“Describing Colour to Blind Men”: Photography at Burning Man

“No explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”

Hunter S. Thompson used these words to describe his participation in San Fransisco’s ‘acid wave’ of the 1960s, but they also seem pretty relevant to the task of relating the experience of Burning Man to someone unfamiliar with the event. In fact, one of the ten principles of the event, a week long celebration of music, art and people in the Nevada desert is ‘immediacy’- the concept that that no words, photos or other medium could ever substitute the profound sentiments evoked by actually experiencing the event for yourself. This challenge, often likened to the cliché of “describing colour to a blind man”, might make adequately explaining Burning Man’s secrets to others impossible. Despite this, I’d say that there is one side of the event that everyone can relate to; that is, its people.

For me the most impressive thing about Burning Man was not the fire breathing mutant cars, the myriad of musical distractions, or amazing sculptures and installations, but the people. The wonderful participants who travel from all over the world into the desert, and their capacity to create, collaborate and celebrate life through the creation of a fully functioning city in the dust. It’s these people, their faces, smiles, outfits and outlooks that can be translated from the flesh on to film and into the minds of others not fortunate enough to experience the events themselves.

More so than the towering art pieces, I think it’s easier for people to relate to the sight of other people enjoying themselves- smiling, embracing and generally loving each other. The euphoria and joy is hopefully clear to see in the connections between the subjects in these photos. People here utterly surrender themselves to each other without any pretentions other than to have fun and get along with each other. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the event and one that we can all understand, given that we experience flickers of this in our interactions with friends and family in everyday life.

Arriving at Burning Man is like landing on another planet – a Tatooine-like landscape patrolled by pirate ship mutant vehicles and all manner of mechanical animal cars. Combined with art instillations, scattered far and wide, towering high and low, the first impression of Burning Man is truly bind blowing. The scene is so detached from the ‘default’, everyday world that I don’t think any description could capture its magic. In contrast, people see glimpses of the joy and delight felt here in everyday interactions with loved ones, which allows them to more easily relate to the connections between people at Burning Man.

I think using a film camera (I took a Pentax k1000) helps to convey the unique sense of love and unity that the event offers in ways that digital might not. A film camera generally produces more ‘raw’ results and the blurred, fuzzy images here recreate the warm, hazy and often drunken atmosphere at the event. Since film produces “1st generation images”, a direct representation of the scene rather than a computer’s processed replication, perhaps this brings the viewer closer to these wonderful people.

Film also underlines the timeless nature of the event. Burning man looks like a scene from Star Wars anyway, but the vintage feel of the photos seems to add to this otherworldliness. It’s hard to trace antelope horns, yeti costumes and floating UFO cars to a particular time period, but with the retro effect of film you feel these scenes could be taking place at any time over the last 40 years. I guess the absence of advertising and branding from the event also adds to the feeling that we are in an untouched and timeless space.

You could probably also make a comment on the nature of experience generally, and whether we can ever adequately confer or share our own personal impression of something with other people. While photos might give an insight, they certainly can’t offer a substitute for actually taking part in Burning Man for yourself. I know that my own experience differed greatly to that of the friends I was with; I will never fully understand their personal reactions and vice versa. Maybe this is what gives the experience its ultimate value: it is personal, private and exclusively understood by you.

Similarly, accurately recreating parts of the event such as the Temple Burn at the end of the week seems almost certainly impossible. The profound spiritual catharsis and exhausting emotional reactions that many people get from this, and from many other aspects of Burning Man can only be found on the playa. Perhaps this is Burning Man’s greatest treasure- you can’t watch a documentary, trawl through photos or read an article to receive its gifts, you have to actually live the event for yourself to experience its true magic.

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