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Through the Lens at Burning Man

Photographer Genevieve Kim returns from the desert empowered by the exchange of gift gifting

by Genevieve Kim

October 22, 2018


This was my first year at Burning Man, and I knew it would require quite a bit of prep work beforehand. I called a dear friend and seasoned Burner for advice, including what bike I should get and various gear to pack. Fast forward, the day I land in Reno, I receive a care package filled with love, a note and a bike decorated with LED lights. My friend had prepared all these things for me. When I asked her how much the bike and lights were, she said, “It’s my gift to you.” I had not even arrived to Black Rock City, and I was already experiencing the magical mystery of gifting.

There are ten principles of Burning Man in which the community agrees to abide by during this gathering, one of which is around gifting. “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.”

This got me thinking about the general concept of gifting. It is a universal concept expressed across cultures and has been around since time immemorial. Where did this practice of gifting come from? Why gift? Evolutionary scientists theorize that gifting likely began as a means of survival. As male penguins give pebbles to female penguins in courtship rituals, a man gave gifts in order to demonstrate his ability to provide for a family, thereby attracting a partner to create offspring. Sociologists explain that the practice of gift giving arose from the sacrificial offerings that were given to deities, as found in the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism.

Spontaneous photo session with friend and filmmaker Cosmic who flew from Bali with a layover in Black Rock City to make his next move to California

Anthropologists have documented elaborate rituals around gifting in tribal cultures around the world. For thousands of years, Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest have practiced gifting in a potlatch ceremony, whereby the host of a celebration gives away all his possessions to guests. This practice is a means of redistributing stewardship of tribal wealth, emphasizing the difference between stewardship and ownership. In some tribes, guests return gifts of similar or greater value to the former host, whereas in other tribes gifts are destroyed. The potlatch was a means to demonstrate prestige: the more one gave, the more importance and power a giver was bestowed.

Met the beautiful Kalee Hewlett, who’s soul bursted with radical vulnerability, love and courage dancing to the sounds of the sunrise. She reminded me why we dream: to see the greatness in each of us.

Most notable in anthropological studies of gifting is the Kula ring in the Polynesian Islands. The Kula ring includes the circle of routes where givers across 18 communities in the Massim archipelago, including the Trobriand Islands, travel sometimes hundreds of miles via a canoe through dangerous seas specifically to exchange necklaces and armbands. This practice reinforces social hierarchy and inter-island peace relations.

A portrait of Jessica Faustino, a fellow campmate, who reminded me what kindness looks like: a ray of light.

For the ancient Greeks, the concept of “xenia” was to give gifts to strangers, both material and non-material to strangers, especially in the form of hospitality. Fast-forward to the Middle ages, gifts were often given by subjects to rulers as a way to gain favor and to demonstrate allegiance. Today, nations gift as ways of relationship building. Take for instance the Statue of Liberty, which France gifted the United States on the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Moments of giftgiving between friends. Left: a necklace in the shape of the hand of protection. Right: Friends share a tiny message in a bottle.

As I prepared for Burning Man, I thought about what I wanted to gift. My usual instinct would have been to gift photographs, as photography is a huge part of my soul, but I had been feeling a lull of inspiration in my photographic work and packed meditation cards that I had designed instead. But as they say, things never go as planned at Burning Man.

My spirit to photograph reawoke once I got to the desert, and I had an intense desire to give to others what I was feeling and seeing, most notably the celebration of life that I was witnessing between people. This included a couple sitting with a lawn chair, popping a bottle of champagne at sunrise, laughing. I had an urge to make their portrait. When I asked if I could make a picture of them they said, “Yes. What perfect timing. We just got engaged!” When I showed them a few of the photos, they were ecstatic: “We’re going to use this for our engagement announcement.” Photographing strangers throughout the week was the truest expression of myself I could have gifted to others– that life is indeed a celebration of the connections we have with more than ourselves but with others. Throughout the week, I met new friends and photographed memories of them.

Blessing given by Huichol elder

When I got back from Burning Man, I wrote in my gratitude journal a list of all the gifts I had received at Burning Man, from a passerby who helped me with my bike lock to a rare Salvador Dali tarot card I received from a stranger sitting atop an art structure. The list kept going. One friend gave me a USB of music he had produced, another offered me a necklace that had the word “kindness” written in Hebrew. Every gift carried a meaningful story. The gift was a small representation of the giver’s soul. Whether a physical object or a kind gesture the gift is a unique expression of the giver. How wonderful it was not only to witness but to receive.

The greatest gift I received, though, was when others received my gift. The fact that people were open to accepting my portraits of them filled my heart with immense joy. To be able to express myself through my gift and to have it received from another is far greater than anything I could imagine. The bride-to-be I had photographed and I spoke on the phone a few days ago, connecting on life, our passion projects and experiences of Burning Man. Our exchange had led to a new friendship.

Sculpture by artist Michael Benisty

This is one of the lessons I learned in gifting. It is the power of receiving someone’s gift, something precious that is a part of someone’s expression. I learned others as well.

Regardless of culture, language, era, gifting in essence is about relationship. That relationship is one between a giver and receiver. Though the Burning Man principle of gifting states that there ought to be no expectation of exchange, gifting is inextricably tied to some form of exchange, as it is not done in isolation. For every gift given, there is a gift received. The receiving is just as powerful as the gifting itself. The gesture of receiving is one of hands open, a surrendering to that which life gives. As I received from others, I was acknowledging the giver’s presence. And what greater gift is there than to see someone else’s gift?

Couple celebrating their engagement with music, bubbles and the sun rising

I also learned how important it is to receive from the universe. The act of receiving is an acknowledgment, an expression of saying, “Yes, I am worthy of receiving. I accept the abundance that life has to give.” Have you ever turned down help from someone else out of feeling indebted, or feeling that you would be an imposition? Have you ever felt bad for letting someone buy you coffee or lunch, and let them do so only because you promised to pay for the next round? When someone offered to help me or give me a gift at Burning Man I decided to simply smile and say thank you, accepting the abundance that life was gifting.

When they were about to take a selfie of their pop-up installation I jumped in with my camera offering to make a memory for them instead

The other lesson I learned is that the more you receive, the more you will receive. As I have acknowledged each of the gifts, I am filled with memories of beautiful encounters and moments of human connection. As I listen to my friend’s USB of music, I am uplifted with inspiration to write and work on my photography projects that I have put on pause. When I wear the necklace, I am touched by its beauty and remember, even if for a split second, to be kind.

Photo session with artist + healer Hayley Starr who reminded me throughout the week to check in with my why: “What are your true intentions? If it’s not to serve, then you better check yourself.”

With my journey coming to a close, with an hour before boarding my plane back home, I debate whether I should indulge on a McDonald’s sundae or a Cinnabon for the plane. As I’m about to order a sundae, a woman comes up to me and asks, “Do you want to have lunch? I have an extra guest pass for the lounge. I say yes, and we sit together and share adventures in Black Rock City with one another.

I’m no anthropologist or evolutionary scientist, but I can say from my experiences of gifting that perhaps the greatest gift you can give is in fact the gift of receiving.