This headline might come off a bit pretentious for some of you. I mean, how do photographers travel any differently than the rest of the population? Fair question, but for better or for worse, we are different in our own way.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” —Anthony Bourdain
For assignment photographers, we are seeking to tell a visual story. We must be inquisitive and listen to people and learn about our destination before, during, and after our trip. A simple conversation with strangers has turned into meals at their homes, tours of their farms, rides on their fishing boats, new leads to new adventures. It’s in our nature to be inquisitive and to act on that curiosity.
This advice isn’t for luxury travelers, but rather for those that want an adventure, want to get lost in lands unknown and discover something fresh about themselves or revisit an earlier version of themselves. Traveling and adventure aren’t reserved for the youth — you just to tap into that youthful spirit and embrace it. Youth doesn’t escape us — we let it go. Don’t let that happen.
I’ve spent over a decade in Southeast Asia on dozens of assignments in remote jungles, mountains, villages, etc. I haven’t always followed my own advice, but when I’ve lapsed I regretted it every time.
I heard someone (sorry I can’t remember who exactly) say “all of my most memorable experiences gave me butterflies before I embarked on them.” I love that statement, it’s so simple and true and easy to forget that truth. Do something that gives you butterflies in your stomach and you will create a memory that will last forever. Please note, this doesn’t mean you should do something careless, it means to seek the unfamiliar and get out of your comfort zone.
2. Listen to Your Elders
Sit down and have a meal with someone (from whatever country you’re in) that is 20+ years older than you and with someone 20+ years younger (doesn’t have to be at the same time) than you and spend more time listening than talking. I’ve 40 years old so this is appropriate for me — if you are 20 it’s a sliding scale.
Ask thoughtful questions and learn from them. This is a hard one for me because I’m a talker, but I’ve learned to listen more as I’ve gotten older and in doing so I’ve amassed more knowledge.
3. Take an Overnight Train
At some point on your trip hop on a train even if the end destination isn’t that appealing, it’s the journey itself that your soul with be grateful for. Buy a ticket, bring a good book, journal along the way, strike up a conversation with a stranger, look out the window at sunrise at the passing landscapes and imagine what it would be like to live there.
4. Leave Your Phone Behind, Bring Your Journal
Leave your phone in your hotel room, at least try it out for one day and see how you feel at the end of the day. What, how will I navigate and what will I do when I have nothing to do and how will I tell the world what I’m doing? While you’re constantly updating the world with what you’re doing, you’re missing the essence of the experience. You’re missing the sounds, smells, the visuals all around you. Spend less time at that breathtaking monumental view taking selfies and more time soaking it all in.
Use your memory to remember what happened and find happiness in having those memories to yourself, because even if you didn’t share them with the world, guess what, they still happened. My fondest memories aren’t of telling the world what I did, they are the of doing what I did.
End your day in a local bar or cafe, seek out a place that doesn’t look like anywhere you’ve ever been before. Over a cold beer or coffee, note down your surroundings while you are journaling and write while the memories are still fresh.
5. Be That Guy Holding the Book Set in The Country You Are In
Never be the guy or gal wearing the t-shirt of the band at their concert but for traveling it’s permissible. No, not Lonely Planet; bury your head in a great novel about or set in the country you are visiting and start reading it before your trip and continue reading it along the way. If you have time and you’re intrigued by the book, go visit some of the specific places the author mentions.
On that note, buy an E-reader like a Kindle. It took time for me to get past the whole “I like the tactile feel of a book man” thing but I eventually got over it and love that I can have a lightweight device with multiple options to read depending on my mood.
6. Not That Market, The Other One
You can learn a lot about a culture through their local markets and as a photographer, markets are always on my shot list. A stroll through one will overload your sense of smell, sight, and sound. Skip the tourist markets, they are built for or have conformed to what tourists want. Ask a friend in that city where his/her grandparents go to get their produce and go there, better yet tag along with them if you can.
Eat something at the market you’ve never tried before. It doesn’t have to be for the sake of being exotic, but just experience something new like a local fresh fruit and take some with you and share it with a stranger later on. Food is a great conversation starter — at least, in place of a cigarette it is.
7. Practice Patience
When you travel like this your patience will be tested. Remote areas lack the comfortable amenities that you might be used to such as fluffy beds, fast or any internet access, prompt service, and all that other stuff. Have all this built into your expectations ahead of time and turn the problematic annoyances to your advantage. For example, that 2-hour train delay, use that time to read your book or to go for a walk — I love walks by the way.
Thank you for reading this article, I hope you try at least one these things out on your next journey. If you do and you have a fun story, please share it with me in the comments section, I’d love to hear from you.
I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain so I’ll end with another apropos quote of his about traveling.
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” —Anthony Bourdain
About the author: Justin Mott is photographer and founder of Mott Visuals, a boutique photography and film production studio based in Thailand and Vietnam serving all of Asia and beyond. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Since arriving in Vietnam over a decade ago, Mott has established himself as one of the best-known and well-respected photographers in Southeast Asia. He has shot over 100 assignments for the New York Times while a collection of his work in Vietnam has been featured on the BBC. Additional major editorial clients include TIME, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian among many others. Mott is also familiar to TV viewers as host and resident judge of History Channel’s hit photography reality series Photo Face-Off now entering their 4th Season. Visit his website here. For more tips and articles from Justin please visit askmott.com and follow Justin on all social media outlets with the handle @AskMOTT. This article was also published here.