"I've learned never to expect people to be better than they are, but to always have faith that they can be more." Larry Harvey
Three years ago this week, I packed my cameras and a canvass tent and sojourned to the Black Rock Playa in northwestern Nevada. I was Hell-bent on seeing what happens when 70,000+ creative souls defy social norms and express themselves through art, dancing in faux fur at 4am and partaking in things they would never fess up to.
But why would a newsroom manager in his early 50s want to spend a week alone without internet connectivity or running water in order to embrace this subculture juxtaposed against dehydrated meals, sandstorms and temperature extremes?
The answer - Burning Man!
For the uninitiated, this was the late Larry Harvey's vision of an annual gathering - one that started in the 80s with the burning of a small stick effigy on a San Francisco beach and morphed into a Bohemian fuck fest (not necessarily in the sexual sense) for artists, questioners and the social media elite.
But for me it was a chance to photograph a world that was not my own. For that, I embraced the 10 Burning Man principles as set out in the organizers' own words:
Radical Inclusion Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Gifting Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
Decommodification In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Radical Self-reliance Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on their inner resources.
Radical Self-expression Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Communal Effort Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
Civic Responsibility We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Participation Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediacy Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
(Source: Lifted directly from Burning Man via burningman.org)
I also rode across the crusted landscape on an old repurposed cruiser bike, visiting strangers and taking photographs.
That was then and this is now. COVID makes it different. It seems 2021 has hit hard with a deleterious system of entrenched division and hate messaging. More than ever, I look back at Burning Man 2018 for answers. What happened to radical inclusion, civic responsibility or gifting? What about the other principles?
Yet, there is comfort in what I learned at Burning Man. People have a desire to love, care and create. You can see it in the art. And while there are those in society willing to divide and hate, there is inspiration in others bent on creating in defiance of circumstance.
When the event returns to its Before Times Normal, living in the moment and leaving without a trace will have an even stronger meaning. It will be linked to a better part of ourselves where we seek opportunities to observe, listen and learn.
It's what I call - living!