help these people I would probably pick them up and help them, I wouldn’t take a photograph.
“I was in the Balkans during the war and in Indonesia during some uprisings there, but it wasn’t my thing, unfortunately… or fortunately, because otherwise I might not be alive. I think I inspire more people with the kind of work I do now, and I feel more authentic, you know, this is what I like.”
That guy (photo) is called Samni and he’s a fisherman in Laos. He doesn’t feel particularly uncomfortable doing that, in all honesty. I wonder sometimes if we project things on people. Of course, he would prefer it if he could fish in a lovely calm lake, but certainly I never got the impression that he was suffering; it’s relative, suffering.
Physical suffering is one thing of course but I remember I went to Mali a few years ago and there were these massive cliffs; all around the cliffs there were former dwellings of people -caves, which are in an incredibly dangerous situation, about 500 feet up in a sheer cliff face. There’s a house, basically, a little cave; you can see the remains of the ropes that they used to use to get to these houses. Something made those people live there, and I’m sure they decided that living in those incredibly dangerous situations was a better idea than living on the ground. Now, to me, that’s relative. I look at that and think “I would never live there” but if something dangerous is at ground level then you just do that. So I’ve never taken a photo of someone who I felt was really suffering.”
“I photographed a kid in a rubbish dump just outside Mombassa, and there were people living there on the dump, and that’s terrible, but in all honesty, talking to people, they were positive, they were people working for themselves, generating an income, the harder they worked the more money they earned. By talking to those people I find myself thinking there was a degree of contentment about what was happening there. Sure, in contrast to someone living in a mansion who owns a private jet it’s different, but I did find these people to be very resilient. They accept their home and they make the most of it. In our culture now certainly a lot of us feel we don’t have enough and I think it’s because we see so much.”
“A hundred years ago, people were born into systems which were quite simple and they made the most of what they had but these days we struggle to be grateful for what we have, you know? But there’s no right or wrong, it’s a very grey area; but I would say I find positive feelings everywhere I go, and that’s part of the reason I’m there. I’m humbled by a lot of the ways that people live especially when there is hardship in their lives. I find it very inspiring because this society we live in is terrible.”
As the years go on, we have less and less risks in our lives. I hate to say it but when you live like that and you’re not taking risks anymore, the spark is gone from life. Life is a risky thing and I think it’s rewarding when you can embrace that to a certain degree.
“In all honesty, I’ve been really lucky. Very rarely have I found myself being in an uncomfortable situation. The few times I’ve been in trouble, such as having a conflict with the police over shooting in a place where they didn’t want me to shoot, I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever had experience amongst the civilians. Part of that is to do with the fact that I don’t choose to go to dangerous places, but also that most people are really nice. It’s an unfashionable thing to think at the moment, but most people are cool. The people that give a bad name are a very small minority and it’s not hard to live amongst nice people. I don’t go to places where I’m not welcome, I want people to want me there and to want to show me how they live.”
I don’t want to tell the story of people dying in Syria, I want to tell the story of people thriving in Mongolia, for example. That’s just the path I’ve chosen.
Nowadays most people know what the outside world is. We live in a very connected world. The old myths of travel from the 60s and 70s don’t apply anymore. I know people who I photographed 20 years ago who were living in a village in a remote location, cut off from the world, who have now added me on Facebook.
“20 years ago they would of course ask me about how they could experience my life or how they could attract tourism. Once you start noticing the outside world, you need money to join in.”
“I wouldn’t say any of the people in my pictures are my day-to-day friends because my day-to-day friends all live where I live; they’re the ones I consider my real friends because I live close to. Some people I spent a lot of time with, but I haven’t seen them for years, so I find it hard to still call them my friends. Many of the people I photographed, I go back and I visit again, but I think by its nature friendship is something that is nurtured continously.”
“25 years ago what was more difficult then was connecting with somebody from the country you were travelling to before getting there. A common experience was you would arrive somewhere and somewhere there would be an English speaking teacher, and that would be the person who would end up being the translator. These days it happens far less because you can research a place extensively before you go somewhere and contact someone before you even get there. Actually, if I’m going to a country and mention it on social media, it’s amazing how many local people offer straight away “Can I come with you? Just hang out with you?”.”
I’ve been very inspired by many of the traditions I’ve seen in Mongolia, in Kazahkstan, they have a very community-based culture, and one of the things they do a lot is sit around and they toast the successes of each other. What I picked up from my time with the Kazahks is the importance of sitting in groups and telling the other people in your group why you like them, why you’re happy to know them… and I definetely brought home with me a tradition even to the point where my family, before we eat our meals, we tell each other the best thing that happened to us in that particular day.
“There’s probably hundreds of other things that I picked up from my travels and I don’t even notice. I lived in a refugee camp in North-East India and I remember the moment when I was sitting on the floor and I remember realizing how important it was to have a family. Right in that moment I thought “I need to have a family! It’s the most important thing”, because I was living with families. There were families living in harsh conditions but were very close together.”
“I could choose a picture but there are different reasons why you like different photos. I shot a photo in Liberia a few years ago of a lot of kids watching us make a film, basically; there’s legs in there and there’s people looking through the holes in a wall. I like that picture because it’s the nearest I have been to the perfect picture. There are so many elements in the picture which could be different: there are feet, there are faces, there are hands… and nearly all of them are in a position that I like.”
“If you look at the hole at the top right-hand corner of the picture, there’s no face in it, because at that particular moment there was no face up there and I actually have other versions of that photo where there is a face looking through that hole, but the other children don’t look that good, etc. I still think that photo could be better if there was a child looking through the window in the top right hand corner, but it’s the nearest I’ve got to the perfect picture. I think what drives a lot of creative people is the quest for that nervous energy.”
My work is a spiritual journey and now I feel like I’m home. The journey so far taught me about home, because in the last 4 years I’ve settled down and had children. The experiences I had on the road taught me the importance of having a solid foundation for a family. I live in a farm in Wales, in a pretty remote spot in my country and I spend as much time as I can here. The community spirit here is incredibly strong and that’s something I often found in my travels and that was lacking back home.
“Nowadays I only go away for up to six weeks and during that time, I find phones very complicated because they can cause you a lot of distress in those places. If something bad happened at home and you were in a remote location, in that moment there isn’t much you can do about it. When we go to very remote places we carry a cell phone with us, but I never make an outgoing call because I’ve learned the lesson too many times of making a call back home and it causing me a lot of pain inside, from things like missing home to just getting a bad response from someone at home. When you’re living in the middle of the wilderness, you have lots of time to think about home. For example, if you make a call to home and you speak to your wife and she’s having a bad day because for her it’s just another day at home, and maybe she’s not that excited to hear from you because something broke or whatever, it can be a devastating thing! And then you have to put the phone down and sit there feeling bad for six hours. I’m very concious of nurturing my good feeling inside me, because if you find yourself feeling bad it can be a hard place to bring yourself to, because you’re alone and far from home.”
Back in the day nobody travelled with a phone and it was more enjoyable, it felt like an adventure. I would talk to my father and mother once a year when I would try and find a phone to make an international call on Christmas Day. We just accepted it.
“I absolutely love travelling to hotels, too! I was on a family trip recently to Bulgaria for 3 weeks and for two weeks we were in resorts. Now I want to include my kids in what I do. I love hotels but I find the people I meet in hotels far less interesting than the ones I would meet travelling a different way.”
The most boring places in the world are 5 stars hotels.
“I lived in Indonesia for about two years and at the time I honestly thought I was going to stay there forever: I had a job, a girlfriend, I spoke the language, I really got into the culture, I loved it there; but I was young and naïve I suppose. The funny thing is the situation I ended up in. I’ve ended up with a partner now who has an almost identical background to me; her mother was a teacher, my mother was a teacher, we grew up in different towns but in a relatively similar situation. It’s funny that that’s the way it’s ended up.”
“What I’m most excited about in life now are my children and I love photographing them, it’s really rewarding. I love travelling with them. There is nowhere I can think of right now where I can’t wait to shoot because my priorities have changed. It’s amazing the impact children have in your life. They’ve become the central reason for living whereas I suppose before I had children the central reason or living was photography or travel or both.”
I’ve had many experiences that changed my life. The one very memorable time in my life was when I quit my job as a news photographer and went travelling on my own. I googled “what’s the most remote country in the world” to get away from my life as news photographer, and Bhutan popped up. I found a very old article from National Geographic and I think it was by one of the first photographers who was allowed into Bhutan to document life. I saw pictures and I thought “I’ve got to visit those people”; and when I eventually arrived in Bhutan, that moment represented this huge end of an old life and beginning of a new life. I actually started crying; we were walking through a forest surrounded by a bunch of donkeys, there were some Layap womenthere and the people I was with thought something was wrong, they asked me “what’s the matter with you? why are you crying?” and I was like “I can’t even explain it, it’s so personal, but I feel like I’ve reached a point where I’ve been heading towards for a long time, and it’s all just coming out of me”.
I think you become used to memorable experiences and they just become your daily life. Not that much astonishes me anymore as it used to 30 years ago.
ALL PICTURES BY TIMOTHY ALLEN
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