It’s spring. And that means flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and ladies wearing crop tops with jean shorts and gentleman with impressive beards are migrating out to the desert. It’s music festival season, people. And there’s nothing we love better than seeing the gorgeous photographs of beautiful people (who are way cooler than we’ll ever be) dancing in the scorching desert sun.
In the spirit of celebration, we connected with Galen Oakes whose festival photography we absolutely adore. His pictures of the crazy, free-wheeling festival life make us feel floaty. He chases the joy of the moment, capturing bursts of color, energy, and bare skin. Look through one of his galleries and you’ll want to take off for the nearest festival immediately (shedding layers as you drive).
Last weekend, Oakes went to the Desert Hearts Festival, the intimate techno dance festival in SoCal where you dance directly beneath the stars. After the dust settled, he shared some of the best photographs with us, and they’ll make you feel like you’re falling down the rabbit hole. So get ready to be lost in the whimsical, topsy turvy world of Desert Hearts. Because in the words of the Chesire cat, “We’re all mad here.” And if this is what madness looks like, we’d hate to live our lives sane.
How did you get involved with photographing festivals?
When I was 21 I had the opportunity to travel to Bali with a group. While we were out there was a huge festival that was starting out called the Bali Spirit Festival. They were looking for volunteers and I had just gotten my first DSLR camera. I ended up donating my services as a photographer. I wasn’t a professional photographer, but I had just bought the camera and I was excited to use it.
I shot that festival and through that experience I met a bunch of people that were involved in music, performance art and jewelry and fashion. A lot of them go to Bali in the winter but they were all based out of the Bay area. I’m from Northern California so it was really amazing to meet this community of people all the way across the world that live really close to where I grew up.
When I came back from Bali, I got involved in that community and I went to Burning Man with them back in 2009. That experience changed my life and forged the path for where I am today. A few months later I went to Symbiosis and I did this thing where I was like, “Hey, I’ll make a video for you if you give me a free ticket and some meals and a place to stay.” They basically just did a flat trade. It was fun and I could have a really cool experience and listen to music while making art. I started a company and started doing festival videos as a career.
It’s not my main job anymore, but I really enjoy doing it. It’s probably what I’m most known for, my music festival photography.
What do you love about festivals?
The sense of community that surrounds them. And how people get outside of the day to day bubble that they put themselves in. That being said there are better festivals than others. Burning Man, for instance– there’s no trash at Burning Man which is incredible. Whereas Coachella, on the other hand, every night after the festival closes there’s just thousands and thousands of water bottles; trash everywhere.
So I like festivals for different reasons but I like festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis and Desert Hearts because they emphasize waste management and they have workshops you can take. Symbiosis and Lightning in a Bottle especially, they have a lot of really cool workshops. Desert Hearts is definitely putting more emphasis on that this year. I like festivals (that involve) people coming together and realizing that we’re all in this together and we have to take care of each other and take care of ourselves.
You became involved in Desert Hearts early on. What keeps you going back to that particular festival?
(With the first one), I went out and it was up in Apple Valley and there was just a small stage of the same space basically that they have today. The audience has probably gotten a little bit bigger but generally speaking, it’s much of the same general setup. It felt very intimate. It was on this beautiful mountaintop in Apple Valley — open, rocks everywhere, crisp air, beautiful sky. I didn’t really know anyone there when I went to the first event, so I was there all weekend by myself. And I brought my camera and I was just taking photos. And I left that weekend with 20 or 30 new friends.
I was just hooked. I was like, this community is awesome, such amazing people, and everyone had such good energy.
What’s day to day life like at Desert Hearts?
It just depends on what type of person you are. For me I pretty much stay at the stage 24/7. For other people, there are yoga workshops happening from early morning to late afternoon. There’s live entertainers, there’s a few different workshops. The cool thing is you can go on hikes.
The nice thing about Desert Heart is it’s a pretty compact festival, I think there’s only around 3-5 thousand people. So if you’re trying to find someone, you’ll usually find them on the dance floor. There’s only one stage, so you don’t have to pick and choose what you want to see. It feels like you and your friends out in the desert listening to some great music on an amazing sound system with really incredible artist/DJs. And I think that’s a big part of why Desert Hearts has grown as fast as they’ve grown.
It sounds like it’s a working vacation for you every time you go to a festival. How do you balance the fun and working?
If I’m not doing something at a festival I feel like I get bored — so I enjoy having a purpose. Especially the purpose of reflecting the beauty I see in everyone.
I would say the tip is that it’s about quality and not quantity. The more experience you get, the more you learn how to get the images that you need so you can actually work less. There’s a lot of photographers when they first start out that just go around and snap tons of photos. It ends up being a lot more work during the festival and then also you get back to your desk and there’s a lot more images to look though and that takes time also. I feel like a skill that I’ve gotten is to know when and where to shoot the images I need to get and then set my camera down for a little bit and dance and hang out and have a little fun. It’s learning just how to anticipate the moment to capture that will set your photos apart at the end of the day.
What draws you to a subject or a moment? What inspires you in terms of the best photos you can take at a music festival?
I feed off of people’s energies. I like passion. I like people having fun, people dressed cool, people who are there to have a good time and enjoy getting into the experience of what a festival is. While I’m shooting I like to move with people and include them… because I feel like if you can give someone energy, you get energy out of them and the photos will reflect that.
You’ve been to a ton of festivals. What would are your biggest tips for doing a festival right?
Carpool to the festival. Have a cooler with snacks. Get water. Bring a headlamp. Pick up your trash. And bring warm clothes, long underwear helps a lot, especially if it’s cold out. You might want wool socks. If you’re not comfortable, it’s not fun. I use long underwear a lot at Burning Man and Desert Heart.
And then, I would just say bring an open mind, smile, say hi to people, and make new friends. I’ve met some amazing people at festivals just by walking up and saying hi, asking about what they were doing, or when this music artist is playing. I think that festivals are a great place to find like minds and new people that have similar interests as you do.
Do you have a philosophy for yourself as a photographer?
I’m a writer, and my photography perspective comes from the narrative that I have in my head all the time-the stories that I see in life. I just write with images now more than with words.
What drives me to take photos is really about seeing all the beauty that I see in the world. It’s showing people that there’s beauty. Sometimes you just have to have a different kind of perspective to see it, but it’s always there. I really enjoy taking photos and sharing the photos of people that show them in a different light than they might see in themselves. Or to show someone an event in a new light that will inspire them. So that’s what drives me with photography.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
My career as a photographer has led me to be the co-founder of a new app called OpenCall. OpenCall is a curated marketplace and social network for creators. So if you’re looking to find a model or photographer or hairstylist or graphic artist, you can sort people by profession and what they do and where they’re located. And I’m really hoping that it will be a tool that will empower creatives to represent themselves and get paid in a timely manner. I know that a lot of artists are taken advantage of because they’re not so business minded. So I wanted to create a platform where artists can connect with brands and with each other and find work, get work, and collaborate.
That’s basically my main hustle right now, then the festival stuff and other photography is something that I do on the side. It’s really cool that everything I do with my photography, can be integrated to OpenCall because it’s a creative community.