“How was your Quest?” was the most common greeting come Sunday night, after most of the partiers had left on the last bus back to Hanoi. The crew stayed behind, to drink all the leftover beer and decompress. We sprawled on a fake bearskin rug in the cinema and swapped stories of organisational mishaps, extreme delirium, and epic fire spin successes.
Working a festival and attending a festival are two very different animals; the former being privy to all the inner workings and backstage drama of which the latter remain blissfully ignorant. And how jealous I was at times of that ignorance. But there was something satisfying about being on the production side of the curtain.
When I was asked to photograph Quest, I jumped at the chance. About 1,800 costumed weirdos dancing in a forest for three days? Yes, please. My idea of photographic heaven (my camera and I specialise in the party). But what I severely underestimated was the exhaustion.
I broke a camera lens, I screwed up my ankle, and I got kerosene in my eye shooting the fire spinners. I ran in circles all day around the camp, in a futile attempt to capture the overstimulation, which barely ever stopped. The bass pounded until 6am, and resumed four hours later.
My tent was too hot to sleep in, so every morning I woke up somewhere different — in the cinema pavilion, or in the grass with the morning rain hitting my face. I would stumble over to breakfast and my friends and I would count the hours we had slept. “That makes five hours total this weekend.” “Maybe I’ll catch a nap by the lake later.”
But somehow, out of all that sleep deprivation ideas bloomed. So much of Quest was off the cuff. Like Space Panther’s last-ever show, organised minutes before, using a piece of fabric cut from the cinema screen for their video projections, and promoted by a bird-headed Spiderman who ran around the camp yelling: “Come walk through a sonic forest with us!”
Or the effigy burn, which was choreographed the day of, during a circus workshop. I was trying in vain to nap in the grass while I listened to the circusers planning madly overhead, an entire theatrical storyline unfolding on the spot.
I even made some of my own spontaneous art on Saturday night, while everyone danced to the headliner, Mighty Mouse. I ditched the party for the solace of the lake with Henry, a burly mountain man who spins fire with effortless grace. He stood knee-deep in the water and I sat on a raft opposite, snapping long exposures while he painted mandalas with fire, reflected in the water beneath him.
There was a lingering sense of regret in my mind at not being able to fully let go. Photographing an event is like being on the hunt, and once you’re in that mode, it’s hard to get out. It’s a photojournalist’s greatest dilemma — to document or to experience?
There were a few things that made me put my camera away, though, like walking across a field towards the Altar stage and chancing a look up to see a sky full of stars, more stars than I’ve seen all year. Or 3am on Saturday morning, when the DJ started dropping all my favourite hip hop classics, and I set my gear down to dance until I was dripping sweat.
And of course, that intimate crew after-party, thrown together on the spot by just a handful of us, laying under an LED cloud in shifting colours while a world-class DJ played a private show, and the rain rushed down in torrents. In that penultimate moment of relief, when the work was done and the camp was empty, we let go, and we were happy. — Jesse Meadows