If a single piece of advice can improve the images that travel photographers create, it must surely be to get involved with local people. However capable a photographer may be, and however exotic the location, successful images arise from an understanding of the environment and culture, combined with a perceptive eye, good technique, persistence and a bit of luck. Local information is essential if good locations and opportunities are to be found. A photographer who jets in from the other side of the world should, at least initially, not be surprised if local people seem somewhat wary. Trust must be built through cultural sensitivity, simple humanity and a sense of humour. Show that you don’t have much time for people, or that you don’t really care, and they will inevitably turn their backs and walk away. It is therefore better to devote some of your precious time to preparing the ground. At least learn a few words of the local language so that you can say "hello", "please", "thank you" and "good-bye".
Travel photographers cannot afford to be islands, isolated from their surroundings and able only to look in from outside. They must endeavour to immerse themselves in their surrounding and try to become relatively inconspicuous. There is no need to go native. Local people know in an instant that you are a visitor and will therefore understand a different style of dress. It is consequently better to dress in more or less your habitual manner while remaining conservative and sensitive to local customs. Only the least tolerant societies are exceptions to this rule. A simple concession to local dress standards is generally all that is necessary, and will normally be appreciated. In poor or deprived areas, sensitivity extends to dressing down and avoiding unnecessary demonstrations of comparative wealth. This makes first approaches less intimidating for sides, and consequently more likely.
Communication and integration are the keys to success. Talk to as many people as possible, and don’t be afraid to ask their opinions about where you should go and how you might achieve certain objectives. It is amazing how often a chance encounter leads to someone who may be able to help. In particular, mix with people having relevant interests, ask questions and show interest in whatever they are doing. Network to whatever extent is possible, and tell people about yourself and what you are trying to achieve. Offer help or a small gift where circumstances allow it, but expect nothing in return. Kindness and generosity are usually noticed and often produce a response. Flattery, when appropriate and measured, will get you everywhere.
When people comment on my images they most often ask about location and photographic technique. Only the more perceptive ask how I got into the situation which led to the image. Anyone can set an exposure, focus and press a shutter release. The answer usually has something to do with talking to people who know the area, but how does one converse with people who speak an unfamiliar language? Fortunately communication is based on much wider foundations than those offered by words alone. We all share human experience, facial expressions and gesture which are commonly, if not universally, understood. A smile is magical and a good start. It opens doors in all sorts of situations. Find as many ways as possible to communicate without language, and make sure you use them. Learn local gestures and demonstrate humanity, humility, and in particular the ability to laugh at yourself. Although it may not be possible to talk about the origins of the universe without a shared language, it is fairly easy to discuss, homes, children and domestic animals, and to discover where one might find a beautiful view or waterfall, or a local wedding.
I recall a visit to Bali, made more years ago than I care to admit, where I set out to find a traditional tooth-filing ceremony. Most are organized at short notice and on auspicious dates, and the only way to locate them in good time is to have local contacts. I asked a few taxi drivers from a nearby rank if they would pass on any relevant information and soon discovered that a ceremony was to take place in a nearby village the following morning. The location was a traditional Balinese home consisting of several separate buildings enclosed by a high brick wall, and including a large ancestral shrine. When I arrived the tooth-filing had unfortunately just finished, but a wedding ceremony was about to begin.
A Balinese wedding photographer was outside the house, so I asked him what was going on. He introduced me to the bride’s mother who subsequently invited me to photograph the wedding. The celebrations were to last at least three days. The first day had been a day of preparation with dozens of offerings made to the various deities. The second was the day of the actual wedding ceremony, and was the day I was privileged to share. The third day was to be a day of celebration, feasts and dancing. The wedding procession emerged from a private room and passed along a path covered with white cloth to a point in front of the family shrine. Here the bride and groom knelt before the priest while holy water was scattered around them. A pure-white duck was then presented as a living offering. The priest snapped a white thread joining two saplings, and the bride and groom circled between them three times. They were then both handed eggs as symbols of fertility, and these were exchanged between husband and wife. The marriage was complete.
All this, and some pleasing images, arose from a simple question put to a few taxi drivers. Had I remained silent I should have known nothing of the wedding. Had I left earlier that morning, I should no doubt have also photographed a tooth-filing ceremony. The sequence of events might be dismissed as a happy coincidence, but experience shows that a photographer’s willingness to communicate and get involved is often the catalyst.