Burning Man just came to a close, which means Black Rock City is no more for the year, and nearly 100,000 Burners have to shake sand out of their luggage, treat some minor sunburns, and return to the lives they had so much fun escaping. For those of us who missed the Burn, there will be no memories of an afternoon on the playa, getting our hair braided by someone in a Wonder Woman outfit; or creating a piece of intellectual sculpture with a dozen strangers who were also on mushrooms. The best we can do is live through the stories and images produced by others. People like beloved festival photographer Miles Najera.
Najera is well known on the festival circuit. Rather than being another photo-happy interloper, he has deep affection for his subjects and his images translate all of the energy and the sensuality of festival life. Whether it’s a curvy brunette manipulating two illuminated hula hoops beneath an inky sky at the Great North Festival, or a dude with a cat ear headband, drawn on nose and whiskers, and quilted batik vest smiling for the camera at Envision, when you see people through Najera’s eyes you’ll want to be their friend. It’s a window into a dream life — a hot, ecstatic, barely dressed fever dream.
Najera is a freelance photographer for a number of different publications, as well as a graphic designer raised in Northern California by an artist father and a photographer mother. His parents were passionate in their encouragement to pursue a creative path, but Najera never imagined becoming a photographer. Even when he was following his mother to shoots and carrying her gear and holding her reflector, it still was never his plan to pursue a life behind the lens. She certainly inspired him in many ways, but he had to find photography for himself as an adult.
When did you first consider becoming a photographer?
I discovered photography on my own when I started going to festivals in 2009. When I was there, I wanted to find a way to contribute somehow, to convey why I was going to these things and capture the magic. The best way that I thought to do that was through photography. There are actually times that I randomly notice myself doing things I learned from helping my mom on shoots that I didn’t know I remembered.
I got a photo press pass to Symbiosis in 2013, and I borrowed a friend’s DSLR camera; I only ended up only taking a few photos, and they were all very bad and out of focus. It wasn’t really a success from a photography standpoint, but that was the moment that I realized that it was possible. It was made possible for me then, and I was inspired from there. I started going to more festivals and bringing my camera around more and having more confidence in my camera.
My girlfriend/partner Morena Duwe, who is a very talented music journalist, got me that first photo pass and has given me a lot of the opportunities that lead me to where I’m at today. We work together all the time. I take the photos for a lot of her articles and we always have each other’s back at festivals.
How would you describe yourself as a photographer?
I think primarily I’m a festival or an event photographer, and I would describe my work as trying to reflect the beauty that I see in the communities that are spontaneously created in festivals, in these environments. Yeah, I think festivals really bring people together. They create community, and I try to capture that in my photography.
Is that part of your philosophy as an artist?
Yeah, totally. My philosophy is constantly in flux. It’s primarily to be open to adventure and open to being changed. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one particular philosophy because I feel like I might look back and not necessarily agree with that, so my philosophy is very constantly in flux, and that’s part of what I take into a festival.
It’s about not having any expectations and being open to things going differently than anticipated. Each festival is a learning experience. I try to focus on what I could have done better and carry that into the next one in order to grow. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is the ability to adapt on the fly in unpredictable scenarios
To be that fluid, you have to be present all the time when you’re at the festivals, right? How do you do that through a lens?
There’s never much of a game plan. I always have to be ready, and I always have my camera on me. When I first started shooting, we would leave camp, and I would ask myself, “Should I take my camera?” And sometimes I would be like, “Oh no, it’s 4:00, I’ve got enough shots.” After a while, after not having my camera in these awesome scenarios, that’s not even a question when I leave camp anymore. I always have my camera on me and ready, even if it’s like 4:00 in the morning or something. I could be out until the sun rises, but I don’t have my camera on me during the sunrise and I could miss some epic photo opportunities.
How do you anticipate those great moments? Can you feel them coming?
I think always being ready for them to happen, the anticipation … without forcing a moment, things just happen. There’s not really much planning involved in festivals. Everything is so spontaneous and on-the-fly that you have to always be prepared.
Can you describe a moment that made you grateful for having your camera with you?
A lot of sunrises. My favorite moment of almost any festival is that crazy, delirious time after being up all night and you’re with your friends and everybody is just sort of goofy and funny and the sun’s coming up. It’s just this beautiful moment of delirium. The lighting is perfect, and I get a lot of inspiration from that. A lot of amazing sunrise moments have happened.
Do you have one picture from a sunrise that’s particularly meaningful?
Yeah, actually I do. I was up at Oregon Eclipse. It’s backlit and the sun is just pouring through all the empty space because the Earth stage is just this crazy tent-looking piece that was done by Do Lab. That’s one of my favorite pictures. That went on to be one of my favorite sunrises, and that day was the day that the eclipse happened. It was a pretty magical moment.
The pictures on your website tend to be people. Are you drawn to specific types of people when you’re at festivals?
Yeah. I think festivals are a good place for people to let their freak flag fly, and I like to capture the essence of that. I’ll never post an unflattering picture of somebody. I always try to make people look the best that they could possibly look, and I’m drawn to just the radical self-expression of people.
I’ve noticed that in some of your pictures.
Are the people that you photograph, you think, representative of festivals? Are they the norm, or are they exceptional?
Well, it’s kind of funny to say that something is “the norm” at a festival, because everyone is pretty unique and extravagant, but it’s funny because it is the norm in the sense that it’s normal for people to look different. It’s a normal thing to stand out at a festival. That’s sort of the intention even. That’s the goal that people are going for is to stand out and be different and break things up a little bit from the monotony of everyday normal life.
Which must give you tons of people to photograph if that’s what you’re drawn to.
Totally, yeah. There are so many beautiful people at these things.
What would you say to people who have never been to a festival?
You should go. Check it out. I don’t think it’s for everyone, maybe, but that’s part of what I try to convey with my photos, to shine a light on things for people who don’t get the opportunity to go. Yeah, it’s definitely not for everybody in the sense of, it’s financially tough, it’s taxing on your body. It’s a big sacrifice; you have to miss work and all that. A lot of people don’t understand why anybody would want to be at these things and sacrifice all that.
When I first started going to festivals, I felt this weird pull, like I understood why I wanted to go. But from an outsider’s perspective, I could tell that it was sort of seemingly frivolous with all that it takes to get there. So, I think part of why I started photographing was to capture the essence of what it is to be there. It’s hard to articulate, but I think I try to express that through my photos.
It’s probably easier to articulate in photographs.
So, what do you pack when you go?
I usually take two cameras and a few lenses. One backup camera and one that I mainly use. I have a Sony A7 II. My backup is a Nikon. I haven’t tried a whole lot of different cameras. It’s definitely an expensive hobby or profession. I’m slowly building up my arsenal.
You have years of experience, what would you tell people that they needed to get great festival shots?
Well, gear is definitely important, but not everybody starting out is gonna be able to get the best gear, so I think one of the most important things is always being ready, always having your camera on you, and trying to anticipate those magic moments.
What’s currently exciting you about your photography work?
Just the opportunity that it provides. Right now, things are sort of snowballing. The more festivals and events that I cover, the more people that I meet, and opportunities present themselves, I think the most exciting thing is getting to meet people who are stoked on my work and I’m stoked on theirs. Yeah, the opportunities that it’s giving me, with travel and that kind of thing.