Photographer Matt Dutile has been fortunate to capture images of people and places in most corners of the world. His philosophy when it comes to travel: engage with locals, try traditional foods, and wander off the beaten path – literally. In this photo essay, he shares highlights from his time in East and Southeast Asia, and provides tips for making the most of any experience abroad.
When did you travel to East/Southeast Asia and what are some of the highlights from your time there?
I’ve traveled to the region a few times, either on assignment for clients or for self-commissioned work. My last visit to China was in October, 2012. A friend from high school was living in Shanghai, and a friend of his traveled with me through the southern and western parts of the country. We visited a number of rural areas where even Mandarin – the most widely spoken language in China – was not used and spent time in Yangshuo, an area that tends not to be frequented by Western travelers but is popular among Chinese tourists. The scenery is stunning: two rivers meander around limestone mountains peaks, which seem to jut out in all directions and are reflected on the water. The karst topography is similar to Halong Bay, Vietnam, for those who are familiar with that part of the world.
In December 2013/January 2014, I spent seven weeks in Southeast Asia, stopping in Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Myanmar was definitely a highlight; the country is so unique and preserved from many of the Western influences you see in other places of the world. It was surprisingly easy to get around, too; I found that a lot of people spoke English and were always willing to help out with directions or recommendations. In general, both the country and the people were amazing and hospitable.
Describe your travel style. What kind of traveler are you?
There’s a saying that I like to use when traveling and capturing photos, “Good travel photography is about the people you meet, the food you eat and where you place your feet.” Corny I know, but it reminds me to look for all these elements when telling a story through images.
The people I meet are a huge part of my travel experience. I like to engage in conversation however I can – be it with words or gestures (if we don’t speak the same language). I strive to learn about individuals’ stories – of their lives, their work, their families. In my opinion, if you’re not getting to know the locals and their customs, you’re really missing out on one of the most important pieces of travel.
Additionally, food is such an important part of learning about a particular region and its culture. The ingredients and flavors teach you so much about the land, and the cultural practices around food introduce you to new understandings of sustenance.
Finally, travel is about wandering; it’s about getting off the beaten path, as they say, and paving your own way. In Cambodia, while traveling through Siem Reap by tuk-tuk, I often asked to be let off on the side of the road when passing by a village. I told the driver that I would meet him at the other end and wandered through the area. It was a great way to meet people – groups of locals often invited me to join them for a drink or for food – and I had a chance to really see how people in the area live. I try to do this wherever I travel. They’re usually my favorite experiences.
What tips do you have for travelers?
Follow your instincts; travel to places of the world that call to your adventurous spirit – places that you have always wanted to go to. If you’re a photographer or blogger, don’t be afraid to travel first and then solicit work, or book a trip and interest clients in it before leaving. If you can afford to front the costs, it can really be worthwhile.
Try to learn as much of the local language as you can. Words like “hello” and “thank you” are always useful, but locals really appreciate when you move beyond the basics. It also really opens doors, not only to conversations, but to building relationships.
And remember that when you are traveling you are a “good will ambassador” for your country. Smile often, be polite and be mindful of how you approach people – especially when you take their photographs. Attitude is everything, and people respond positively to positivity.