Rainbow gathering

An annual congregation of countercultural outsiders that’s as far away from the mainstream as you can get

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Photography by John Kilar

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Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

This summer, a kaleidoscopic cast of thousands gathered in Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest for the yearly Rainbow Gathering. Less an organised occasion than an annual collective sanctuary from “mainstream society”, it’s been held during the first week of July since 1972 in different locations across the US. Despite the prevalence of om-ing, tipis and twostring lutes, it’s not entirely made up of hippies nostalgic for Haight-Ashbury circa 1967: people from all over the world make the pilgrimage, from itinerent folk and train hoppers to whole off-the-grid communities. And its countercultural, noncommercial roots have remained intact: no money changes hands (there’s a loose system of trading), there are no official leaders and attendees prefer to do their dropping out in relative privacy – you won’t find a sea of cameraphones held aloft around the nightly drum circle. Photographer John Kilar and 14 friends drove a schoolbus from LA to Montana to spend a week soaking up the peace, love and harmony of this rarely glimpsed utopian society. Here he tells what transpired...

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Photography by John Kilar

Rainbow Gathering is surreal and trippy. There’s no technology and no one knows what time it is. You have to shit in a hole and there are no showers. But if you need something from someone they’ll give it to you

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Photography by John Kilar

“Everyone you meet at Rainbow Gathering is living a unique lifestyle. Hippies and travellers, street kids and punk kids – it’s a really diverse mix. It’s very surreal and trippy. There’s no technology – you can’t tell which decade it is, let alone what time it is. But it’s not for everyone. You have to take a shit in a hole and there are no showers. It’s not like your typical music festival where you pay $300 and there’s portapotties and showers. It’s very raw. But if you need something from someone they’ll give it to you – if you’re thirsty or hungry, no one’s going to ask you to pay them. At the same time it’s challenging to get in there with a camera and vibe with these people – some of the travellers and street kids hate being photographed. They’ll yell at you, throw shit at you. So I had some resistance at first. There’s a lot of nudity, and some people are off the grid – they might have a criminal record and just don’t want to get involved with any kind of photography. I shot on 35mm, with two tiny cameras I kept in my pocket, and just tried to blend in. 

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Photography by John Kilar

For the most part it’s incredibly peaceful. You’ll walk by and people will shout, ‘We love you!’ Everyone refers to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. The concept is to create a utopian vision of society. Of course there’s some people who just start shit for the sake of starting shit. If some kind of conflict occurs, it’s handled in a very specific way and it’s really fascinating to observe. If a fight breaks out, they yell ‘Shanti Sena!’ and whoever is in the proximity gathers and comes to some kind of conclusion, because no one wants to get police enforcement involved. Obviously there are people that do drugs. But really, you don’t need drugs there – you can do drugs back home all you want, you know? At the same time you’re submerged in this incredible, astonishing landscape, so people do choose to do drugs.

They’ll yell at you, throw shit at you. So I had some resistance at first. There’s a lot of nudity, and some people are off the grid – they might have a criminal record and just don’t want to get involved with any kind of photography

But it’s more about hiking around and meeting someone that you resonate with and going on an adventure. It’s really spontaneous. The musicians there don’t go around uploading their music onto Soundcloud or YouTube. So you’ll see these amazingly talented people who just do what they do for the sake of it. The event climaxes on July 4. No one speaks a word until noon, in a kind of silent meditation, and at noon everyone holds hands for miles and ‘om’s for ten to 15 minutes. Then the kids come out with their parents and break the silence and it turns into this huge festive environment. When the festival’s over everyone’s like, ‘Where shall we go next?’ They have so much space in their lives. 

Because it’s quite private, I was honestly conflicted about sharing these photographs. But I figured that a few people might see these and say, ‘Wow, this is my tribe! These are the people I’ve been looking for for years.’ So that outweighed the situation of me getting shit for publishing them. My intentions are pure.”

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