The People of Burning Man

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The Story of this Book

This project was shown around to all the main photo-book publishers by a seasoned agent. The publishers all said "no." They also asked to keep their copies! Despite their own interest, they said the content was too extreme, and that here would not be enough demand. It became clear that we were asking the establishment to publish something that was largely anti-establishment. So we appealed to the community, asking for enough funds to do the printing. Within 15 days, several hundred people had pledged their support, already totalling the full amount. By the time the funding period was complete, the community had contributed well over the amount for which we had asked. This proved that there was a lot of demand and support for the project, and it enabled us to do a larger print run of a book of good length and quality. This print run exists thanks to the support of over 500 fantastically wonderful human beings, whose names are all listed in these back pages.

Just as we went renegade in order to get printed, we also plan to go for an alternative, yet powerful approach to spreading the word: It depends upon you to make sure that people discover this book.

Julian and Jackie discover Burning Man

My name is Jackie Cash. My husband Julian took these photos, over the course of a decade. When we first came to Burning Man, there were fewer people around, and we didn't bring any gifts or art to share. Which is okay - it's hard to hit the ground running.

We happily immersed ourselves in all the art, performance, cutting-edge science, and general insanity. We understood quickly that it wasn't a show to watch: it was a game to join. In that sense, we had come unprepared, and it was very discomfiting to stand by and just be a tourist. We wanted to be a part of it, bring something, and share a talent or three. Julian immediately began dreaming up "theme camp" ideas. By the end of the week, Julian had formulated his plan. When we returned it would be as Supersnail, Portrait Photographer of the Playa.

One year later we loaded down our little compact car with the studio and camping gear. We didn't have enough space inside the hatchback, so we hung stuff on the outside. First, we draped an eight-foot long board over the roof rack. It was so long that it hung down over the back window. Then we lashed eight huge plastic storage tubs to the board. We were as aerodynamic as a brick. People took pictures of our car, honked and waved as we drove from San Francisco to Nevada. We looked like a Supersnail for sure.

As it happens, that much wind resistance is a significant load. We were only partway along on our journey when the support for the front rack snapped. Luckily, we pulled off the highway and into the nearest parking lot. Julian was in despair, the rack had been special order, and it was not going to be replaceable in time. He was losing a year's worth of planning, and all of his carefully saved vacation days. I kept it light and got us drinks as we turned over options. I recommend this approach to anyone: Keep it light, and keep hydrated. Since we were parked by a hardware store, we decided to wander the aisles. There we discovered a packet of ratcheting tie-downs. The straps were guaranteed to hold several thousand pounds, more weight than the rating on our rack. We secured both the board and the rack by strapping them onto the roof of the car, which meant threading the fabric through the open windows and tying the doors closed. We drove like that the rest of the way, 300 miles with the slipstream whistling in our ears, desert air flowing warm on our skin. We arrived at night, our headlights slicing the blackness, the road glowing a ghostly blue under the shimmering river of stars. The rich, sharp scent of desert sage rolled in the open windows – along with confused crickets and huge moths.

When the city came into view, I assumed it was another mining town. Then my mind was flooded with disbelief at its size and brightness. I held onto my amazed denial until we were rolling through Black Rock City proper. Waking in the chill of dawn, Julian got to work on building the photo studio. Leaving our camp would have meant missing out on the chance to photograph people, so he sent me out to look for subjects. I put on a black Turkish costume, donned an ornate orange fox mask, and scouted through town approaching people I found interesting. I would gently stalk up to them and proffer my silent invitation, then bow, and hunt another. When I returned to camp, Julian was already photographing the people I'd scouted, and there was a line out the door.

What happened next is what you see on these colorful pages. We connected with the artists, activists, do-gooders, do-badders, grizzled hobo sweethearts, and plenty of people with mundane jobs and vibrant souls. There was no Burning Man personality type, whatever historians might say in hindsight. The culture was unformed, whirling into being all around us. To be sure, there is more going on there, in one week, than can ever be seen or remarked. History is rarely so fleeting as it is at Burning Man. Other photographers took care of the gorgeous landscapes and outdoor pageantry, science experiments and art pieces, dance and performance, fires and phenomena. Julian couldn't bear to let these people, their personalities and faces, go unrecorded. He fell in love with them. That's why they are so often smiling here – if someone falls in love with you, you can't help but be a bit pleased. But there is more to it, of course. What we found these people shared was a spirit of freedom and possibility – and in a related way we all felt a strange ability to look each other in the eye and really see. We saw things we'd never seen before – maybe because we were looking. We tried as hard as we could to document that spirit, to show the ways it was making the souls of the people bloom and shine.

After that first year of shooting, we got emails from former portrait subjects, asking to join our camp. They were great fun; we made many lifelong friends. Our book is very much a collaboration, in that Julian did portraits of people chosen by me and by the Supersnail campmates on the Acknowledgements page. They took over the tasks of running the camp and did them better. They developed a system for receiving people who had been scouted, a dusty green "greeter's tent" with a bit of shade. Visitors filled out consent forms as bursts of random and hilarious mayhem emanated from within a mysterious white cube. Some didn't know what they waited for, just that it sounded fun. We often had long lines. Julian was trying to give actual time to each person.

By necessity the studio tent was never shaded; it was often over 100 degrees inside. Julian wore full-length flannel pajamas, drank a lot of water, danced around in the searing heat, laughing with his new best friends. He brought out the best in people – and they brought out the best in him. He worked 12-hour days with, at most, 15-minute breaks. He was having such a wonderful time, he hardly noticed. In the daylight, surrounded by such remarkable folk, while making his art, he was an inexhaustible fountain of joy. When the sun went down, the studio went dark, and Julian came out wincing as his body made its complaints known. By 7pm he would collapse in exhaustion, out for the night.
We spent nearly a decade with Supersnail Camp, and had many adventures. I had the most wonderful, joyous and deep experiences of my life in that city, and the same goes for Julian. Many things went wrong over the years. Black Rock City is a dangerous place. You can ruin your health if you don't take care of your body. Julian hit his knee with a sledgehammer. I was hospitalized for dehydration, and the same thing happened to Julian. My motto, suitable for framing in needlepoint, became: "Never prove anything at noon in the desert."

Our time at Burning Man was a learning experience. We learned our limitations. We learned caution. We learned how to pack fast. We learned to be more open with strangers. We learned to be patient in the face of epic crankiness. We learned how to give up grievances – even valid ones – to accept each other as is, and then keep trying to be better people. Burning Man made a great testing ground for our beliefs and the ideals we live by. We explored what worked for us, and what we had to discard as unhelpful; what beliefs made us better people, which ones made us stagnate.

Society operates through mutually agreed-upon ground rules. Most of them are good and wonderful. But each generation needs to challenge the rules they were born into – to change them when needed, to fit them to a new understanding. There is always a new understanding. The contributions of the people of our time pour new life into our common knowledge. Science forever upends itself and spills forth a new layer of truth, leading us to expand our consciousness in reaction. Society unfolds, birthing new customs, new words, new ways of being, new professions – nothing is certain to endure but change itself. You yourself have changed. Your dreams and values as a ten-year-old child are not the same as those you have now. We made this book, in part, with a spirit of encouraging you to challenge what you need to challenge.

So, what is this book in your hands trying to express? Is it showing how nudity and sexuality are awesome? Is it celebrating being contrary? Well, sure, but that overly simplifies it. Take nudity, for example. It is a powerful thing. It is who you are. Society teaches us that it is only decent to hide our bodies. To hide ourselves. But if you are not afraid of your nakedness, and of being seen as you are now, you may find your other fears fall away. What is being expressed here is not just about nekkid bodies or being contrary for the sake of it. It's about following the rules that you truly believe in, not just the ones you were told to follow.

This book want to be your counter-culture spirit guide. We hope it embodies what Julian and I found valuable out there. Creativity, self expression, questioning authority, spirituality, innocence, joy, being good to each other, kindness, pushing boundaries, and a not-quite-safe metal dragon that shoots 50-foot flames. The American credo of "Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll" can be freeing, but that is simple hedonism. Real empowerment and freedom go much farther. You don't need a partner, a band, or a substance to be free. While it is possible to do those things creatively, none of them requires creativity, and it is our belief that creativity and freedom go hand in hand.

Burning Man is an incredible canvas for self expression, but don't limit yourself. The place where you are right now is even more hungry for creativity, joy, and change. Building the world you want to live in can start with a wisp of an idea. A little bit of your talent can be polished to a brilliant shine. Bear in mind that 99% of these photos were taken by just one guy, hopping around inside the rickety little studio that is pictured on the front page. We hope you'll use this book to inspire your own adventure. Imagine something incredible, and then work to make it exist. Blow your own mind! Express yourself – there is a light in you, and if you let it shine, your inner brilliance will help others find their way. Be brave. Be free.

-Julian and Jackie Cash