Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has created a community celebrating harmony.
Bonnaroovians elevate Bonnaroo from a music festival to a “magical” experience, celebrating peace and diversity, according to David Bruce. Since 2011, Bruce has archived life on The Farm "one frame at a time” through the I am Bonnaroo project, shot on a 35 mm film. The I969 Woodstock Music Festival inspired Bruce, who bought a 1969-era Nikon 35 mm film camera, the standard photojournalists used to document Woodstock, for the I am Bonnaroo project. Bruce described the initiative as an ongoing photo essay.
Every year, he embarks on a journey from his home in Coxsackie, New York, on the Hudson River, to The Farm in Manchester, Tennessee, home of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
While he works as a graphic designer, film photography has been Bruce’s passion for 35 years. When he first attended Bonnaroo 10 years ago, the festival captivated him. He has expressed his fascination through photos ever since.
Bonnaroo fosters art and creativity. According to bonnaroo.com, the word “Bonnaroo” is Creole slang for “Good Stuff,” and The Farm offers “lots of that,” with its numerous interactive art installations, crafts and posters.
When it comes to art, Bruce found inspiration in people. He wanted to reveal the “magical” experience at the festival through images of “unique and beautiful people.”
While the photos – some black and white, some in color – depict different faces, one aspect remains the same: the idea of positivity. Bruce’s pictures show genuine emotions of people who are part of a community.
They celebrate peace, unity, fun, friendship and music.
They party. They sing. They dance. They laugh. They flirt. They rush to catch their favorite band. They relax. They love. They smile.
They are happy to be who they are.
“The best part of Bonnaroo for me has always been the people and the sense of community,” Bruce said.
The Farm brings the best out of people.
“It's such a diverse environment,” Bruce said. “I've never witnessed an aggressive act by one person to another in all the years I've been to the festival. People are unscripted and open. Everyone gets to be exactly who they are without being judged. The Bonnaroo community truly represents the best of humanity in a world that continually gets more confusing.”
Bonnaroovians love being the focal point of the project, and many follow I am Bonnaroo on social media.
“Generally, people are very receptive to having their photo taken,” Bruce said. “What’s been cool for me is that when some ask what the photo is for and I tell them it’s for the I am Bonnaroo project, they’ll say ‘0h wow! I love your photos!’”
The magnificent atmosphere at Bonnaroo turns moments into images transcending generations. And when day turns into night, photos become art.
“My favorite time to take photos on The Farm is during what Bonnaroovians call ‘the golden hour,’” Bruce said.
The “golden hour” is the “time of day the sun sets, the atmosphere is great, the air is divine, and everybody is in a great frame of mind because the day is transitioning to night,” Bruce said.
“That’s when everybody really opens up,” Bruce said.
When Bruce was a guest on The What podcast, with hosts Brad Steiner and Barry Courter, he offered advice to photographers who want to take pictures at Bonnaroo.
“If you’re planning on getting some good shots at Bonnaroo, go during the golden hour,” Bruce said.
The light is “absolutely magical” and “the temperature is starting to get divine,” he said. During the golden hour, “people are transitioning into the night life and everybody starts to morph around that time.” Bruce was a guest of The What on Aug. 31, 2020.
When it comes to the best place for taking photos, Bruce couldn’t just pick one spot. He found beautiful people and scenes ready to be captured everywhere.
“I don’t really have a favorite place on The Farm to take photos,” Bruce said. “All of Bonnaroo is a visual feast, whether it’s out in the campgrounds or anywhere in Centeroo. It’s magical.”
His favorite photos are those showing emotion, said Bruce.
“It’s impossible for me to pick my favorite photo in the series,” he said. “There are so many that I love for different reasons. Having said this, I can say that my top five are photos that captured emotion. Some of these are not even great photos from a technical standpoint. They are great photos, in my opinion, because of what’s been captured.”
Bruce’s photos go beyond just depicting people, they capture emotions. On The Farm, moments become unforgettable experiences, and relationships turn into friendships.
“I’ve made more than a few connections with people that I’ve met at Bonnaroo over the years,” Bruce said. “Some of these people I communicate with regularly throughout the year, some of them are even on my Christmas card list.”
Bruce said he’s not ready to complete the project yet. He plans to return to Manchester in 2021. The festival is set for Sept. 2–5, 2021.
“I’m definitely planning on returning to The Farm this year,” Bruce said. “Missing 2020 was a bummer. I feel that COVID has left a void in my project. The pandemic has definitely given me perspective. I’m going to continue building the I am Bonnaroo series with a different appreciation.”