After a year and a half of non-stop traveling with Human Planet, it appears that for me this particular journey is now over.
It’s been an amazing experience and one that has brought me into contact with our incredibly diverse species across almost every inhabitable environment on the planet. I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to learn that I can report back that human beings are the same the world over… individuals dealing with their own versions of personal struggles to secure food, find a mate, put a roof over their heads and protect their offspring. I’m also sure that you won’t be too shocked to discover that no matter where I went in the world, doors were opened to me, food was shared with me, knowledge was exchanged freely and help was offered unconditionally.
I’ve really enjoyed blogging about my experiences… so much so in fact that I have decided to continue doing it on my own website. So, if you would like to carry on following my travels and read about the other work I do outside of the BBC, then please click HERE, or alternatively you can join me on Facebook.
In the meantime, I will leave you with my personal Top 40 roundup of favourite photos from my Human Planet journey to remind you of some of the amazing stories that will be appearing on the programme when it hits your screens in January 2011.
. . .
This will be my last post on this blog. For those of you who would like to continue following my work on my new blog, please click HERE. planeta humano
Alternatively, you can get my latest updates and join in our discussions on my new Facebook page.
Two weeks into 2010 and I am back from my one month break over the holiday season. As is the tradition for photographers around this time of year, I have put together a small portfolio of previously unseen pictures from 2009… one from each Human Planet shoot last year.
Yesterday I left my home town of Bristol deep in snow. Today, I am filing this post from a hot and humid Changi airport in Singapore on a stop over with the mountains team on our way to the highlands of North Eastern Papua New Guinea where we will be shooting for the next 2 weeks. Right now, I am also pleased to say that we have British photojournalist Kieran Doherty shooting a high rise story for us in UAE’s capital Dubai with the urban team and he’ll be posting a blog in due course.
Happy New Year to you where ever you are in the world and I hope you enjoy this selection of pictures from a year of travel in 2009.
To see more pictures from the Human Planet journey so far, click HERE
. . .
Still reading? Join in the discussion on my Facebook page.
The story behind the image
In terms of my photography, the most common question I am asked is “What is your favourite picture that you’ve taken”. It’s a very easy question to ask, but as those of you who shoot pictures regularly will no doubt understand, it’s an incredibly difficult one to answer.
In order to categorize a picture so precisely, I think it’s probably worth mentioning that according to me, ‘favourite picture’ doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘best picture’. The former suggests a degree of sentimental value, whereas the latter would probably best be judged by the objective eye of an experienced stranger and not by that of the image’s originator.
So, after quite a bit of thought, and for many reasons, sentimental and other, I have decided that this image is my favourite from my archive.
For those of you that are familiar with my back catalogue, I’m sure that a few of you reading this may be a little bemused by this choice of image. After all, on surface inspection it is quite a demeaning and derogatory photo – a style in which I am not renowned for shooting. However, for me the beauty in this photo lies in exactly that uneasy predicament that you are confronted with as a viewer, and one that may make more sense after I’ve elaborated a little on the circumstances surrounding its inception.
I shot this photo about 5 years ago for inclusion in the fantastic BAFTA-nominated documentary Taxidermy Stuff the World. The film follows the fortunes of a handful of taxidermists from around the world as they find, ‘stuff’ and eventually show their best work at the fantastically glitzy World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois, USA. The photograph shows taxidermist Jeanette Hall from Spring Creek, Nevada, standing with her pedestal mounted Appaloosa horse outside her hotel room in the corridor of the Crown Plaza hotel in Springfield.
Jeanette ended up playing quite a prominent role in the film, not least because she has such a brilliantly interesting and honest character. Amongst her talents at the time, she was most renowned for her love of diligently mounting the testicles of various animals on small varnished plaques, something that the armchair psychologists amongst our crew identified with her recent status as an embittered divorcee and one that her free-standing freezer choc-a-bloc full of frozen testicles certainly alluded to.
Nevertheless, after spending some time with Jeanette over the course of our filming it soon became apparent that she, like many of her contemporaries in the world of taxidermy whose passion often required them to kill wildlife, was in fact blessed with a strangely genuine love of animals. For me this paradox was a fascinating revelation to discover and one that I feel gives this portrait of her and her cherished horse so much more poignancy. For sure, it’s hard to ignore the brutal symbolism of the severed white horse’s head but it is somehow eclipsed by the delicate intimacy evident in the way she’s holding its reins. Similarly, the Mona Lisa smile of both Jeanette and her treasured horse beguile the tragically large and prominent 3rd place rosette pinned to this carefully manicured nape. Of course, quite a large factor in the initial attraction to this image comes from the simple fact that at a swift glance it is surprisingly easy to overlook the ‘minor’ detail that this beautiful horse is not actually alive and indeed doesn’t even posses any body below its neckline.
A few months after I got back from the shoot this particular image was included in an exhibition of photojournalism and ended up framed in a London gallery sandwiched between photographs from the war in Afghanistan and the Asian Tsunami. In my experience, most people’s initial reaction to the photo is one of either disdain or mockery and this was very much the case at that time. At the private view I remember wondering what Jeanette would think if she knew that people were sniggering at her portrait in a well-to-do London gallery. It was an uncomfortable feeling, so I tracked down her contact details and sent her an email asking for her opinion. Her reply was swift and brilliantly comforting. She wrote that she absolutely loved the picture and that her horse looked beautiful. She said that she had given framed copies to her family and friends and that in fact, her personal copy took pride of place on her mantelpiece at home. She didn’t care what other people thought of her picture.
I think that is why I like this picture so much. To some it’s disgusting, to others beautiful. For me it is deeply ironic… for Jeanette it’s just a lovely picture of her and her beloved Appaloosa horse. It can mean so many different things to different people but most importantly, it does so without actually causing offence to the person who originally posed for the photo in good faith, something that I think about a lot when people allow me the opportunity to photograph them. All in all it’s a picture full of paradox and irony and I like that. Ironic too that the picture I have ended up choosing as my favourite was, out of necessity, shot with flash, something I normally can’t stand and almost never use in my photography.
I suppose that one of the prominent qualities that keeps me enamoured by a picture is whether or not, as I study it more and more, I discover things about that image that I would like to change… things that I feel would improve it somehow. In the case of this image, after quite a few years I am still happy with it just the way it is. Well, almost. I’ve often secretly wished that Springfield’s Crown Plaza Hotel had had a slightly more garish wall paper adorning its corridors. But then again, nothing’s ever perfectly right when you’re a photographer.
As an amusing postscript to this story, I am including the link below to an article about Jeanette that I found in The Telegraph and which I think sums up the complexities of her philosophy on life brilliantly. Absolutely classic!
To see more of my photos from the World Taxidermy Championships.. click HERE
The story behind the image
A lot of people have been asking me about this image, a cropped version of which appears on the masthead of this blog, so here’s the story of how it came about. I shot this photograph in 2007 whilst on a 2 month tour of south west China. It was taken on the last day of the yearly Sisters’ meal festival of the Miao people of Guizhou Province. The Miao are a beautiful highland dwelling tribe with a strong tradition of silver jewellery making and embroidery and this festival is one chance for the women of the tribe to show off their fantastic traditional dress. In particular, it is a time for the young single ladies of the tribe to get pro-active and attract a suitable partner and as such, the four days of the festival involve a series of elaborate rituals and community dances specifically designed to encourage new relationships amongst the youth of the tribe, many of whom travel from outlying villages to take part in the gathering.
Much of Miao culture has evolved from the significance of rice in their daily lives and the Sisters’ Meal festival is no different. Throughout the festivities, young Miao men will give small parcels of multicoloured sticky rice to the ladies who they have their eyes on. As a sign to their prospective partner, a woman will bury a pair of chopsticks inside the rice and give it back as a symbolic acceptance of their advances. However, a single chopstick in the returned package denotes interest rather than full acceptance, while what every courting Miao male fears the most is receiving a chilli, which signifies a refusal.
If you are planning to visit this festival, my advice is to travel to Shidong in advance and stay there for a few days. The festival happens at a number of locations around the area but Shidong, with its beautiful location on the banks of a river, was the most authentic in my experience. The majority of the handful of foreigners I met there had just come for the day and, in my opinion, missed some of the best aspects of the festival. It is possible to find many enchanting pictures if you get up early and walk around the nearby villages visiting families in their homes as they prepare for the festival. The Miao are a very friendly bunch and I was invited in to countless houses to share food and see the ladies getting ready. Proud people like the Miao are a joy to photograph because they love to show off their colourful culture to visitors.
If you want to shoot a picture like this you will need a fast prime lens, preferable f1.8 or less. If you don’t have any primes, I would suggest you go out tomorrow and buy yourself a second hand 50mm f1.8. It might just change your life. They are incredibly cheap and will open up a whole new world of photographic opportunities that may have previously eluded you, especially in low light situations where you will be able to shoot in places you probably never dreamed possible with your f4.5-5.6 zoom lens. Additionally, using a fixed lens will train you to focus on the specific area around you at that lens’s particular focal length without being distracted by the barrage of potential opportunities that zoom lenses seem to offer the user. Pick your focal length, then move around to find the images that fit that lens and forget everything else. Remember that one of the best tools at your disposal with a fast lens is depth of field, so play around with it as much as possible by filling the frame with plenty of out of focus objects but don’t forget to use these points to lead the eye into the main focal point of the image which must be absolutely pin sharp, in this case the lady’s eyes and gaze.
As you can see from this wide image, the full scene reveals the fantastic photographic opportunities available at that dance. With so many beautiful women in amazing costumes there was plenty of time and opportunity to find a striking image.
The story behind the image
I shot this picture a couple of years ago whilst on a 4 week trip through the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan can be a complicated country in which to travel since, as a visitor you are required to take a guided tour as your means of travel through the kingdom. Of course, nothing is ever set in stone and it wasn’t too long after meeting my guide and driver that we agreed to modify our pre-planned itinerary and tread a rather less travelled path through this fantastic country by visiting Bhutanese people in their own homes.
This image was one of the first photos I took in Bhutan, and still one of my favourites. On my first day in Thimpu, Bhutan’s sleepy capital city, I asked my guide to take me to visit his relatives and on the way we passed an old friend of the family slowly trudging his way up a road quietly chanting and spinning his prayer wheel. That day it was Neowney, a week long religious duty of mantra chanting and fasting that most of Thimpu’s elderly citizens were taking part in at the time. The family friend agreed for us to come with him and we followed him up to Changangkha Lhakhang temple.
As a first introduction to Bhutan, I think you would struggle to find a more atmospherically charged scene than a room full of meditating people lit only by two small doorways at the front left and right sides of the room. Needless to say, this image was one of an abundance of photographic gifts being offered at that time. Every face in the room told a different story, but it was this lady, quietly sitting at the front in deep meditation who stole the show for me. Later on in the day, outside the temple we showed her the image on my laptop. In that beautiful way that only wise old Buddhists know how, she smiled and carried on about her duties at the temple, unimpressed.
Taking a photograph like this is not hard at all. The only prerequisites are a darkish background and a suitable light source emanating from only one direction, in this case an open door. One thing you must be sure of is to remember to meter for just the highlights that you can see. This will involve shooting with your camera set to manual and adjusting your exposure accordingly, something I would advise you to get into the habit of doing at all times if you are serious about your photography. By exposing for just the highlights on the woman’s face, the rest of the dimly lit background disappears into complete darkness.
As you can see from this second frame. There was no shortage of images in the room on that day. For me though, the tight framing of the lady gives the first image a greater sense of the intimacy of a quiet moment such as meditation.
Welcome to the beginning of a rather extraordinary journey. Over the next 20 months I will be accompanying BBC film crews on a groundbreaking voyage around Planet Earth to document the remarkable ways in which the human species has adapted to living within our world’s natural environments. During this time, we will be visiting people in their own unique habitats, from the Arctic to the Sahara. From the high Himalaya to the remotest island archipelagos. This will be a journey into the world of the human animal, at a time in history when our species, populating every corner of the world, is becoming connected like no other time.
My job on this journey will be to photograph the people we meet. The purpose of this blog will be to offer you an insight into the things I experience, and the ways that I work. Using commentary, photographs and video, I hope to share a little of my personal journey with you, wherever you might be in the World. At the end of it all, the 8 part TV series Human Planet will air in the UK and shortly afterwards in the rest of the world. At the same time a book will be released to accompany the films.
Since filming has already begun on the series, for the next few posts I will update you on the places I have visited so far. Ethiopia (twice), Spain, Niger and Greenland. From then on, using my laptop and a satellite phone, I will post weekly updates from around the globe as I travel.
So, thanks for dropping by. Subscribe to the blog now and join me on this truly amazing photographic journey around the world.
Check out the BBC’s Human Planet site HERE