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  • Writer's pictureShawn Griffin

Burner Dust Memories

In the summer of 2013, Mat Cerniglia and I drank a lot of craft beers and ordered tickets to Burning man.

Well actually, backtrack a bit...

Initially, Mat Cerniglia an I drank a lot of craft beers and decided we were going to do a documentary project on the Trans-Siberian railroad; traveling the entire length from Amsterdam to Ulaanbaatar, then document... whatever it is that two 23 year old guys would do in Mongolia on a holiday.

Apparently, something like this...

However, our trip was derailed by one man... Aleksandr Lukashenko...

Long story short, Lukashenko is the [dictator] president of Belarus who did some shady shit in the 90's (but who didn't? AmIRight,Ladies~) which resulted in the US issuing sanctions against them, which resulted in Americans not being allowed into the country, which forced Mat Cerniglia and I to abandon our Trans-Siberian journey and find a new journey. So, you could indirectly say, the president of Belarus forced me to Burning man.

Dictator, Soviet Sympathizer, and can do a "totes mean death drop" once he's had some molly...

So, after probably not enough planning, Mat and I loaded up a rental car and Thelma and Louised our way into the American desert... if Thelma and Louise were two men.... And weren't being  chased by the police... And didn't die in the end... (spoiler alert)

But amazing tales of friendship and questionably legal levels of intoxication induced performance art aside, the the event was ripe for visual and conceptual subjects. I had hit a proverbial goldmine for picture takin'. 

On a psychological and sociological approach, burning man is unlike any other society that I had ever photographed. When you get a bunch of upper-middle class white people living in the desert, eating pot brownies, and claiming they've changed their name to "Moon Lander" or "Chakra", they enter a different level of self awareness where they no longer judge themselves. This was a beautiful thing both in the aspect of being able to express themselves in the most uninhibited human way possible, as well as completely lacking any previous opposition to a stranger taking your photo in the most fantastical outfits you won't have a heat stroke in.

But still servin' a total heat wave, hunty~

The setting, situations, and bizzarity of the whole happening made it a truly unique setting to capture. Having photographed "street" photography since I first picked up a camera, I had never had access to subjects exhibiting such openness with their emotions.

Friendship, sorrow, community, faith, the Thunderdome...


I know this is supposed to be a blog about my photographic experiences. But we can't just pretend that putting two people on bungee cords with a dj syncing the fight music live until one person bleeds isn't the most adrenaline rushing thing you've experienced in the comfort of northern Nevada.

I still think about it any time I need to expedite my beard growth.

In any case, the experience gave me an insight into the way people perceive photography and getting their picture taken when they suddenly can hide behind an uninhibited persona. The same people I was so used to giving me dirty looks or becoming self conscious of their appearance when photographing them as completely "normal" everyday people were completely unashamed and open to letting me photograph them as a merman-steampunk-harlequin-nudists. The burner personas they adopted made them more open to new experiences and seemed to let down a wall of their personality which is usually deployed for the sake of social norms or societal expectations which we feel inclined to meet.

Without these norms, and with everyone operating with the same lack of judgement or expectations, the newly found openness of personalities becomes perhaps a bigger high than whatever they're passing around in those bowls of "skittles". More than the art, more than the party, this incredible experience was an opportunity for people to truly embrace themselves in a way that is completely free from the fear of societal judgement and, in turn, free from the fear of a camera lens which, in essence, which is why even four years later, I still look back on these photos as moments of humanism at its purest.

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