photographing superfans at 20 years of music festivals

Since surviving Woodstock 94, Cheryl Dunn has been documenting the country's most major music festivals from inside the pit.

by Emily Manning
14 January 2016, 4:00pm

In 1994, Cheryl Dunn and 15 of her friends ventured upstate to Woodstock -- a 25th anniversary commemoration of the original free love festival. After hearing stories of kids who'd ventured to the site ahead of time to bury drugs, Dunn and her crew stocked up on provisions (and, admittedly, concocted a few mushroom smoothies) for the three day mud fest. "It was survival of the fittest: no food, no supplies, and cars parked 40 miles away," Dunn recalls. "Everything was out of our control, so we had to ask ourselves, are we gonna be bummed, or are we gonna be psyched?" Hint: they were psyched.

For the next three days, Dunn and her crew lived like "cavemen." "We went out and traded with other camps for food. It was paganistic in every way, but then we danced in the mud in the dark to crazy music," she says. "It was such an extreme example of human behavior and so fascinating to me, so it was something I kept doing and began photographing."

Over the last 20-odd years, Dunn has spent her summers documenting some of the country's most major music festivals, letting a sweaty sea of super fans swallow her up. She's collected the euphoric experiences in a recently published photo book, Festivals are Good. As more and more blockbuster bills announce their star studded lineups, we catch up with Dunn to find out more about why festivals are the ultimate act of freedom.

Tell us about yourself. What sort of music were you into growing up?
I grew up in suburban New Jersey and had a couple older brothers whose records I listened to because they were constantly blasting. I was in a place where I couldn't really get around; I had to ride my bike everywhere or get in someone's car and drive to New York City -- there weren't any clubs or small venues in my town. So we'd go to big rock concerts and I guess that was what I got into because it's what I had access to, until I moved to New York. I loved music and I was constantly dancing and all that shit, but as a teen, I was mostly going to big, big concerts. I guess that's how it all started!

When did you first begin photographing festivals? What drew you to them?
A friend had a house upstate and maybe 15 of us all went there for Woodstock 94. We traveled up on Friday night to collect our supplies and get psyched up. We heard all these stories of kids who'd gone to the site and buried their drugs next to the fence outside so that they could dig them up when they got in. We just rolled a bunch of cigarette joints -- we were really prepared! But by the time we got there, there wasn't even a fence; people knocked it down and stormed the place. So many people went -- probably about two, three times the capacity -- the highways were all blocked up and it just poured ass rain. It was an extreme of survival experience that I had never experienced before, and I loved it.

I shot boxing matches for about 10 years as a sort of personal documentary project as well. Both subjects are ones that I could continually shoot while teaching myself how to be a better photographer -- how to act fast and adapt in uncontrollable circumstances. I did some festival assignments for magazines, but it's really been about practicing how to keep fluid and anticipate human nature. Going into a sea of 100,000 people and shooting for five days each year, I've seen how people's behavior and reaction to me as a photographer, and to my equipment, has really evolved over time.

There's been lots of recent conversation about the changing nature of festivals, as many assume corporate dimensions. What are your thoughts?Yes, people need to be safe and crowds can be dangerous, but once you're in, you should be able to be free. My nieces grew up in the South and when one of them was about 14, she asked me to go to Bonnaroo with her. I really fell in love with that experience because there's this freedom and excitement. It's not out in the middle of the desert, it's in a small town in Tennessee and it's the biggest thing that happens there every year. It's really special; it's the South, the food is really good, and the people are excited! Different festivals have different vibes, but there is a homogenization of the experience because promoters and sponsors are buying them all up. Ultimately, it's about the music and your personal experience of it; it's about the people you're dancing around with. It's gentrification just like everything is gentrification, but they keep popping up all the time. It's a cycle.

Festivals aren't restrictive to a certain youth tribe or subculture -- like a hardcore punk show for example. Tell us about the different kinds of people you encounter.
That's what I really enjoy. There are a lot of young people because festivals are physically strenuous, but they're not agist. Young people are psyched that there's this old Dead Head sitting next to them. And I think in the case of festivals like Bonnaroo, there's more an amalgamation of types of music and a mix of longevity -- bands that have been around forever with brand new ones. There's this awesome appreciation and respect for elders that is not intrinsic to American society at all. I love watching 18-year-olds get so psyched on watching Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, people who have been killing it for 50 years. You see that appreciation and it's really special.

Also, you can start to see how different musical genres influence each other. African music, old blues guys, country and rock and punk -- it's all of it. You can start to see who took what from -- or even just emulated -- whom. It's really beautiful to see how music seeps into unexpected places, and how they all inspire each other.

What do you hope people take from this book?
To me, it's very light, it's a playful body of work. But I was recently in Slovenia and I heard an author speak right after the French terrorist attacks, and describing one of his characters who he'd once seen as an anti hero for his clubbing and partying, he changed his mind and said, "I think this guy might actually be my hero. He's out there fighting for lightness." We have to fight for things that are light, that are joyful, that are simple. This book is really just about that. One festival I've been dying to see but keeps being cancelled is in Mali, where the Taliban have outlawed music. The freedom to have this simple, light experience in a communal atmosphere is becoming a big deal. It's something that is worth celebrating and knowing how special it is, even though it's simple and light, those things might be harder to find in our future. We have the freedom to have these experiences and to me, it's worth saying thanks for them. 

Festivals Are Good (Standard Press) is available here.


Text Emily Manning
Photography Cheryl Dunn

Cheryl Dunn
festivals are good