It’s notoriously hard to describe exactly what Burning Man is and what it is like to be there. It’s a unique and subjective experience for everyone who goes. What does Burning Man mean to you?
Yes, Burning Man means different things to different people. Some think of it as a weeklong party in the desert. Others see it an art festival where installation artists from around the world come together to exhibit their work. Still others describe it as a social experiment, one where people go off the grid for a week and create a temporary community where many of the rules and conventions of ordinary society are thrown out.
For me, what makes Burning Man special is that it’s a kind of laboratory for creativity. Everybody is encouraged to express themselves in some capacity—through making art, playing music, walking on stilts, fire dancing, or simply being beautiful. Unlike a traditional festival where you go to be entertained in some way—where there is a clear boundary between the performer and the spectator—Burning Man is participant-driven. Everybody contributes something to the overall experience. It’s endlessly fascinating to see what people come up with.
What first drew you to Burning Man over a decade ago?
I had no interest in going to Burning Man when I first heard about it. I saw images of people doing crazy things in the desert and decided it wasn’t for me. If I ever make the trip to the Black Rock Desert, I thought to myself, it will be to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the place, not to share it with tens of thousands of other people.
But after my girlfriend attended with some friends, she came home insisting that we go together the following year. I put up a lot of resistance but eventually agreed, mostly as a favor to her. Little did I know how transformed I would be by the experience.
There are ten philosophical principles that reflect the culture and ethos of Burning Man. Do you integrate these into the ‘default’ world; i.e. do they influence how you live day to day?
The ten principles of Burning Man include participation, gifting, self-expression, community effort, and “leave no trace.” Larry Harvey, the co-founder of Burning Man, came up with these guidelines a decade ago to describe what he saw as the distinctive ethos of the event.
He insisted that the principles were descriptive, not prescriptive — that they captured the unique spirit of Burning Man, but were not meant to dictate how people should think and act. But people sometimes use them in heavy-handed ways, as if they were commandments rather than principles. I try to sit loose to them.
That’s not to say that Burning Man hasn’t influenced my day-to-day life. It’s had a huge effect on how I think about my work, the nature of creativity, the meaning of free expression, and how to participate in a community organized around something you love and cherish.
You’ve described Burning Man as a ’social experiment’. What do you think the world could learn from Burning Man, and have you taken away any valuable learnings from your trips to the Playa?
One of the many fascinating aspects of Burning Man is that no money changes hands at the event. There is nothing for sale except ice and coffee (the proceeds of which are donated). That creates an economy that revolves around sharing, gifting, and free exchange. It obviously costs money—sometimes quite a bit—to prepare and get yourself to Burning Man. But once there, you can experience a place almost completely free of commerce and advertising of any kind.
Another quality I love about Burning Man is the emphasis on artistic expression and creative play. From a superficial standpoint, it’s wonderful to immerse yourself in acroyoga, learn to play the gamelan, or take up henna-painting, fire-spinning, street theater or any of a thousand other art forms. But at another level, Burning Man requires that you call forth something more elemental. You have to get in touch with the impulse that lives deep within you to create, and then give expression to it in some way. That can be quite transformative.
In my own case, I think Burning Man turned me into a photographer. I had taught myself how to use a camera as a teenager and studied photography in college. But then I put the camera away and focused on other things. When I first attended Burning Man, I found that there was something powerfully visual about the experience. So I wanted to create images that could capture some of the freedom, the joy, the humor, the sexuality, and the outrageous good fun of the event. In so doing, I found a calling that was very different from the professional work I had been doing—much more enriching and creatively stimulating.
I’ve heard countless other people say the same thing—the experience of going to Burning Man stimulates new capacities, reveals deep-seated talents, and often leads to big life changes.
Tell us about your week on Playa – any annual highlights? Do you pitch up with a theme camp, or do you prefer to camp independently? Also, do you have a ‘Playa name’?
I was part of a theme camp the first year I attended Burning Man. But now I camp with a small group of dear friends. All of us have been going for many years.
Burning Man is famous for the Saturday evening ritual where a giant man made of wood and neon goes up in flames (see above full-size photograph)
But there are things happening all week long. Many of them are spontaneous or loosely organized, but some are scheduled and take place every year.
One of the most famous is “Critical Tits” in which hundreds or even thousands of women bike around the playa topless. The event is modeled after the Critical Mass bicycle ride in San Francisco—but with a lot more humor and attitude.
Another sentimental favorite is the “monkey chant.” It’s based on a time-honored Balinese ritual where people align their breathing, body rhythm and voice in a call-and-response chant. At Burning Man it takes hilarious forms, with lots of craziness and absurdity. (Full size photograph below)
As a photographer, I’m also very enamored of the Black Rock City Fashion Show—a campy and humorous event that takes place each year. People show off their most amazing outfits and costumes and often perform little routines on stage. The whole thing makes a mockery of a real fashion show, but it also shows off some of the beautiful and amazing attire people create each year specifically for Burning Man. (Some of my favourites are featured below the Monkey Chant photo below).
Has there been a piece of art, an experience, an art car, or *anything* that has really stood out for you over your years visiting Burning Man?
I’ve been shooting at the event for over ten years, so a lot of experiences stand out. A case in point was the first time I was caught in a dust storm. The visibility was so poor I couldn’t see my own feet. All I could do was sit down and wait it out. The feeling of the warm wind and the fine dust particles blowing across my skin was very sensuous, like a gentle caress. After about 10 minutes, the wind died down and I noticed a temple in the distance, rising out of the dust. It was a surreal and otherworldly experience. (Pictured above)
I also remember the first time I saw the burning of “the man.” The heat was so intense that you could feel it half a mile away. Afterward everybody ran up and danced circles around the smoldering embers, as if we had participated in some kind of collective catharsis. Then we ran off and partied all night. The whole thing seemed ridiculous, which was exactly the point!
One of my standout memories was the first year I went to Burning Man and it hit me that I had no words to describe what I was seeing. It was simply impossible to describe. I realized that my best hope of conveying the experience would be through pictures. That was the moment my Burning Man photography project got its start.
It’s probably impossible to choose, but do you have a photograph(s) that means the most to you, or perhaps sums up the ‘spirit’ of Burning Man?
Most of my personal favorites are portraits. Working closely with other people can be very powerful and intimate, and I love that aspect of portraiture. But there are also a few others that mean a lot to me. The image of the Temple of Transition is a case in point. I saw this image in a dream a few days before the start of Burning Man 2011. It was like a very strong pre-visualization. When I arrived at the event, I had to figure out how to replicate what I had seen in my mind. It required a high vantage point and a bit of wind and dust, and of course people walking to and from the temple. Everything came together for me late in the afternoon of the first day. (Pictured above)
Another one I like is the two lovers walking hand-in-hand toward the man. They are naked except for body paints. (Pictured below). This photograph was taken in 2009 and has special significance for me because it marked a shift in how I make pictures. I started out as a photojournalist looking for candid moments. That’s still true to some extent. But I’ve adopted a more creative approach in recent years. My best images now come from working with people to create images that can stand on their own. It’s more collaborative, more challenging, and much more rewarding.