Having arrived in your chosen location, a key question to answer is how just being there makes you feel. What’s different, what excites you, what grabs your attention and why? Take some time to walk around, explore and get a feel for the place. Find a strategically located street cafe and just watch people for an hour or two. Observe their activities, interactions and mannerisms and absorb the general atmosphere and environment.
The first few days are a priceless gift, a period during which enthusiasm and creative photographic energy are boundless and the senses are raw with environmental challenges. Cultural sensitivity is important because it is easy to offend. People from western cultures may be seen as wealthy and brash in many parts of the world. Try to merge into the surrounding, adopt a conservative attitude and become part of the locality as much as possible. Only then can you feel comfortable, make real contact with the place and its people, and give free rein to creativity. Cultural impact is maximized in this initial period, and we see vivid images of everyday things that may later be taken for granted. It is amazing how quickly we become desensitized to new experiences. Try to remain aware of this rapid adaptation and grab images while the subjects still seem remarkable. Notice not just the things that are unusual but particularly those that are different from anywhere else you have ever been. These characterize your images, place them in the world and tell a story.
Obvious and simple things such as brightly-coloured mail boxes or unfamiliar flowers may grow in your mind into characterizations of a particular location. However, your first impressions may also be more subtle; perhaps the pervasive aroma of exotic spices, or feelings that you are unable to define. Then it is necessary to search out visual representations of the sensual responses that cannot be recorded directly in an image. Go to the market and talk to the spice sellers. Get among the piles of coloured spices, buy some samples, smell them, taste them and learn how they are made. Only then can you create images with understanding.
Whatever the nature of your early impressions, don’t ignore them. They are guiding lights in the darkness of the unknown that greet a stranger entering a new culture. If you have prepared properly for the trip, and done some research, life can be quite a bit easier. Clarity comes first to those who make the effort to understand, and a proper early focus is essential if worthwhile symbols are to be identified. Research therefore pays off - at least read the guidebook on the plane. However, many things will also have to be explored on location. Approach your new environment with an open but enquiring mind, obtain basic information from wherever it is available and make contact with local people. Start by talking to the passengers seated around you on the aircraft, particularly locals returning home. Then get into conversation with the taxi driver on the journey from the airport, and the waiter or waitress in the restaurant. By exchanging a few words you may discover, for example, that there is a big festival in town next week or that the water in a particular river or waterfall is exceptionally high. Information of this sort is very valuable.