Every year, in the height of summer heat, on a sacred plot of barren land known as Black Rock City, 70,000 people meet in the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man.
In this temporary city of tents, tarps and trailers, creative individuals, from fire-spinners to visual artists to celebrities (like Susan Sarandon), convene. It's a festival of community experimentation and art, not unlike the massive online communities of found-art today.
Like selfies, profiles and other Internet identities, the people at Burning Man appear to share many intrinsic qualities, even though they’re from all walks of life.
Students, theatre people, ex-lawyers, working artists, musicians and older hippies all voluntarily live in a desert together.
Burning Man’s principal of “radical inclusion” encourages all backgrounds to attend, and everyone is expected to give something back to the community via gifts, which could be anything from a brownie, to a shower, to a prophecy.
The Burning Man community is both predictable and surprising in its functional civilization of radicals. The art made there lives between the ephemeral rows of tents that house the residents of Black Rock City.
Pyrotechnicians create fire art that bursts into shapes and dance before evaporating into the next form. People stare in joyful awe.
Denizens create quirky mutant vehicles for others to gawk at, perhaps to ride. An elaborate temple is built, to be covered by the community with notes, prayers, mementos, photos and poems, to be taken down at the end of the festival.
The art is personal and collective. At the end, the Burning Man will be set ablaze, and 70,000 people gather to watch the effigy and leave the material world to rise into the sky.
The photos will be the only hard evidence, though they, too, will fade into the peripheries of social media feeds.
All the art at Burning Man is conceived with an end in mind. The city is packed up, and residents return to wherever they came from. The temple, the notes and the Burning Man himself become a memory with a photo record.
Burning Man is a spectacle to behold and be part of. It is a party, an improvised play where the people you meet are characters, and the things you find are props. It's both the real world, and is not, depending on how you choose to see it.
Either way, we live it, and we are forced to move on.
It’s because of this mutability that pictures are snapped like dandelions and spread over Instagram. They capture photo-bombers, community gifts, parts of impermanent homes, performances and installations -- all the components that combined, change lives.
Thousands of them are uploaded into a new of community under the banner, #BurningMan, which will be be liked and remembered differently by hundreds or thousands of strangers and friends.
There’s no one force instructing the art at Burning Man; rather, individuals contribute to the collective phenomenon. The expressions at Burning Man, like online communities, are created individually and are meant for the masses.
The value in each artistic moment lies in its physical impermanence, showing us episodes of our lives are the only things you can take with you.
The photos are like receipts of experiences that live online in multiple places, alive but dormant, little emblems of the way our lives continue to change.
When I go through my own Instagram, I’m confronted with the present and the past, with friends and strangers, with the curated and the candid, the filtered and the #NoFilter-ed.
Like Burning Man, each image on my Instagram is art created individually with the inspiration of the greater community.
Each image is an experience that was born dead, a moment that faded from the feed, an experiment that brought me where I am today.