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:
When you shoot for stock agencies, you never know where your images are going to turn up. A friend of mine contacted me a few days ago, saying that one of my photos just appeared in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper. It was a rather unremarkable red carpet photo of actress Jennifer Lawrence that I had taken some months ago.
What was poignant about this particular photo credit was that Dagens Nyheter was where I first broke into print. I was a teenager living in Stockholm in the early 1980s. The newspaper ran a short commentary of mine about a city landmark—Kulturhuset—that I happened to love. To say that I was happy to see my name in print would be an understatement. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life!
Some years prior to that, one of my mother’s friends, a reporter at Dagens Nyheter, had given me a personal tour of the newsroom. The experience set its mark on my young and impressionable psyche and nurtured my passion to become a journalist.
That was more than thirty years ago. I don’t feel that same rush of excitement when I see my name in print anymore. But for whatever reason, getting published in Dagens Nyheter still feels a little bit special. Like returning to an alma mater or revisiting a childhood home.
It helps me remember where I first set out on this long and strange professional journey and, more importantly, take stock of the many places I still want to go.
In addition to ephemeral art installations, Burning Man is famous for its art cars and tricked out “mutant vehicles.” These are often wildly creative contraptions designed as much to impress and amaze as to have a rockin’ good time. Think party platforms, stripper poles, flamethrowers, full service bars, disco balls and flashing lights, cushioned interiors covered in velvet and faux fur, obnoxiously loud sound systems and pretty much anything else you can think of. The bigger and more outlandish the better. The only rule is that the vehicle shouldn’t look too much like a vehicle.
MSN has gathered a collection of 48 of my photos in a slideshow that captures some of the best and most brilliant art cars from the last ten years. You can view it here or click on the photo below.
The routine is the same every year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee calls a press conference on the second Friday of October at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, the chairman enters the room, greets the international press corps, and announces the committee’s choice for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement typically consists of a short written statement, read first in English and then in Norwegian. The chairman then takes a few questions from the press, whereupon everyone rushes off to file their news reports.
This year was no different, except that word got out about an hour before the announcement that the winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N. watchdog group. NRK, Norway’s leading news organization, had leaked the information ahead of the announcement and it spread like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the social media rumor mill—Twitter, in particular.
It wasn’t exactly an exciting choice, especially for those of us gathered at the Nobel Institute hoping for a big win for, say, Malala Yusoufzai—the global favorite this year—or Russian human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, or the great American peace scholar Gene Sharp, whom I’ve been pulling for in recent years.
The leak meant that by the time Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, stepped up to the microphone, the announcement seemed like more of a formality than a riveting news event.
It goes without saying that the OPCW is a worthy recipient. Over the last decade and a half, the organization has been working to dismantle and destroy chemical weapons, to prevent the creation of new ones, and to help countries protect themselves against chemical attacks.The organization has been especially busy in recent months working to eliminate Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia.
This award follows in a long tradition of Nobel Peace Prizes to individuals and groups working for disarmament. This work is as vital as ever and a crucial part of the international peace effort.
But I was disappointed to see the Peace Prize go to an organization for the second year in a row. The best awards are those given to individuals, not organizations. Both the international recognition and the money mean far more to an individual laureate than to an impersonal institution or association.
I have spoken with individuals who were part of organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will tell you, without batting an eye, that receiving the award and being under the global media spotlight distracted them from their mission and created organizational challenges that set their work back.
It’s worth noting that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the prize, did not intend for it to be given to organizations. He wanted to support men and women who were “champions of peace.” For him, that term implied a passionate activism and idealism. He saw his prize as a kind of development grant, like the “Genius” awards given out by the MacArthur Foundation, that would have no strings attached and could free a laureate to pursue his or her highest calling.
In a curious twist, Nobel’s intentions were ignored after his will was probated. In drafting the statutes of the foundation established to oversee the awards, Nobel’s heirs and their lawyers insisted on a more open-ended interpretation of the founder’s wishes—presumably to avoid any possible corruption of the prizes. That has freed the Nobel committee to give the award to individuals and organizations alike.
This year I reported on the Nobel Peace Prize for the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). In the reports and interviews following the announcement, the question on everyone’s mind revolved around Malala. Why didn’t she win the prize? Would it have been too heavy a burden to place on a 16-year-old girl? Will she perhaps win next year?
Who knows? She certainly would have been a risky choice for the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She’s still a child, after all, and there is no telling how a prestigious award of this magnitude could change the direction of her life. She has already been targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for her campaign to promote education for girls in Pakistan.
As I mentioned in an AFP interview the other day, Malala would also have been a controversial choice for the committee in the wake of several unfortunate awards, including those to President Obama and the European Union.
There’s a growing chorus of critics around the world saying that the prize has become overly politicized, that laureates are chosen less on merit and more on their perceived publicity value, and that the committee has, in some profound way, deviated from the original charter of the prize. Those criticisms would almost certainly have grown louder had Malala been chosen this year.
Malala said herself that she hasn’t done enough to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I agree. But she’s still young and she will no doubt go on to do even greater things. And she may yet win the prize in coming years.
As I made my way back to the hotel last night, I walked past Oslo’s City Hall. At the top of both towers, a large-scale projection with the words “Because I am a girl” marked the International Day of the Girl. It seemed fitting that for all the talk about advancing peace and doing away with chemical weapons, at the end of the day the conversation came back around to that Pakistani schoolgirl, the one who has captured the world’s imagination and emerged as one of its most compelling symbols of freedom and courage.
Here I am (in the front row with a gray jacket) at the Nobel Institute in Oslo