Words from the Human Light Suit

While at the Burn, we run into many different types of art and artists. A lot of participants are carrying cameras, looking like Black Rock City tourists. Eric Schwabel, however, is a true professional photographer who created a portable studio which he has brought to Playa the past three Burns. Eric’s project, The Human Light Suit, has captured so many iconic photographs of Burners. Through his amazing contraption and fantastic photo skills, Eric freezes the essence of the Burn reminding us of the unfathomable joy we feel when we’re back home. We at BAR Mag got a chance to correspond with him after a brief introduction at the Burn this year.


BAR MAG: You are Eric Schwabel! Where are you based?

Eric: I am most definitely Eric Schwabel, and I am based out of Venice Beach, which is the best part of Los Angeles.


BM: Explain The Human Light Suit Project and what brought you to create it. How many years have you been doing it? How has it progressed?

ES: The Human Light Suit began in 2010, and I’ve been doing it since. My current plan is to do it through at least 2020 and then put together some sort of larger-scale exhibit.


I had been going to Burning Man since 2005. In the default world I am a professional photographer, so my first year I brought all this gear with me.  When I arrived on the Playa it became evident that I should leave all the gear in my car.  That year, the only photos I took were Polaroid’s that I gave out to people.  So, 5 years later I still hadn’t really created any photographs at Burning Man, and I decided it was time. I wanted to photograph the people at Burning Man, but I didn’t want them to be snapshots. I wanted them to be lit and shot the same way I would light a portrait anywhere else, which generally means a few lights and a medium format camera, as well as various reflectors, flags and assistants. But of course I had to simplify that all down for the desert, and I also wanted it to be more than just ‘hi I’m some dude with a camera’.  So I decided to make a suit, which is really a harness of sorts, where all of this gear is contained on my body.  It’s basically a modified military frame pack that I can attach my lights to.  The batteries are then in a bicycle trailer.


My goal was to elevate each subject — these are just ‘regular people’ but everyone out there is extraordinary, and my hope is, that view of humanity shows through in the project.


Actually the first year there were 2 suits.  The other was a white spandex suit made for me by a Burner by the name of Goat Weed.  The suit had about 30 pockets in it, and each one held a handheld flash, and they would all fire at the same time.  It worked but I didn’t like the look — it was cooler to jump in other people’s photographs and be the flash man.

Derg, Dubz, Becca and Sprocket at Burning Man 2012
Taken by Eric Schwabel at his temporary studio in Baal-Mart

BM: What is the worst thing someone could ask or tell you as a photographer? What is the best? Explain.

ES: I’ve enjoyed the comments on the Youtube videos of the work, and they run the gamut.  But in general, I can’t say what’s the worst or best.  I’m pretty appreciative of most comments — wait, no — people always bring me their little cameras and ask me how certain functions work… and I have to remind them, my camera has two controls on it aside from the power button — one controls the aperture and the other controls the shutter speed, I honestly don’t know how all of those controls work.


BM: What first brought you to Burning Man?

ES: Actually, an article in the late 90s in Rolling Stone, I think.  I grew up in Minnesota and I remember reading about it in High School. I don’t remember the article, just a photo of a guy wearing like 18″ platform boots, all dressed in white or silver or maybe it was body paint, who knows.  It took me moving to LA to get there, and meeting some very handsome Canadians online who were going that year. We ended up camping together… friends for life now.


BM: How do you think Burning Man has changed you as a person and as a photographer?

ES: As a person it changes me every year.  This year was massive.  It’s been a year of positive change in my life in general, and I was very open to whatever the desert brought my way this year.  I also went a week early to be on the build crew for Baal-Mart.  I think this is the first year where I actually understood the concept of “bringing it back to the default world”.  In the past, I sort of played the Burning Man game, where this year I really felt like I was part of the culture. It took me 7 years to get to that point, so I guess I’m a slow learner.


As a photographer, it just makes it clear to me that I’m on the right path, and that I really can work in any environment.  Working there makes me want to figure out new ways to create when I’m not there.


BM: Who has inspired you the most, artistically?

ES: I tend to focus on photographers, though back in college, I used to love Flemish renaissance painting — probably because I was into ornate work like Pierre et Gilles and Lachapelle back then…  But I think my biggest influences have been Peter Beard, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and my mentor from college days, Len Prince.  Honestly, I haven’t looked at who is out there right now.  There are a lot of people in my life these days that inspire me on a more personal level, but those photographers inspire me to create work that people will see.

Caterina van Hemessen a Flemish Renaissance painter

BM: Do you have a moment from this year’s Burn that you’re particularly happy to have captured?

ES: I’ve been using a photograph of this guy who I believe is The Tree of Knowledge on Facebook and in the video of this year’s work.  I intended to photograph him solo (and I did, and I love that photo) but then this woman wanted a photo with him, and she’s kissing him, and it just became something infinitely better.


BM: What is your favorite type of person to photograph?

ES: Willing participants.  While I certainly like to catch a person when they are less focused on presenting themselves specifically for a camera, I like there to be a willing interaction between subject and photographer.  I always look at it as collaboration, but I don’t want to photograph someone who doesn’t want to be photographed.  Kids are kind of awesome because they respond to you emotionally more readily than most adults.  Particularly when I’m photographing someone up close, I always try to get them in a moment where, for a split second, they forget they are in front of my lens.

To see Eric’s beautiful work, you can visit http://www.schwabelstudio.com/.

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