Three years ago I got on a plane and traveled to the other side of the world to visit with friends who were living in Thailand. It was Thailand's hot season at the time, so daily temperatures were typically up around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Between the jet lag, two straight weeks of dehydration, and the bombardment of new experiences, the trip was full of exhaustion, excitement, and everything in between.
My time in Thailand was spent mainly in Chiang Mai, a city in the northern part of the country which has a rich cultural and religious history. Being that it was April when I visited--the hottest month of the year--my trip also coincided with Songkran, the water festival that marks the Thai New Year celebration, during which the city's inhabitants and visitors spend several days partying in the streets and dousing each other with water. Although I have very few photos from the festivities for fear of ruining my camera, I still remember Songkran as one of the most fun experiences I've ever had.
Towards the end of my time in Thailand, and after Songkran festivities had wound down, I received news late one night that a bomb had exploded at the Boston Marathon. Having grown up in Massachusetts and having lived most of my previous 7 years in Boston, I spent much of the rest of the night trying to get in touch with friends and loved ones, and trying to filter through news reports to figure out what was happening back home. After sleeping only a few hours and still preoccupied with the situation in Boston, I woke up the next morning feeling far less motivated to take the day trip I had planned outside Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep National Park.
Knowing that my family and close friends were accounted for and that there wasn't much point to cancelling a trip to a place I may never get to see again, I packed up my camera--an old Canon Rebel XS--and ventured up into the mountains outside of Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep National Park with the intention of hiking to a few waterfalls and wandering around Wat Phra That, a resplendent Buddhist temple atop a hill overlooking Chiang Mai.
With the events from the marathon fresh in my mind, I spent most of the day in a reserved, thoughtful mood, and often found myself focusing my camera on the people around me instead of the grand landscapes that were typically the focal point of my photos. Most notably, while climbing the staircase up to the temple, I noticed a young girl--in what I assume was a traditional Thai outfit--sitting on the green, ornate steps and eating ice cream in the 100+ degree weather. I thought the scene made a great photo; however, not knowing what the perception might be of a foreigner taking a photo of a young Thai girl, I only briefly pointed my camera in her direction, clicked the shutter, and continued climbing the stairs to the temple without another thought. It wasn't until after I arrived home and loaded up photos from my trip that I realize how much I liked the shot.
Since I almost exclusively photograph scenes such as mountains, waterfalls, and the night sky, it's interesting to look back to that day in Doi Suthep, as well as the two days following, and see the compositions I captured. The majority of the photos I took in Thailand occurred during that three day span. At the time my photographic style was still growing and changing. Given that I was still in the earlier stages of my photography, and that the lenses I was using had very different focal lengths compared to what I typically use now, my shots from Thailand have a very different compositional feel from my more recent photos. And since they depict a much more foreign subject--at least in a cultural sense--than the mountains and rivers I normally capture, they give me a much different feeling when I go back and look at them.
When it comes to my landscape photos, the emotions I most often feel when I look at them are a sense of awe or calmness with respect to the natural world. My aim when taking them is to promote conservation and appreciation for nature and the night sky. When I look at a landscape photo I've taken, I feel closely connected with it. However, due in part to a certain level of ignorance I have when it comes to the Thai culture, I look at many of the photos I captured in Doi Suthep as a bit of an outsider, even though I was the one looking through the viewfinder and clicking the shutter. Some of this feeling comes from being relatively inexperienced with the genres of street photography and portrait photography. Most of all, however, I think the feeling comes from the fact that I was very much a cultural outsider when I took my photos in Thailand. I didn't--and still don't--know the stories behind those photos. The girl eating ice cream could have just been a unassuming Thai girl enjoying a cold snack on a hot day. She also could have been there taking a break from her role of making the temple look more traditional to tourists. Either way, each of the photos is a visual story, even if I'm not quite sure what the plot is. When I look back at them, each serves as a reminder of what it was like to wander around in a foreign place holding a camera without much of a way to communicate other than a nod and a smile.