With 20 years of festival-going under her belt, photographer Cheryl Dunn's new book is a compelling reminder of the transcendental power group gatherings can have
Documentary filmmaker and photographer Cheryl Dunn is a huge fan of the transcendental power of music festivals. Her new book, Festivals Are Good, published by Damiani, documents the fact in glorious technicolour: 20 years worth of gatherings, and all of the ecstatic and the miserable experiences which accompany them, laid out over the course of 130 pages. Designed to be experienced as one would a festival itself – it undulates from day, to night, and back again to day – the book itself is quite an experience too. “It’s a storybook, basically,” Dunn tells AnOther, so we built it to recreate how time goes by, and how people change over the course of four or so days. At first everyone is psyched and clean, and it goes up and down, and it’s really horrible again the next morning.” Similarly, each picture speaks to the one next to it, so that visual languages of handheld posters and signs, say, or bare-chested festival-goers revelling in the atmosphere, emerge over the course of pages.
Dunn decided that festivals would become the focal point of her photographic practice after attending Woodstock in 1994. “My first big festival. It was so incredibly notorious when it happened in the 70s, so when they did the first revival of it, three times the original number of people came,” she says. “The barricades got knocked down, the weather was ridiculous, people had to leave their cars like 40 miles away and get into buses, but then the bus drivers stopped, so basically, if you got there, you were not going anywhere. Everything ran out and it got really cold, so it just became survival of the fittest. It was so extreme.” It was partly the intensity of the environment which made it so fascinating, she explains. “You learn a lot about human nature by being surrounded by a giant sheet of people in those conditions. It was bad, but also extremely transformative, so it was very interesting to photograph. I remember my friends and I saying, ‘holy shit, what has happened to us?’ It was so profound, so I decided to continue to do it.”
The physical presence required to photograph at a music festival – in a crowd which is endlessly moving, dancing, travelling from one area to another – is quite demanding, insists Dunn, but it has had a positive impact on her photographic technique as a whole. “Shooting at festivals really helped me with street photography, because you can’t keep moving, and you have to be really fast,” she says. The attitude of her subjects at festivals is very different too. “There are some elements that are very specific to that scene, as people at festivals are generally pretty open to having their picture taken. I’m a participatory photographer, I’m not just like ‘stand over here’, so if a person is dancing, I’m dancing with them, and I hope that is reflected in my work. But there are also other scenarios when they’re just ‘get the fuck out of my face’, and I’m just like, alright!” The sinister undercarriage of the music festival is an omnipresent factor, too – where crowd crushes are not unheard of. “I’ve definitely been in situations when I’m like, how the hell do I get out of here?”
Perhaps most fascinating of all, however, is the political undercurrent which grounds the book in contemporary culture, focusing as it does on people coming together to enjoy themselves. “I think that politically, the time is right now. Mass gatherings are becoming quite dangerous,” she says, making reference to the attacks which happened in Paris late in 2015 – most notably, that on a concert hall, which was that night hosting the Eagles of Death Metal. “There are parts of the world where people are getting killed for the music they listen to." She's audibly shaken by the fact. “This is just a collection of photographs to stress the importance of portraying the joy in music and culture. You have to fight for the light.”
Cheryl Dunn, Festivals Are Good is out now, published by Damiani.