In the Black Rock Desert of Nevada at the end of August, Burning Man kicks off every year, a week long event that incinerates the mold of summer festivals.
At burning man, the people are the festival, as people are asked to experiment in community and radical self-expression, creating wild costumes and living off of only what they bring. Then of course there is the burning of a giant wooden effigy.
Aaron Feinberg is a photographer that discovered Burning Man a few years ago and has been documenting his experiences ever since through his lens. There’s no way we could tell you about this in a more compelling way than through his words and photos, so let’s not waste anytime in getting to our interview. His photos are extraordinary, and his accounts of his experiences give a glimpse into a legendary world that exists for just one sweltering week of the year.
When did you start going to Burning man, and what were your first impressions?
My first Burn was 2012. A long time coming as I had been trying to get there for about 6 years. We arrived late Sunday night, in a dust storm, after being in traffic for around 6-8hrs. After making the entrance and finding our rendezvous spot I can vividly recall getting out the car into another planet. Nothing like I had ever seen nor could ever describe to the point of actually witnessing. A surreal place with glowing lights, sailing ships and massive sharks (art cars) in a landscape that was completely alien. I was finally home.
What is your photography mission when you go?
My first year I had no mission because I had little idea of what I was getting into. Only to document as I normally do. That first burn I started capturing full body portraits with one certain lens. Now year after year I am adding to that collection in my Playa Portraits series. The hope is to eventually do a playa art piece with these photos.
To your ability, how would you describe what to expect at Burning Man to someone who has never heard of it?
In short, you can’t. You gotta go, to know. No matter how much video you watch or photos you look at there is no way to get across the experience that is Burning Man. It’s an art festival. Not a music festival. That is created BY everyone. Freedom of expression in the purest sense of the word. And for a lot of people a transformative experience.
How do you think the fact that you are in the desert affects the energy of the event?
The event is based upon 10 Principles, one of which is Radical Self-reliance, however this is also partnered with Communal Effort. The only things that Burning Man supplies are toilets and ice. All food, water, booze, shelter; everything needs to be brought in. Just that fact alone means we have to be prepared for the elements. Hot during the day, cold at night. White-out dust storms. Rain/mud. The various extremes mean that everyone trying to survive is in it together which brings out some amazing display of costume (or complete lack their of).
You talk about how important the personal connection with people is, how is meeting people at burning man different than elsewhere?
As I try and answer this question I’m thinking of all the different permutations there are to this. Meeting someone my first year in the first couple of days? Meeting someone at my 3rd burn that’s a virgin? Sometimes meeting someone is just experiencing something amazing, as standing in front of a piece of art that would blow your mind and having a ‘stranger’ there next to you to share that moment. Then celebrating that with a hug. In fact, that’s the preferred method of introduction. Some people are so defaulted in to putting out a hand to shake that the act of hugging seems so foreign. Breaking down those barriers is always enjoyable. In the end meeting people out on the playa is different, especially by midweek because everyone realizes what they are experiencing together. Barriers are down. People are more open minded. Maybe even more out-going. Curious.
Burning man is so overwhelming, how does one make the most of it?
Live in the moment. Another of the 10 Principles is Immediacy. It’s near impossible to plan anything out there. The best laid plans of ‘meet me at this day at this time’ quickly go out the window once on the playa. Day and time means nothing. Each person has their own experience and for good or bad it’s what is needed. In short, see art. Experience people. Go out of one’s comfort zone. And of course…dance!
How do the costumes shape the event, and what kinds of costumes have you dawned over the years?
Going back to the fact that Burning Man IS the participants we are all there to make the festival what it is. So our own person is also included. Sometimes people are decorated in ornate costumes, sometimes nude. Most people have at least one costume change a day around dark. Personally I wear light or little during the day and save my pants/fur/tights for night. Just have fun with it and hope someone else appreciates it as well.
What is your most memorable experience of burning man?
Some are not available to be discussed via interview, but hands down it was my first time entering the Temple. Though my experience in subsequent years hasnt been too much different, that first entrance having no real idea what the Temple was about was truly emotional. In fact I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it. A lot of people know Burning Man from the Man itself but the real core of the event is actually the Temple. My good friend and amazingly talented filmmaker, Michael Marantz, did an absolutely amazing short documentary on his first burn;
What do you think is the personal change that happens in people before they go and when they finally leave?
That I cannot speak to as it is a highly subjective answer. I do know people that have had profound experiences out on the playa and have changed their lives because of it. Does it happen for all? Probably not but for those that do I’m sure it’s fantastic.
Are you going back, and if so what will you bring?
I do have tickets for this year, 2015, which will be my 4th consecutive burn. As always my camera is coming with me and my lack of expectations and sense of curiosity and wonder. That’s something right?