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BURNING MAN

2017

There are no words that can capture the Burning Man experience, the effort would be comparable to describing a trip to Venus or another planet. All I can offer you is my small photographic display of what I saw during my 13 days at Burning Man 2017 and some anecdotal ramblings that describe emotional responses... Burning Man became one of the most amazingly difficult experiences I have ever the pleasure of enduring.


ARRIVAL

Sometime around 3 am. We arrive at the outskirts of Black Rock City after 7 hours of driving through the night. It's a bleak, mind numbing noir of desolate Nevada roads. An ambiguous right hand turn appears with no fanfare or spectacle--just a small luminescent highway sign indicating that the entrance to Burning Man is here.

As we stray off the pothole-laced pavement onto a multi lane stretch of dust-covered desert expanse, I instinctively slow my driving pace. Lane separation is designated by meticulously placed traffic cones that appear completely out of place, considering we were in the middle of nowhere. And as we drive along this well beaten, dust slick road, speed limit signs reminded us that the rules for Burning Man start before you even get through the entrance gate.  

Often when I speak to people that have never been to Burning Man, there is a consistent urban myth which revels in the idea that Burning Man is a place where no rules apply and people just run around and do whatever comes into their head. This is true to a point, but I assure you Burning Man is a very well controlled and monitored form of ultimate expression. Like a giant Atom, simple yet highly complex with the potential energy to create or destroy worlds. Safety is paramount at Burning Man and some rules can be bent as long as they do not coincide with any threat to land, life or others’ pursuit of happiness... And some rules and procedures are monitored and governed by external law enforcement entities that have a priority to profit. That dichotomy is a whole other topic I won't even begin to touch.

I watch as puddles of dust 10 inches thick swash and percolate over the tires as we drive. The effluvia from from the micro particles starts to waft in the truck cabin, seeping through the smallest cracks and crevices of the vents and filters. As I squint my eyes to focus through the reflected haze of dust in the headlights, a faint glow lingers in and out of view on the horizon, barely visible, like a flashlight under a thick white bed sheet. This is the ominous glow of Black Rock City, towards which we inch closer at a snail’s pace.

Finally the 10 mph crawl comes to a dead stop. Traffic at 4am. Traffic in the middle of nowhere. Drivers abandon their vehicles, walking around in the darkness trying to make friends with other traffic goers--desperately trying to stay awake. Other drivers sleep at the wheel, a parking brake being the only saving grace to avoid a rear end collision at 2 mph. Each line only moves about 4 car lengths every 10 minutes. The scene is straight out of an apocalyptic fiction movie...  As I slowly nod in and out of sleep, I keep thinking -f*ck!, it's 4am and I am in traffic in the furthest to nowhere that you could possibly get without traversing expanses of Siberia...!- I have been driving straight for hours--I even passed out in a gas station parking lot when the coffee would not work anymore 5 hours ago. I haven’t even got to Burning Man yet and I am already exhausted.

After 5 hours of waiting in traffic and watching the sun come up over the Black Rock Desert, we made it to the ticket booth. Take notice of the windshield from the last photo. The dust was starting to take over. D-U-S-T: the four letter word of the trip.


WORK

For us, arrival at Burning Man meant work. I am not a Burning Man photographer, I am a photographer that went to Burning Man, as a member of an art crew. There is work to be done and the 3 hours of sleep in the past 32 hours will have to suffice.

As other crew members on our art team arrive and break the monotony, the weather starts playing tricks (considering what is to come). It’s calm. Warm, but not hot, with a gentle breeze. Days later I would remind myself of what a blatant form of false advertisement that was.

Finally, we are led to the art installation location, which kind of blew our mind. So close to the actual Burning Man and front and center on center Playa...

Assembly of the art piece means a lot of screws, conversations of travel and fine tuning with music blasting. "The Reflection Altar", created by artist Andria Dawn, was made from a majority of upcycled trash, a lot of which was donated by a California Native American casino, other small bits gathered from dumpster, combined with thrift store diving in previous weeks. (In the end, an accumulated 2 months of detailed hand work to bring to life a vision transpired a year prior.) Mpowerd was on board as our main choice for lighting the art piece at night. The Lucilights were key in providing sustainable light through the night with easy solar charging during the day...   As we work, I am still trying to stay clean--my camera is clean, my equipment is clean.  All is well in my little world...for now. Later, once we get camp set up, I quietly hope to go out and take some photos before sunset.


ACCLIMATION

As we continue work on the Reflection Alter, lines of art cars start to que for their Playa DMV pass. Yes, Burning Man has their own Department of Motor Vehicles and just like the real DMV, which ensures safety of the art vehicles that roam the 5 mile wide expanse.

I walk over to watch cyclists ride through the sunset. The dust in the air creates a barrier of muted light, both beautiful and frightening at the same time. There is almost a metallic taste to the air that I try to wash away with frequent sips of water.

As I look to the horizon to watch the sun escape behind the distant hills, a giant silver shark appears, drifting across the Playa with the slow elegant pace of it's watery counterpart. I keep asking myself, "What the f*uck am I seeing? Was that really a giant polished shark the size of a school bus that went by a digital 10ft clock on it's way past the 20ft sperm effigies?” Eventually I let it go. You have to let a lot go--especially when directly to your right is a goddamn 4 story pink flamingo wearing a Tutu, the giant shark does not seem very out of place in the context of it all.

As we work into the night, the first glimpses of the art piece come to life, last minute hand crafted flowers made from cardboard boxes are put into place. The air is still calm and the scurry of lit bicycles and work trucks make their way across the open Playa. Lucilights and headlamps keep our night vision steady. The distant vibration of speaker bass vibrates across from unseen distances.  I am so tired, I don't know if what I am seeing is real or greatly exaggerated by endorphins being released into my brain in some futile attempt for my body to self regulate through positive reinforcement. Soon I won't care anymore, I just want sleep.


SELF RELIANCE

At some point our camp was set up. I can’t tell you precisely when that happened. Sometime between day 2 and 3 in the evening. I have mental glimpses of the effort which are heavily altered by several shots of Tequila (which kept me from losing my mind through this tedious endeavor). The cheap "assemble by numbers" Amazon car tent was the first luxury of the day and at the same time -in hindsight- was a massive facade. Let me tell you: having a shade structure in the desert is clutch. And at Burning Man it can be the difference between having comfort during the heat of the day or finding refuge during the heat of the day. The arrival at Burning Man has only just begun and...Dust is Coming.


DESTRUCTION

Day 3 ... Getting up early to start the slow boil of water for my morning coffee, it seems as though this day may proceed just like the previous. It's hot, the ice in our cooler is melting faster than we can add it. So I decide to make my usual morning routine of heading out on the 20 minute bicycle ride to the art installation location and removing the battery that supplied the night illumination for the art piece.

Lights are required on all art installations at Burning Man because they prevent some poor bastard from slamming into it during the night and causing serious injury to the person or the art installation.

With the 30lb battery on my bicycle handlebars, I am ready to ride it back a half a mile to camp to charge again, I stop to occasionally observe other art pieces and random people crossing through the light of the day. With intrepid expectancy, I watch the first dust tornado rip through the Playa. People chasing alongside on bikes, jumping off to run into the maelstrom like moths to a flame. This would soon be an epilogue and allegory to the night that The Man burned, more than a week away. But that is another story, and not mine to tell...  

As the day goes by, we sit in our camp trying to determine the most accurate symptoms of heat stroke and self-diagnose our way into what we were sure was a serious lack of hydration (of which, water was not subduing the symptoms of). And when the sun starts to fall on the horizon I realize that we are low on ice for the cooler that keeps our food from spoiling. With only 30 minutes to spare before the ice stand closes, I jump on my bike in all good haste, bent on preserving the precious amount of food we have left.

At Burning Man, there are only 2 commodities that require real world currency: ice and coffee. I suppose after over 2 decades of experience, the organization learned that those are 2 things that people just cannot go without. Leaving the ice stand, I wonder what the hell everyone is looking at in the distance--until I stop to instinctively turn my head and do the same. In the distance rears a wall of dust, over a mile high with twisted tails of amber hue stretching into the high altitude like water stains from a leaking ceiling.

Having witnessed dust storms in North Africa, I knew what I was seeing but I was still wrapping my head around it... My legs immediately form a consciousness and with no cognitive thought, I start to pedal back to camp at full speed-- thankfully it's the opposite direction from the impending storm. Looking over my shoulder every few minutes provides the ultimate truth of doom: there will be no escaping this. The wall of dust roars a mile across in width and twice as high, moving at the pace of a semi truck, and the silence of a sheet in the wind, determined to crash into anything in its path. Unfortunately that "anything" happens to be me and our camp...


CONVERSION

The impending dust storm eventually crashes into Burning Man. I watch with disbelief as our camp and the adjacent camp are utterly destroyed. Elegantly placed sunshades and scaffolding are reduced to piles of bent aluminum poles. People from the Russian Camp next to us-- rush over to help us disassemble our sun shade before it's lifted out of the ground and blown away.

As the last poles are tossed to the side, we jump into our main sleeping tent hoping our body weight will prevent the whole thing from becoming airborne.  80+ mph winds send floods of dust inside, and everything we tried to keep clean in this small sanctuary is slowly layered, thicker and thicker. Eventually we just lay down on our backs in the tent, dust goggles on, dust masks on, and accept this moment. The moment when nothing would resemble clean again and the hot day would be much hotter should we decide to stay in our camp, now without sun protection.

As the storm diminishes, we slowly make our way outside to assess the damage. It is clear that the sunshade structure is not going to be functional again, as many of the aluminum poles were bent during the gale tirade that pulled 14" rebar stakes out of the ground. The majority of our food is now covered in a thick power of dust, too much to clean off and too little to call it “not edible”. The inside of our tent looks like someone purposely detonated a bomb of of vacuum dust...  As I stand outside the tent, I look towards the direction that the dust storm traveled and I don't believe what I am seeing.. The same storm and wall of dust is coming back, the complete opposite direction! All scientific explanation in my brain does not comprehend how this is possible. We are about to get slammed again, and as the second wave hit us I stand there still. No dust mask, no goggles, no shirt, camera in hand -which during this moment I have no spirit or desire to use-... The storm was a reality check and it brought out a lot of emotions. Feelings of anger, disappointment, empathy, envy and regret washed over me... Each for it's own reason and too much to explain ... I sat down on the couch with chaos around me and took one single photo of the aftermath and it's nothing dramatic, just my sunglasses on the table...

We cleaned up what we could and went out in search for a drink, I needed it...

My Sony camera looked destroyed from the dust, I brushed it off took it out of my bag and slung it around my shoulder.. No more hiding from the elements, this camera and lens are going to survive or die here... For the first time in days I felt like I could really capture moments and stop thinking "is my camera going to be ok?"

It was this day that I really started shooting photos because I stopped caring. From this point on, I shot photos for me .. Not a magazine, not a job, not Instagram, not for anyone, anything or any schedule... From this moment I am taking photos of what I find beautiful or interesting.


DRIVE

As the next day embraced us, we laughed our way through whiteout conditions. Storms so intense, at moments you could barely see your hand in front of your face... Shooting photos in a dust storm so severe, required wiping the dust off my lens every few seconds just to keep shooting... At one point I looked down and my black camera had turned entirely white from dust...

Through careful planning and exploration of various camps, we managed to find ways to sleep during the heat of the day and still have enough hydration and energy to go out at night, allowing us to actually enjoy the experience without fear of heatstroke. As we calculate sun position and water reserves; I keep thinking to myself, "there is no good reason why anyone should come to this place." But, there are countless reasons why everybody should...

Checking out the infamous Man..  So much hand crafted work to complete.

Shooting photos in a dust storm... The light effect from such dense particles in the air was amazing to shoot.

The next storm wave about to crash into a large group huddled together from the last storm. Whiteout conditions do not allow you to move very far.


MADNESS

Through careful planning and exploration of various camps, we managed to find ways to sleep during the heat of the day and still have enough hydration and energy to go out at night, allowing us to actually enjoy the experience without fear of heatstroke. As we calculate sun position and water reserves; I keep thinking to myself, "there is no good reason why anyone should come to this place." But, there are countless reasons why everybody should...

The next few days consist of crashing out (usually sometime around 4am) after hours of dancing, riding bikes around in the dark, finding small gatherings of people in the deepest reaches of the desert expanse, various workshops to attend, and sparking conversations with complete strangers...

When it comes to art,  Burning Man is off charts of comprehension or comparison. Burning Man may contain the world's largest assortment of art in a single location. The scale of the art is almost infinite in every direction or medium... It's static, mobile, permanent and temporary. Some comes and goes, some burns and some is given away at the end of it all... I met a guy who makes art from the smallest plant seeds imaginable, each one carved with microscopic care, and hours later I was standing in front of a massive 2 story tall electronic tree with over 600,000LED's that took over 3 years to create. Any form of art expression can be found at Burning Man and all of it was beautiful and thoughtful.

If you love and appreciate art, you truly must go to Burning Man once before you leave this physical world.


the end is near

It's around 6am as my eyes crack open, I register a couple humanoid figures dancing in a blurred hue. I can still feel the familiar buzz of Tequila muting my senses. A chill tempo of sound fills the space around me, somehow I am on a comfortable couch, as people are dancing just a few feet away, my head tilts back and the inverted view of a DJ behind turn tables comes into view... I can still remember the song I woke up to, a familiar Bass Nectar remix (one of my favorites actually)... I can see the glow of the approaching morning sun, it makes shapes more visible, I overhear a group talking about photos in the morning glow of the sun, so naturally I grab my camera and follow them out.

As I wander through the daylight, I spot a Japanese Tea ceremony in the middle of the Playa, people line up to participate in this calculated and traditional practice of respect. What you don't understand is -this tea ceremony is so out of place to everything going on around-. Giant monster art cars drive by shaped like dragons, naked people on unicycles, 2 guys in bull costumes, a flock of people dressed as moths... All this happening around this scene... Quietly my visual and logical senses battle to determine which will prevail to explain the rational.

As the sun fell, various art structures begin to burn into the night... Art pieces so beautiful, watching them ignite leaves me with a strange emotion that I can't describe, it's something closely akin to anger... -How can someone spend so much time building something so beautiful only to burn it to ash?- The allegory and ritual of this experience cannot be properly described, and the answer to this question can only be discovered in hindsight, close examination of self and what the ritual burning represents... I think you eventually "get it" or you don't ...

I could not even bring myself to take photos of some art installations that burned because I had such strong mixed emotions about the entire thing... I am personally glad the creator of our art installation did not burn her piece... (ahh, attachment ... I know, I know... but still)


burn

I have looked forward to this night for almost 2 weeks. Watching that effigy of a man burn would mean the end is near to the suffering, the heat, the dust, the daily routine of managing this art installation... It would also be an end to the small beautiful moments I discovered every day I was here, especially the interactions and experience with some amazing people...  Little do I know, this night will become one of the most amazing nights of my life.

As the night falls, I watch The Man burn in the most spectacular fashion. The degree and magnitude of what was happening around this event cannot be described. And aspeople dangle from 50ft sailing masts rigged to wheeled boats in the desert and the crowd erupts in cheers... I am truly speechless.

The next day, ashes of The Man are smoking in the morning light, I begin wishing I could have this night just one more time.

aftermath

The sun comes up the next day. Victims of the previous night lay skewed and scattered across the desert playa in various levels of consciousness... Giant 50ft talking dolls hover across in the distance, and $400 shots of Cognac roll out of a bottle at 6am. This is the day after The Man burned.

 

out

The next 48hrs we break down camp. We say our goodbyes. We wait in hours of traffic again just to exit the property edges of Burning Man... We drive until we can’t keep our eyes open, and then we rent a room in Reno for the night. We shower, we recoup, we go home...

Weeks later, I am still cleaning the dust of Burning Man out of my clothes and my soul…  I don't want to overthink or over analyze my experience. I am going to just let it be what it was. Maybe my photos can help you visually embrace the experience I tried to put into words... But, probably not. 

Dust remains, even after 2 cleaning sessions... Eventually the only thing that got the dust out was vinegar which created a chemical reaction with the alkaline base of the dust and loosen it from the plastic. 



99% of all photos published were captured on the following:
- Sony A7Rii - Camera Body.
- Canon 16-35 f2.8 (L) lens with Fotodiox Canon EF to Sony E-Mount electronic adapter.
- A few shots from "The End is Near" were taken with the Rokinon 35mm f2.8 for Sony E Mount full frame.
- No ND filters, no special equipment, no tripod ... Just this camera. 

Special Thanks to:

- AndriaDawnARt : Thank you for keeping me alive, making amazing art and bringing me along for the experience.
- Mpowerd / LuciLights : For making sure I could find my way when times were dark and for being such an awesome company.
- BLDG Active : No BS... This stuff repairs wounds fast! It's like X-MAN Wolverine status ... Sunburns healed overnight with it.

Find me on Instagram : @damianrileyphoto