Ahead of his UK tour which includes dates in Tamworth and Stafford, we spoke to wildlife photographer and cameraman Doug Allan.
A few days ahead of Doug Allan’s UK tour, he is feeling a little bit nervous. The cameraman and photographer best known for his work with David Attenborough on programmes such as Frozen Planet and Blue Planet will be touring the country to give talks on his career so far.
The wildlife photographer has done one-off talks before as well as writing a book – Freeze Frame, so he is used to sharing the experiences of his career so far. There is plenty to talk about – the man has had a long and illustrious working life to date.
With a busy schedule which often involves travelling all over the world for half of the year, it made sense to commit some time to a series of dates across the country, rather than one-off lectures.
Anyone who has caught Doug’s 10 minute behind-the-scenes slots at the end of nature documentaries can essentially expect an extended version of those on the tour. There will be more detailed insights into the biology of the animals and his experiences of working with them.
“As you dim the lights you spot people nodding along – whether they’re learning something new about an animal, or maybe about me” says Doug in his warm Scottish tones.
“You can see 8 year olds and 80 year olds enjoying it and taking different things away from it. It’s just great to be able to make people aware of the great things I’ve seen.”
As well as discussing his time with polar bears and killer whales with footage with some of the programmes he has worked on, Doug will be providing the opportunity for guests to ask him questions.
“Q+As are always good fun. Rarely do I finish at the time I’m supposed to –I’ll always be around to stop and chat to people afterwards.” Clearly he’s as fascinated by people as he is by wildlife.
“Occasionally people will throw unexpected questions at you, such as ‘how do you feel about climate change?’ I do get people in who are a bit sceptical in the audience – they think it’s a natural cause- just the world changing.
“But then there are some questions I always get asked such as ‘what is your favourite thing that you have filmed?”
So, what is his favourite animal to film?
“I feel most privileged about my time spent with polar bears. But then, how can you compare that to the more intimate time spent with a humpback whale… I’ve had a string of lovely and memorable moments. But if you gave me a polar bear shoot I would take it every time, they’re just so intelligent and there is such a range of behaviours.”
It is perhaps for this reason that Doug now likes to spend so much time in the Arctic – but it was the Antarctic where his career really took off.
“Actually photography was my last interest. Diving was my first passion – which led to biology – which led me to travel, which eventually led me to Antarctica.”
With such a wealth of untapped natural beauty around you, Doug says that photography is very popular in Antarctica.
“For me, photography is not an artistic pursuit; I just wanted to show people what I had seen. I managed to get a few contracts out there and at the end of 1981 a filming crew came out – and with them was David Attenborough. I rushed over to talk to them and I remember looking at the cameraman and I thought ‘what a fantastic job!’”
This inspired the photographer to contact the BBC who asked for some footage for a programme called Birds For All Seasons.
“The real challenge in this business is getting noticed. I was very lucky because my very first footage ended up on a high profile BBC programme, so the Antarctic sort of became my niche.”
Whilst working in the Red Sea, Doug read an article about the Antarctic and promptly looked up the British Antarctic Survey – and applied to a job with them. After failing one job interview – which he suspects may have been down to some suspicion around someone with a scientific degree applying for a diving job, he was finally offered a position out there.
“When I got there the lifestyle just suited me. It was nice to be around like-minded people with the freedom to do what we wanted. The Antarctic was very special to me at that particular time in my life. That was where I met David [Attenborough] too.”
How did it feel for Sir David Attenborough to bestow him with such praise as ‘the best photographer he’s ever worked with’ and ‘the toughest in the business’?
He lets out a humble laugh: “That was remarkable- that was classic David. It was especially satisfying to hear that he felt the need to say that. I think I’ll have to get that put onto my gravestone, haha. It was very special.”
Aside from this, are there any other career highlights which stand out for him?
“A very special moment was seeing a polar bear cub coming out of his den with his mother for the first time. The nearest other people were 150 miles away - you can’t say that for many places. It’s a very dangerous environment and you have been trusted that you won’t hurt yourself – and more importantly that you won’t hurt the polar bears. No-one else is trusted to be there. I feel very proud of that.”
The tougher aspects of the job involve the inevitable waiting around.
“I think the most challenging moment was the snow leopard. In 11 weeks I had it in front of me for one hour, which isn’t great!
When you aim high and try to capture animals that are very rare, you’ve got to expect that there will be failures – so you must have the time and the budget to allow for that.
“Wildlife films are like a continual work in progress- you have to be prepared to come home empty handed. Even after the most dispiriting 6 week shoot you bounce back. And when you get back to the producers, no-one gets blamed; it’s a very supportive working environment.”
Doug will be touring up until May, and afterwards he will be working on a short underwater film for BBC’s Springwatch. In the future he is keen to spend more time with orang-utans and gorillas: “They are intelligent and you can really build up a relationship with them in a way that you can’t with many animals.”
“I’d also love to spend more time around the Pacific. There are still a few untapped spaces of wildlife out there. The internet is making it easier for people to meet others to plan such trips and there are more travel options which is opening it up to more people. The Polars were very untouched at the time of me starting out – there were all these spectacular things no-one has seen. There is a lot less excitement and novelty now - but that is because of all of the high quality programmes that have been produced.”
What advice would Doug give to any aspiring photographers hoping to follow in his footsteps?
“You have to be passionate and focused, there is more competition out there now – there are even university courses on becoming a wildlife photographer. I can see how it happens. A 10-year-old may have been watching Blue Planet – their jaw dropping with fascination and then they get older and see that there are courses to do that kind of thing.
“I would just say don’t apply to these courses thinking it is a job like any other. If you have passion and ideas you will make it. Be passionate. Be patient. Be tenacious and take any opportunity to speak to people in the business.”
Doug Allen will be in the Tamworth Assembly Rooms tomorrow (1st April) and Stafford Gatehouse Theatre on 17th April. As a man who is obviously utterly fascinated by everything around him, and such an abundance of thrilling stories to tell and wonderful images to show, it’s sure to be an interesting night. For more information and tickets go to dougallan.com