Rainbow Gatherings : experimenting self transformation
(interview by Sébastien Dulude)
Rainbow Gatherings are communities meeting in a nature setting to share together the ideals of peace, harmony and respect and to create an alternative to popular culture, mass media and materialism. The first Rainbow took place in 1972, at the National Forest Land (United States) and has been held annually ever since. Other Rainbow regional communities come together throughout the year all over the world. For my part, I attended seven such Rainbow meetings in Quebec, two in Mexico, one in the Canary Islands and one in Guatemala.
I started getting interested in photography while I was participating in my first rainbows. Little by little, they became the core of a photographic project that followed on from the Stranger series.
I had no prior expectations for my first Rainbow because it happened quite spontaneously, as is the case for many people discovering it for the first time. It is an environment that attracts many people inclined to travelling in general. I discovered Rainbow while was travelling in Gaspesie (Quebec) with my then girlfriend. We were punks. We had heard rumors of a Rainbow being organized not too far away, people gathering in the woods, hippies. It looked interesting. I had no expectations; we wanted to see what living in the woods without electricity was like. We were greeted by a young woman, her name was Petite Colle and as I remember it, the first thing she talked to us about was their regulations: no cutting of living trees, hard drugs, respect. And I was a rebel at that time, so I told her to piss off and left the Rainbow. Basically, my first experience of Rainbow lasted around four minutes!
We went back 3 or 4 days later. We were really well received, even punks like us, because everyone was happy that it was your first Rainbow. Rainbow meetings will change a person: you discover something really alternative, it is hard to believe such a thing actually exists, but people who live like that, focused on personal growth, living from their crafts, practicing yoga and all that, well, they do exist.
What’s cool about the Rainbow is that it is hidden; it takes place in isolation in the woods, far away. You must drive and walk for a long time, there is something magical to looking for it. At first glance, it's like a tribe that is organized like a mini-city. Spaces are set up for a kitchen, a children area, a coffee shop, a music camp, etc… And a central circle with a big fire in the middle. It’s the sacred fire. This is where we eat; it is a place to share. Meals are completely vegan. Rainbows are provided for by local grocers who donate organic food, lentils, oats, etc... Other Rainbows organise “dumpster divings”: all the food comes from stuff wasted and thrown in the bins in cities.
We get up with the sun. I sleep in a tent, but many sleep under a simple cover. We completely lose track of time, it is a rare and valuable thing to happen in life. There is also a lot of music in the evening, with jam sessions and dancing.
Rainbows work with conventions that may vary. In Quebec, we discuss topics such as a political assembly, according to the principle of consensus. This is the method that was applied to Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Montreal, etc… It comes from the Rainbows, this process. These movements were supported by the same people who run the Rainbows, it is actually hyper-connected. Occupy Montreal, among others, the kitchens there were actually managed by people from Rainbow.
The biggest gathering in the history of the Rainbow was attended by 30,000 people in the state of Washington. At this point it becomes a city with neighborhoods. But everyone is welcome: gays, lesbians, Krishna followers, sectarians, conspiracy theorists, Raelian, Christians, punk... Like all the colours of the rainbow. We get together to heal ourselves and heal the planet. It's a bit utopian, of course.
Rainbows are places for art. Many artists go there. Art at Rainbows is often ephemeral. I took pictures of people creating costumes with bamboo and vines, who made themselves up. No one is judged, and this is what creates the potential for a pure art. And there's music. I realized that if Rainbow has bothered me at some point because of my personal values, that sometimes I think it goes too far, I still go largely for the music. Jamming is so beautiful, deep and transcendent. You can’t find that anywhere else. This is pure creation, with no amplification, no filter. When you think that some people walk 10 km in the woods with a huge drum, a balafon or ... I've even seen a harp at a Rainbow!
As a photographer, however, I do not do ephemeral art. I bring something back. I do not know if it's a documentary. It started from my Stranger Project, during which I met strangers and photographed them; Rainbow humanized this project. It became less cold, more respectful. Respect is fundamental to the Rainbow. There is a conception of magic and the sacred that is more important in Rainbow than in our society. And photographing or recording the magic means desecrating it. So I try to recreate the magic in my photos, to make photography sacred. This is done with great respect. Some people I photographed, well their Rainbow was a voyage, something that will not happen again in their lifetime. It is ephemeral and very valuable.
This being said, cameras are frowned upon. No photos in public, it's a bit forbidden. As a photographer, if I see someone taking pictures in a public place, I will walk up to them and make them understand that they should ask people whether they agree to be photographed. It is a matter of respect. The fact is that if these images were to be presented out of context in the media, it would look like a festival of freaks, drug addicts with naked people and all that. This is far from the truth. But we are prejudiced. Anyway, I prefer to take people individually and it is in the series of photos that the tribe reforms itself, we can feel the unity between the people there.
There you can experience a real micro-society. All views are gathered in a reduced space-time, within a smaller geography. We experience all these differences and confrontations, and experiment in matters of conflict management. We learn to talk, look, understand, to become more tolerant. All ideologies and beliefs coexist in harmony. In Quebec, if there is a conflict on a topic, we create a talking circle where we pass on the “Stick of speech”. When you hold the stick, nobody else can talk, even if the circle is 400 strong. We discuss very practical issues and decisions are not made through a majority vote, but truly through a common consensus. It can take days. At Rainbow, we often say "We are one."
If someone becomes dangerous, violent, it can happen, people will make a sina shanti (a peace circle), where men will peacefully surround the individual by holding hands. They will not try to control them, just make a fence around them so they don’t bother others and eventually they will calm down.
The Rainbow in Palenque, Mexico, on December 21st 2012, which marked the end of the Mayan calendar, was attended by 2500 people. It is my biggest Rainbow to date. Many came to experience a spiritual renewal. This Rainbow attracted many travellers from all over the world; forty people even arrived in a horse caravan from Brazil. Their journey lasted a year. Wherever they went, they stopped to teach circus skills and educated aboriginal villages in the use of organic food. On the evening of December 21st, several sacred ceremonies took place, some of them personal. We talked about the alignment of the planets, but it had nothing to do with the end of the world. Two days before however, a large meteorite lit up the sky and some saw it as a sign. And there was a downpour during the night and everything was flooded. Forty camps were washed away. I woke up and saw ten people standing with lit candles and singing "This is the end, my only friend, the end ..."
You return from a Rainbow with ideas, ideas for changing your life. Personally, I've never felt comfortable with the life I was living, and I questioned it. Vegan, nomad, green: we encounter people who have different lifestyles. We discover that it is possible to be happy living another way. I particularly realized the importance of taking care of my body, of eating better, of taking better care of the environment. Of being able to get rid of our addiction to technology and the Internet.
When you come back, you appreciate comfort again, but you quickly want to go back and to see again the people you’ve met, the people you love. Communities are created. After the Rainbow, a talking circle is often formed to create a community. In Guatemala, the site of the Rainbow was acquired to found a great eco-community. Coming back from the Rainbow means be have reconsidered yourself, you have been transformed, even purged, of technology among other things. And it is clear that you return, you judge much more severely the society you live in.