We have reached that special time of the year when people are well and truly into their pumpkin spice latte groove, but also have access to the holiday cup at Starbucks. Sweaters and jackets are out, but people in some parts of the country are still wearing shorts (we see you, OC). As we speed toward winter, it’s nice to stop for a minute and think about Burning Man. Mock all you want, you know that spending a few weeks in the desert riding bikes, looking at art, and expressing your bold sexuality is a lot more fun than hauling your ass to work in November, especially if you work retail.
We turned to our friend Galen Oakes (@OneNativeYouth) for some vibrant images of this year’s festival. He’s a photographer whose commitment to joy and vitality manifest in photos that seem to leap off the screen — bright, colorful, humming with good vibes. You may remember his pics from this year’s Desert Hearts festival, which showcased the zany exuberance of the event. His Burning Man images lean more toward art and artistry — without losing the dynamism that defines his style.
Take a few minutes out of any humdrum fall day to scan these photos from Black Rock City and channel their vigor. A change in weather and obligations to your daily life may not let you truly shed your clothes and dance on the Playa, but take some of the spirit these images embody back into your daily life. Or, if that’s too new-age, just check out the pics and think “Damn, that looks fun.” That works, too.
When you last met up with us, you explained how you got your start in photography and festivals but you also said it’s not your full-time job anymore. Is that the case?
Yes. It’s something that I’m transitioning out of and even more so than when we spoke last.
What is your main job?
I make most of my money doing press shots for artists and DJ’s and those are for EPKs, electronic press kits, to be used for tour announcements, single releases, promotional flyers, etc. I do those out of my home studio in downtown Los Angeles. I also do music videos. I just finished one for Anabel Englund — which is going to be coming out soon. I’ve done product photography as well, more recently for the company Zevia, who make naturally sweetened drinks with stevia (the plant extract).
In my spare time, I’m working on OpenCall, which isn’t generating any money at the moment. But, we will be turning on the subscription soon, which will be a way of monetizing it. Hopefully, that will bring in some revenue that we can use to continue growing our user base and adding new features to the app. When I’m not doing things for money, I am working with my friend, Kelsey, who’s an amazing body painter and creative director. We’ve been creating some incredible images together that we will be premiering at a gallery show in the spring.
Wow. So then when you’re doing Burning Man, that’s just out of love?
Yes. My career with photography and videography and digital content started out of my passion for festivals. Shooting festivals was how I learned to hone my craft and to meet people and to get paid in the beginning. It’s where my passion started, though I don’t need to create a living in that space anymore because I’d rather make work doing different projects. In saying that, I always have fun at Burning Man but I always feel like I wanna create so much art because there’s so much that we can capture there. I always leave with the feeling that I didn’t capture enough, yet I’m always capturing so much.
For example, this year I had a few different projects at Burning Man. I was camping with the Mayan Warrior — who have arguably the most incredible art car on the playa. The sound system, the lasers, the vehicle itself and the curation of music is just next level. The owner, Pablo Vargas from Mexico City, invited me to camp with them this year and be one of their official photographers, so I was very honored to be able to camp with them and be able to reflect that experience to the world. Beyond that, I was taking photos for Everfest (formally Fest 300), which I’ve been doing for the last three years at Burning Man. I also was shooting for another camp that was doing a flavor experiment pop up produced by Guerrilla Science that helped people understand how smell and different parts of taste are influenced by the way we look at or think about things.
Oh, I was also shooting for Jen Lewin Studio, who created an amazing art activation out there this year. She’s also camped with Mayan Warrior and the art piece was these iridescent-coated acrylic panels that had LEDs in the inside, and when you stepped on the panels they lit up and then they’d create different patterns. And so, at night time, there were a bunch of people running around dancing, walking on them.
That’s rad! So you’re shooting for three different things, but I heard that this year it was crazy hot out there. How many hours are you actually getting to shoot?
I was at Oregon Eclipse, the festival that was the culmination of ten different festivals around the world. I was there for about a week and I went straight from there on a bus to Burning Man. I had early arrival, so I got into Burning Man Friday morning, and the festival officially starts on Sunday. As soon as I got to Burning Man, it was so hot. They were still building the Mayan Warrior camp and putting up the tents and everything for all the people that were staying with them. I started helping them with building the tents and it was so hot that we started working in the morning and then we had to stop for four hours, from 12 to four or five, because it was just so hot.
This was my ninth consecutive year at Burning Man and this was by far the hottest year. It got progressively hotter each day until about Wednesday or Thursday, and then, it started cooling down. It was so hot at night that you didn’t need to wear a jacket. In the past, it has been so cold that I’ve been bundled up in my tent with my girlfriend. We didn’t want to leave the tent; it felt so cold outside. Burning Man fashion is a lot of fur coats, and this year, I had a lot of friends that were actually disappointed because they had just gotten these really cool coats and they weren’t able to wear them until the end of the week.
Wow. So that definitely affects when you’re shooting, right?
I didn’t really shoot during the day. Since I was shooting for the Mayan Warrior, I was on the Mayan Warrior art car most of the evening, from midnight to sunrise. I hung out until just after the sunrise for a minute and then right back to my camp before it got too hot to eat breakfast and try to sleep. This year, more than any other year, I tried to sleep and take refuge in the shade in a cooler environment during the day, and only was out in the mornings and the evenings. The middle of the day was just, it was just too hot to do anything really. I don’t think any of my images are actually in the middle of the day this year. If there are any images from the middle of the day, they’re probably from a camp where they were in the shade. I wasn’t riding my bike around on the playa this year during the hot peak hours.
What inspires you? Does that change from festival to festival? Or do you have the same sort of things that you look for, no matter what festival you’re at?
I’m inspired by music and by people, connections, passion, all these things at every festival, every single one. Burning Man, for sure, has some of the most incredible art and landscape surrounding it, which makes the experience even more inspiring.
If I’m shooting a festival like CRSSD or a festival that’s not so art-intensive, it’s more about the music, I’ll focus on the music acts more than the people because the people are all kind of focused on the music, so it’s hard to get shots of them where they’re interacting with each other. They’re all trying to focus on the music, so I’ll focus on the music as well. And I kind of rely on the lighting designer and the artists to give me the shots that I like. The lighting design plays a huge part in making a photographer’s images look the way that they do, I don’t think that they’re given enough credit. A good photo to me is when you can get the right moment with the lighting designer and hit what he’s doing and the right moment with the artist and what they’re doing. If you get that synced up, it can create an incredible image.
For other festivals that aren’t all about having the big stage and everyone looking at the stage and have more art, like Lightning in a Bottle, Symbiosis or Burning Man, I like focusing on the art and shooting the art, and then shooting the people. I really love portraits; I think shooting portraits is one of my strongest skill sets with photography. I love being able to capture and reflect who that person is in that moment and capture that essence. Being able to reflect that in the image is something that I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at. What brings me the most joy is to show people, help them remember who they are and who they were in that moment.
That’s beautifully stated. If people are interested in getting into festival photography who would you recommend that they follow online? You must know other people doing great work.
Yeah. Daniel Zetterstrom is an incredible photographer, he’s based out of Seattle. He’s been doing it for a really long time and I think he is kind of focusing more on higher paying commercial editorial stuff where you don’t have to travel so much and get paid a lot more money. He was definitely a big influence and inspiration for me. We were working a lot of the same events together for a while.
Among up and coming photographers, I would say — you already covered her — Juliana Bernstein is amazing. I also follow Aaron Benjamin Glassman, Donslens, Jorg Photo, Jacob Avanzato, Julian Bajsel, Jamie Rosenberg, Conner Lee Coughenour, and Grady Brannan.
What are you excited about in the future? What are you doing work-wise and photography-wise?
I was diagnosed with vitiligo. It’s an autoimmune disease that prevents melanin in your skin from creating pigment, so I have spots where I don’t have pigment in my hands. I’ve had that for a minute, but over the past year, it’s been speeding up, especially in the last few months. I was looking into it and talking with friends and a lot of it comes down to diet. I just cut out dairy, gluten and sugar, which has been really hard for me. This is into my third week of not ingesting any of that and cooking all of my own meals and leading a healthier lifestyle.
I also decided this week that I wasn’t going to be drinking alcohol anymore. I’m turning 31 next week, and I’ve accomplished a lot in my life. I really want my lifestyle to reflect who I want to be in the future and where I’m going. I feel like I’ve been distracted a little bit by the general lifestyle of being a young artist in Los Angeles, and I’m hoping to — through my new diet and choice of lifestyle — come into a new way of looking and feeling about myself. I want that to reflect in my art and evolve into a higher way of expressing myself and the work that I’m creating.
I feel great and I’ve been working out and meditating. It’s a really crazy world that we’re living in right now. I’m just trying to take some time to find peace in my mind.
I’m doing all those things so that by doing these things so I will be able to spend more time accomplishing the goals that I have set for myself. The main thing that I’m focusing on right now is doing these incredible photo sessions with my friend, Kelsey. She’s a creative director and she’s a makeup artist and she’s so awesome. We’ve been creating these very surreal images together, and we’re going to be putting together a Patreon page in the near future; people who are interested in learning about what we’re doing can follow along and see behind the scenes and get prints and get art and interact with us. We are continuing to produce content for an art show that we’ll probably be doing in the spring or the summer.
I’m really looking forward to elevating my art and working with big brands and doing more commercial and editorial work where I can have more creative control and be able to feel like I can actually have an income where I can be able to provide for others just beyond myself.