I’ve always been a lifelong planner. I had to be on top of everything, early for everything, and think of every possible scenario so I could be prepared for it. But there’s not much to prepare you for the unexpected; the day-to-day surprises of living in another country for a few months.
I found this blog post, “The Purpose of Traveling,” influential in the way I think about travel and the state of mind I should seek. In it, Harry J. Stead describes being on a hiking expedition in the mountains where all there is to do is walk. He describes what it meant to him to become lost and without an identity, without preparation, without expectations.
“Being lost makes you more attuned to your environment, you are more sensitive and grounded to your immediate surroundings. There is no present or future and you do not think about tomorrow or the evening; there is nothing but the cycle of the sun. You do not have a role or an identity, the ancient mountains do not even notice you. Social obligations are left behind and you escape the incessant need to be someone, to seek yourself in others and prove your history.” - Harry J. Stead
To travel, is to make a space and experience for yourself, and without yourself. I always thought that I should travel to discover who I am. I needed to find out how I reacted to new situations, new environments, and how I communicated with people who didn’t speak the same language. But I needed to travel to lose myself. I needed to fall away from the expectations that I put on myself, the history I kept in my head, my everlasting need to prepare for every possible outcome.
There were many moments I knew I couldn’t have prepared for, many small things that presented unforeseen challenges. These, I realized, no one could have told me. They were for me to discover as a point of personal growth.
But perhaps this moment stood out and serves as an anecdote.
I finished a multimedia story for my internship with Khaosod English; my last project. A quote from the artist who I interviewed struck me as a suitable way to end the video.
“Being an artist I think we have to be on the edge and feel nervous, feel uncomfortable, and sometimes even get angry in order to try to come up with something that will be meaningful and powerful.” - Taweesak Molsawat
Initially as I edited my video, I thought of this quote only as a nice summation of Molsawat’s work. But upon reflection, it seemed a suitable motto to end my internship on.
To be honest, I was unsure of what I came to Thailand to learn. I was full of hopes and dreams of exploring and discovering new cultures, finding new ways to be creative, communicating beyond language barriers, and learning how to navigate on my own. I did do much of what I hoped, but it didn’t feel that way until I had time to reflect at home.
While in the midst of it, I felt that the writing and photography I was doing was redundant. I had done these stories before; I made similar imagery. Sometimes I didn’t feel like I was doing important work or covering subjects as impactful as telling stories of migrant workers or exposing political corruption. In short, I felt that I was letting myself down by doing the same sort of thing, even though that’s not entirely how I would describe my work in hindsight.
What Molsawat’s quote came to mean for me was that I learned something much more abstract than technical from this experience. I came to realize that I don’t need to be too hard on myself and find stories that take seasoned reporters months and even years to accomplish. I don’t need to be the best, but I do need to take risks. And this meant more to me than getting outside my comfort zone. This meant that I had to be open for choices and opportunities I couldn’t have been prepared for.
We’ve all heard that tired phrase of getting out of your comfort zone. I was already there. But what this risk-taking really meant was to think more creatively than I could ever imagine and open my mind to a new way of creating and a new way of seeing the world I found myself in. It was a risk of losing myself, my personality, of losing my workflow, my writing voice, a certain photographic view. I had to get entirely lost in order to create something genuinely new and with a new creative process.
I’ll be blunt. I was on the verge of quitting the internship and spending hundreds of dollars just to get home halfway through my time in Thailand. I felt this way since I arrived in the wake of re-emerging depression and anxiety as travel can sometimes trigger. I had made my decision after my editor gave me what I considered a highly unfair, undermining, and critical evaluation of a lot of hard work I had already put in. He called me unprofessional, my writing sloppy, my ethics questionable, and my photographic skills mediocre.
I had been improving, filed many stories, found my own photo opportunities, and dedicated a lot of time to working with other reporters. But my editor didn’t recognize any of that. I know now that I have to be the one to congratulate myself and move on, even in a thankless environment.
While I waited to figure out my options, I decided to see a street photography exhibit that weekend. I admired the creative ways different photographers could see the world in highly sophisticated yet simple ways. A lot of street photography is just happenstance, a pattern of color, moments in life, framing, and shadows.
I thought those photos I saw on the gallery walls were similar to what I had been doing. Noticing the contrasts, shadows, placement, and moments in these photos made me see that this kind of work was an achievable goal. For the first time, I felt hope that I could someday have my work hanging on one of these walls to inspire another young photographer. For the first time, I thought maybe it was possible.
With some inspiration came an understanding that I didn’t have to know right away what I was supposed to learn or take away from the experience. All I had to do was try my best to create what I wanted to despite the challenges workplace bureaucracy posed.