Interview: Planet Earth and Blue Planet cameraman, Gavin Thurston

Gavin Thurston has been a wildlife cameraman for over 36 years and has worked alongside David Attenborough on some of the most famous BBC documentaries such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet.

He recently released a book, ‘Journeys in the Wild, The Secret Life of a Cameraman,’ where he goes into detail about his career and shares some of the amazing things he has witnessed as well as the gruelling experiences and reality of the job.

Environment Journal spoke to him on the phone to find out more.

Do you have a particular experience as a cameraman that stands out?

That’s a tricky question, but if I had to narrow it down, I think it would have to be a trip I did to the Congo with David Attenborough.

It was a sequence where rehabilitated chimpanzees were being released into the wild.

The reason this stands out is that it was a really positive story, these chimpanzees came from the pet trade and here they were getting a new lease of life.

The Chimpanzees live on islands but the islands are too small to sustain them, so they learn to wade between the islands, and that’s what we were there to film.

Even talking about it now I remember vividly this piece with David, he was talking about that pivotal moment in history when we went from four legs to two, and with the Chimpanzees behind him doing just as he described, it was a glimpse at our ancestry.

That passage of the book really stood out to me, too, there is a real sense of connection between humans and Chimpanzees. This connection between humans and nature is something that I felt came across in a lot in the book, can you discuss this more?

I think what struck me over the years of going to wild places like the Congo is that on the first day, all you see is forest and you can literally see only six or eight feet in front of you. Our guide would point things out in front of us and I just couldn’t see anything but forest.

But slowly over a few days, my brain was able to work out the environment, and I was able to see through the gaps in the trees.

I started to see the birds or the peak of an elephant’s tail.

The other thing was the spatial awareness of sound.

Being in the forest and feeling nervous, if you hear a sound you knew exactly where it came from and you could point to exactly where it was, I quickly became so aware of my environment.

Likewise, with smell, in the first few days I’d smell something and the tracker would tell me what it was, but over a few days I got to learn what the smells were, and I could tell where the smell was coming from, my senses were coming alive.

Being in the Congo made me realise that we have the toolkit to survive in these environments but because we don’t use it in cities it has become dormant, how many times when you’re walking down the streets do you notice a smell?

I think it’s an instinct that is dormant in all of us from our ancestry.

If we want a break we will often sit outside of our office and eat lunch, we go on holiday for a break and we go to the beach or we go hiking.

I think that’s because it’s going back to our connection, watching breaking waves and feeling the rhythm of the sea, it’s where we feel most comfortable.

I think we are all connected to nature, but because of the way man has advanced our natural senses are struggling.

In what ways has your career increased your respect for nature?

I think I’ve always had respect for nature but I suppose throughout my career I have come to realise just how diverse nature is.

In the book, I talk about when I watched the weevil, this tiny animal that could sit on your fingertip and would do all these intricate origami-like behaviours.

This completely opened my eyes and I just couldn’t stop thinking, oh my god what else is out there?

I’m not sure my respect for nature has increased, but I think my amazement is constantly increasing.

However, what I have realised is how many things aren’t happening anymore, how much is changing.

I think for most of us, we didn’t really realise we were making bad environmental choices, it’s kind of crept up on us and now it’s got to a tipping point where most of us realise that we all have an impact on the planet and so we need to respect it.

In the book, you often talk about how terrifying nature can be but there are also lots of stories in the news where human behaviour is equally terrifying. What scares you the most?

Without a doubt, it’s the impact of humans.

Yeah, of course, nature can be scary – volcanos, tsunamis, lions whatever it might be.

But, if you go and work on a volcano, you’ve got to expect danger.

Whereas if you’re just walking down the street and someone holds a knife to your throat you can’t predict that.

Humans are the least predictable, the greediest and ultimately the scariest.

I do think that in general humans are kind, benevolent, charitable, but that 1% that gives humans a bad name, that’s a big enough percentage to give humans a bad name for the whole planet.

You’ve been to some of the most remote places on the planet, can you tell me more about what that feels like to be so withdrawn from civilisation?

There is something nice about remoteness about detachment, escaping from our so-called civilised lives, it’s nice to get back to basics.

I ask in the book, to think about the furthest you’ve ever been from another human being.

I think for me, it’s probably no more than 3-4 miles.

It makes me sad that it’s so difficult to find these remote places, humans have spread to every continent and the number of humans on the planet is growing and growing.

Even though you might feel remote, to get remote from humans is very difficult to do.

You write about visiting Borneo after the destruction caused by the mega-rice project in 1996. You describe it as an Armageddon, do you see similarities with the current fires in the Amazon?

Seeing those tree stumps in Borneo was such a graphic image of destruction, you could see the before and after so starkly, and that burnt forest stretched for 40miles.

In England, I think that we are actually quite conservation-minded, and I think that is because we’ve lost a lot, England used to be 95% forest.

When we look abroad and see the forests in Brazil being destroyed, we are aware that like in our country, once it’s gone, that’s it.

When the Brazilian president said, its fine for you, you’ve cashed in on your forest and now you’re telling us not to destroy ours, I can see he’s got a point, but also, we have first-hand experience of the consequences and I suppose that makes us qualified to comment, even if it is hypocritical.

I’m getting on in years but I think for your generation and those to come afterwards are without a doubt going to see the catastrophic effects of climate change.

It’s pretty outrageous, that my generation and the ones before have got the planet to this state and the government don’t seem to be doing much about it.

I do feel positive though, I feel like the tide is turning.

If you look at Extinction Rebellion, they’ve raised the profile that this is an emergency, their movement will have an impact, it already is by making people talk more about climate change.

It just needs one brave politician to actually implement things.

We have the solutions; we just need to come together as a species and actually implement them.

Gavin Thurston is a patron of the Borneo Nature Foundation, who are working to safeguard the most important areas of tropical rainforests in Borneo from wildfires. Find out more here.

Journeys in the Wild: The Secret Life of a Cameraman is available to buy here.

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