The late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”
It was a tough question. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights to which they lead you. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.
To my surprise, all of them were women.
“Why do you think they are all women?” he asked.
I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.
That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.
Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.
Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”
“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.
He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure. “I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”
He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”
I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”
I think most men would benefit from doing the same.
Each year at the end of June, Santa Barbara, California, officially kicks off summer with a three-day Solstice Celebration. The highlight of the event is a parade famous for its whimsical floats, colorful stiltwalkers, goofy performance artists, Brazilian drummers, and giggling kids donning masks, costumes, and painted faces — to say nothing of the amazing samba dancers wearing feathers and sequins and not much else. The annual event got its start in 1974 and now attracts upward of 100,000 visitors and some 1,000 participants from near and far.
For more photos, check out the complete set from Solstice 2014.
You can also view images from previous years here:
- Photos from the 2012 Solstice Parade
- Photos from the 2011 Solstice Parade
- Photos from the 2010 Solstice Parade
- Photos from the 2009 Solstice Parade
Some of my photos of art cars made it into The Guardian’s “Pictures of the Week,” including amazing creations by Duane Edward Flatmo, Jon Sarriugarte, Harrod Blank, and others. The images are taken from my forthcoming book with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal, Burning Man: Art On Fire, which will be out in a few weeks.
Check out the full gallery here: Mutant Vehicles of Burning Man
A few of the images also made their way into the print edition (in the Weekend supplement):
Arts Illustrated is a beautiful journal devoted to art, photography and graphic design. I was delighted and honored when the editors contacted me some months ago asking if they could feature a selection of my photographs along with an interview. The issue is now out and it features a full 12 pages of my photos, along with an interview in which I talk about my journey as a photographer, my sources of inspiration, and of course what it’s like to shoot at Burning Man. Here’s a short excerpt from the Q&A:
Burning Man appears to be a very seductive and transformative place.
Yes, there is a sense when you arrive at Burning Man that you’re stepping out of one dimension and into another one — one teeming with possibility, suffused with beauty, and replete with freedoms that we don’t have in our everyday lives.
The rules and conventions of ordinary life simply don’t apply the same way. At Burning Man, you are whatever you happen to be doing or creating. So you can reinvent yourself in whatever guise you like. You can try on new identies and explore new modes of expression.
I have a friend who embodies a different character each day throughout the event. Like an actor, he doesn’t break character all week. Each character has its own personality, its own history, its own outfit. Some of his creations are extremely elaborate. He spends months planning it all down to the last detail.
As a photographer what appeals to you most and as an artist what do you connect with the most?
As a photographer, I feel that our culture is already heavily saturated with imagery. We see hundreds if not thousands of images every day. They flicker by in an unending stream and we barely stop to take notice. This means that it’s very difficult as a photographer to make an impact, to touch people and say something new, with a single image.
I don’t know of any good way around this problem. But as a photographer I’m always looking for moments that contain some element of the unexpected. I think those have a greater chance of speaking to people. The most powerful photographs, I believe, are those that surprise you and perhaps awaken in you a sense of possibility.
Burning Man is a wonderful place to make such images because things are never quite what they seem there. The foreign and the familiar are always coming together in arresting ways.
Some of the images from Burning Man make it appear like a very surreal place.
The word surreal is apt because there is always a sense at Burning Man that what you’re seeing is not quite real. A sixteenth-century Spanish galleon gliding across the desert floor. A group of bankers in dusty outfits holding umbrellas and briefcases. An old country church tipped on its axis, like a mouse-trap.
The Surrealist movement a century ago was a subversive attempt to redefine art and literature by erasing the line between dream and reality. The Surrealists sought to disrupt our habitual ways of seeing the world by juxtaposing contradictory images and bringing together seemingly unrelated frames of reference.
Like much of the art and writing from the Surrealist period, what you see at Burning Man can be startling, witty, unconventional, and, in some deep sense, eye-opening.
How easy or difficult is it to capture people and get them to participate in your visual chronicle?
It has gotten easier over the years as my confidence has grown. In the beginning, I was wary of getting too close to my subjects. My training as a journalist had emphasized objectivity — the idea that you must faithfully record events and document people’s lives but without interfering or affecting them in any significant way.
This ethos may work well for photojournalists covering the news. But it doesn’t work at Burning Man. In fact, it violates one of the essential principles of the event — the notion that each of us is a participant rather than a spectator.
To participate fully meant that I had to step out from behind the lens and create images, not stand by and wait for something interesting to happen. So I’ve adopted a more participatory approach over the years. My best images now come from working with people to create images that can stand on their own. It’s more collaborative, more creative, and a lot more enriching.
Some of my pictures from Burning Man appear in the Winter 2014 issue of Condé Nast Traveler Italy. It’s a 14-page spread with images from 2012 and 2013 mostly, including portraits of some of my favorite burners, like Siberfi, Suliman Nawid, Uncle Ira, and Dadara. A couple of photos by the great Tao Ruspoli are also included in the set. Here are the scans:
“Default World Dreaming” is a new show opening today at Gallery 151 in New York City. I’m excited to be a part of it and to have my work featured alongside an amazing roster of talented artists.
The show ranges widely but takes inspiration from the unique culture and ethos of Burning Man. The annual festival represents a curious and dynamic world of opposites — the ephemeral world that rises out of the Black Rock Desert of Nevada each summer, and the established, accepted, and socially constructed reality of our daily lives.
To those in the Burning Man community, quotidian life is often referred to as “the default world.” It stands in stark contrast to the culture of Burning Man which is exemplified by self-reliance, non-commodification, gift giving, and radical self-expression. For those who attend Burning Man, these values can be so creative and so liberating that they feel more real than the “real” world.
The exhibition looks at the dichotomy between living in a default world and dreaming of an alternate world, one suffused with creative extravagance and limitless possibility.
The show runs through April 19, 2014. For more information, please visit Gallery 151.
Because of the record drought in California, Cachuma Lake has been drying up. It’s now just a fraction of its usual size. Here is a self-portrait where I’m standing on the the exposed lake bed admiring a giant root of some kind.
I’m working on a photo essay documenting the drought. More on that soon…
The Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle magazine features several of my photographs from Burning Man paired with an insightful and beautifully written piece by contributing editor Allan Badiner. The article describes Badiner’s first experience at Burning Man in 2013. It was a journey he had avoided making for many years, he says, but reluctantly agreed to in 2013 in order to accept a speaking invitation. Once there, he was taken in by the event and struck by the curious parallels between Burning Man some of the core practices and rituals at the heart of Buddhism:
Traveling the playa, experiencing scenes from the fantastic to the crudely immature and everything in between, I found more improbable resonance creeping into my awareness between this artsy hi-tech desert ritual and Buddhist ways of being. From the generosity, nonjudgment, and eightfold path-like principles practiced by Burners to the sacred geometry of the city’s layout to everyone’s acceptance that it would all disappear in a matter of days, the playa was permeated with a Buddhist view of life.
And while Burning Man is of an entirely different character, it did have its similarities to a Zen retreat: attendees are hoping for a shift in their perspectives; people are, for the most part, on their best interpersonal behavior; and they take on new names, sleep less, and have amazing insights. Unlike the program at a Zen retreat, many people simply come to dance all week, make love, or blow their minds open with psychedelics. But everyone has permission to follow their dreams and pursue what makes them happy, without judgment. And while some found happiness in pursuing sense pleasures, others took solace in yoga, meditation, and intellectual inquiry. The vast variety of intentions and possibilities don’t seem to separate Burners from one another; rather, it unites them.
Check out the complete article here: Dharma On the Playa
Here’s a peek at the spreads: