Photography Without Consent: A View From Inside The Ride

[Carolyn Ellis, aka Kali, rode in the Critical Tits Ride for several years before becoming one of the principle organizers of this storied Burning Man tradition. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]

I care deeply about camera and privacy issues on the playa.  This has not always been the case.  My first Critical Tits Ride changed all of that – no woman who enters that ride with any degree of vulnerability comes out the other end unaware of the cameras and their misuse.  To ride is to experience, and witness first hand, the cost of photography without consent.

Critical Tits Ride, 2005 (Photo by Cameragirl)
Critical Tits Ride, 2005 (Photo by Cameragirl)

To understand the harm inflicted, you must step inside the body of a woman riding topless and attempt to feel how vulnerable and courageous an act that truly is, even at Burning Man.  My greatest wish, for all who ride, is that they would be witnessed with nothing less than compassion and respect.  As a rider and now member of the CT Crew, I would like to offer a perspective from the “composition material” – those who inhabit the images taken, the riders themselves. Join me, if you would, for a perspective from inside the ride. . . .

It feels fabulous, and I mean fabulous, as a woman to ride topless on my bike!!!  No man can ever understand the freedom of a topless bike ride in a female body.  I was slipping free of the ‘rules’ of my family, culture and government – so well programmed that I thought they were my own.  A collective oppressive cloak was sliding off of my body and being powdered into playa dust by all those goddesses on bikes.  It felt so good and free.  An adventure like this would land me in jail in the default world!!  Here at BRC, it was a lyrical day on a bike.

My first ride we were late and missed joining the excited throng gathering at the Man.  No worries; we pointed our bikes toward the snaking line in the distance and sped off.  The breeze on my breasts felt amazing as I raced over the playa with two of my favorite women in the world.  I felt like a super power, goddess and exuberant child all rolled into one.  I was awash with the freedom of the first day of summer, and more. . . . no way to explain, just complete joy.  And then, for the fist time in many to come, a sudden sorrow arose.  I felt a deep wound I could not name.  There was a voice I could not quite hear.  Then it was gone, as fast as it arose, washed away by the collective whoops and hollers rolling towards us as we joined up with The Ride.

Critical Tits Party From Above, 2003
Critical Tits Party From Above, 2003

Wow!!!  Truly, wow!  The numbers of women in the ride were astounding.  And all those breasts. . . painted, jeweled, proudly bare; large, small, buxom and athletic; young breasts, mother’s breasts, redesigned breasts and missing breasts; on tall women, short women, ectomorph and zaftig — there was no shortage of variation here — so much variety and so much power!  Oh for our commercial definition of beauty to embrace such a dazzling display.  And what a gift for the city of BRC to have it!

As we were absorbed into this astounding sea of women, we began to ride through pockets of gathering bystanders.  Most were waving and cheering, some were offering gratitude, others spritzing and drinks.  All keeping a respectful cheering distance.  I was amused at how much I was enjoying the sweet celebrations as we rode by.  Both men and women made up the bystanders and the women among them puzzled me.  Why weren’t they with us?  How could any female not want to join in?  And then, we rode into the oppression of the first gauntlet.

Possibly due to returning to the city or riding through an art project, the ride slowed and condensed.  The onlookers began pressing in on the riders, at times compressing them to as little as two and three bikes across and slowing them to a walk.  Many an onlooker took the opportunity of the slowdown to enter into the ride itself, standing amidst the bikes, camera to their eye.  The crowd felt substantially less friendly and supportive.  Cameras were plentiful, close and heavily in use, accompanied by a constant babble of breast comparisons and body ratings.  I never once heard any one ask before clicking.

The individuals creating the gauntlets are not representatives of the general public at Burning Man; they are, however, fair symbols of our larger culture’s treatment of women.  The onlookers of the gauntlet radiated objectification, judgment and hunger.  More startling was the offenders seemed to have little idea that they might be offensive.  And sadder and more thought provoking, many women, cringing as the ride further compressed, looked distressed and said little to object.  Our joy ride had entered a manifestation of our programming in the default world.  Now I understood the revelatory joy of the ride as well as my sorrow at our collective loss.

We live in a world that has done an excellent job of dictating our vision of ‘beautiful,’ ‘feminine’ and ‘acceptable.’  And then made use of this vision to sell, manipulate and shame.  I, and others, have quite effectively internalized the propaganda.  My first ride through those gauntlets brought this home in a way no political article ever could.  Somewhere in me something unconscious and collusive was shredding and something powerful and feminine was emerging.

By telling the story of an unwilling model for an anonymous Burner’s photo, I am not intending to vilify, nor to grant importance to one group over another.  It is my intent to engage in a compassionate discussion about awareness, respect and the ability to change our world.  And in particular, I am interested in applying this awareness to the use of cameras along the CT route and during The Ritual.

As part of the CT Crew, I have received e-mails from many women mirroring my same experience, asking what CT is doing to combat such activity.  Many, in the face of such disrespect, choose to avoid a powerful playa event.  I invite all to consider and pass the word of the personal, civic and human cost of such unconsciousness around photography.  It is a betrayal of trust between a woman and her community and the capacity for one individual to create harm is great.

"Ask First" at the Critical Tits Ride
"Ask First" at the Critical Tits Ride

I am not arguing for a ‘camera free’ ride (although I do love the idea), I am a believer in ‘Ask First.’  Those captured in an image embody a variety of life histories, levels of confidence and/or shame.  They alone should decide how their bodies are recorded and for what purpose.

I have heard ‘the horse is out of the barn’ argument: cameras are everywhere, nothing to be done.  The same logic could be applied to racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and a variety of other areas of social unconsciousness.  I find this to be a request to support the status quo and cease the commitment to awareness and compassion.  I would hope we would not choose silence because the problem seems too challenging.

What I would love to see is

  • compassion for the risk being taking by the riders
  • appreciation for the cultural shift being created by this ride
  • respect for the human beings one might want to photograph.
  • a re-commitment to the Burning Man creed: Participate.  Engage with the people you would like to photograph.  If you cannot engage them, do not transgress them.
  • ALWAYS “Ask First” and listen for the response.  Snap away with the ones who respond YES.  And respect the ones who voice NO.  Silence is not yes.

I offer no quick solutions but a request for a deep look at this issue from the perspective of respect and compassion.

[Carolyn Ellis, aka Kali, with a background in architecture and fashion design has found her biggest design challenge lies in creating true original thought.   She is currently living in the land of ‘in between’ — moving from somnambulant thinking to the challenge of being awake.  She finds Critical Tits at Burning Man to be one of her best cups of coffee yet.]

About the author: Carolyn Ellis

Carolyn Ellis, aka Kali, rode in the Critical Tits Ride for several years before becoming one of the principle organizers of this storied Burning Man tradition.

67 thoughts on “Photography Without Consent: A View From Inside The Ride

  • i’ll admit that the first time i went to CT i was snapping a lot of pictures in awe until it felt creepy to do so. then my friend and i decided that it was better to cheer and clap instead of ogle. as obvious as it was i had not been made aware that taking pictures could be seen as rude so it was a simple mistake. asking is not an easy solution as the riders go by quickly and when they are grouped together what do you do? yell out for permission and get 20 different responses? “it’s o.k, dont worry, i’ll photoshop you, you, you, and you way over there out!”

    i think most dudes at BM dont want to be creeps at CT and spreading the word about being more respectful during this event would help ignorant spectators and virgins. if there was a “no photos here” understanding much like the clear no MOOP understanding all of us could help regulate it together.

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  • We need to be very clear here. It is NOT at all the ‘attention’ that we are discussing nor censoring. All of our attention is welcome and included. This is a public ride and a celebration.

    What is disrespectful is the recording of someone’s images without their permission. One can easily bring attention to an activity without a camera. Recording an event through a camera is an extra act and makes the object of one’s focus into an image to be reproduced and used at the takers will wherever and whenever they choose. This is a wholly different presence and activity than participating with your heart and your eyes.

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  • you know, one thing i’ve never understood about the critical tits ride is how it’s “empowering.” with so many women going topless at burning man (if not totally naked), what’s the big deal about doing it en masse, on bikes?

    note: i’m not saying it can’t be empowering, just that i personally wouldn’t find it so. to me, there’s nothing particularly oppressive about clothing, or empowering about nudity.

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  • These posts have all been very interesting and some have made me rather angry. My question is if we were instead discussing a mass bike ride of women with their shirts on, would there even be a discussion about taking photo’s? My guess is there would be very little interest in watching or photographing it. Which leads me to believe it’s because of the naked breasts, which tells me that those who want to photograph it want to objectify womens’ bodies. That is the point that Louis seems to miss over and over. I think most of the women, Caroline, Lisa, etc all made really valid points about why this ride can be so powerful for women. The purpose of riding in public is for the pubic to “witness” this transformative power, not steal it by taking photo’s. When looking through the camera lens, you are not really “seeing”, which is what this is about.

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  • Dr. TooTau – Thank you for further illuminating the ‘clothed / unclothed’ allure for the camera and ‘hearing’ the importance of witnessing. Such simple things, that get so mired in cultural training and unconscious reactions.

    As we approach the ride, it is enormously grounding for me to reread your comment and many others as well. As one of the women committed to ‘wrangling’ the cameras on the outside of the All Women’s Ritual at the end of the ride (with many many men as volunteers supporting us) I can lose a bit of the excitement just thinking of the numbers of women and men who don’t recognize the transgressions of respect.

    AND there are many who do, and who have even chosen to say ‘yes’ to our invitation to join us and put down their cameras, turn their backs to the women in the center of the Ritual Ring and help us hold space as the ritual unwinds.

    Hearing your voice as we wrap up our preparations, has reminded me to revisit all the others who wrote of respect and possibility. . . and I thank you.

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  • I originally hit the “u” instead of “y”!

    Glad my comment was helpful. I’ve spent past 20 years working on issue of violence
    against women and I see this thread as another symptom of the lack of respect and
    objectification that leads to violence

    I am planning to participate in the ride!

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  • Wow. Great discourse! I have already changed my perspective from reading the comments! (Sorry in advance, my english and grammar may not quite keep up.)

    It seems like many people here have wildly different expectations about the rights that they posess or feel that they deserve to posess out at Burning Man.

    First I’d like to highlight the distinction between peoples rights and societal ettiquete. For example, we all have the right to free speech which enables us to participate in an event as amazing as Burning Man. This right also allows me to burp at the dinner table without fear of being arrested but societal ettiquete frowns upon this behavior and I have learned that while I may have the right belch loudly at dinner, I may not wish to because I receive disaproving looks and verbal reprimand from my fellow diners. (My loving mother occasionally included physical reprimand as additional reinforcement.) :)

    Everyone who enters the event has been warned, and chosen to accept the fact that they may have their picture taken out there. Simply by being there you have given a broad form of consent and waived the rights you may have at a “private” event in regard to photography. Because of this I don’t feel like we have the “right” to demand consent from all photographers, nor do any of us have the right to destroy anyone elses property if someone takes a picture without our consent. You wilfully gave up that right when you stepped through the gates.

    Step one: Accept responsibility for the terms you’ve agreed to and recognize that you may have your picture taken. Knowing this you can properly evaluate how you want to behave and present yourself while you’re out there.

    This is not to say that it’s socially acceptable at Burning Man to take pictures of participants without asking their consent. It’s not. The social mores that have evolved at Burning Man very wisely include an “ask first, silence is not consent” policy when it comes to photography. While it is not illegal to take pictures without consent, it is certainly bad manners.

    Step two: Understand that people who violate this social more may not be violating your rights but they ARE behaving innappropriately. Stand up and tell them that our culture does not condone this type of behavior. Some people simply may not know that they’re violating our social contract and others may need a reminder that there are consequences to such behavior, and that they’ll be shunned by the larger society every time they break that social contract. I strongly encourage other men to stand up and make it clear to the creeps how they should behave. The very fact that the “ask first, silence is not consent” mantra is so widely known shows that this is already in the process of being adopted. Let’s step up the good work.

    Personally I’ve taken exactly three pictures of CT over the four years that I’ve been out to the Burn. Two were of my wife and her sister participating in the event because they asked me to, and one was of “the mob” to document the enormity of it. There were several women in the background of the first two shots that I did not get permission from because they were zipping past at the time, and of course I didn’t get permission from every girl in the group shot because it simply wasn’t feasable. Never did I feel creepy taking these pictures however, perhaps because my intention wasn’t to get shots of the boobies but of the girls brave enough to show them. These days I simply leave my camera in my bag and revel in the beauty. Thank you girls, you make my heart beat fast.

    A few notes to the comments above:
    I’m afraid I don’t understand the mini-skirt/she was asking for it/rape comparisons made above. CT is a voluntary event and everyone has the right to participate or not at their own choosing. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.

    I definitely think that moving CT to Tuesday or Wednesday is a good idea to avoid the “frat boy” crowd.

    Finally to be clear, these comments address ONLY the photography without consent issue. None of us gives up our rights regarding sexual assault and I believe that anyone perpetrating this kind of behavior should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, hopefully after they’ve been beaten and drug behind an art car for several hours.

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  • I’ve read some of these again and have some more to blab…

    It seems like another big disconnect is the way people view the importance of pictures. It seems that some believe that photos take something from the subject and therefore attach a lot more significance to whether the image is taken or given. I care much less about photos of me so maybe it’s easier for me to accept the cameras out there.

    To eliminate the “gauntlets” the CT team could have teams of riders dedicated to busting them up easy enough. Five or eight teams of two could ride with the parade watching for bottle necks. Two jovial but firm, big personality type people could bellow things like, “Keep it rollin’! Make way for these pretty girls!” and “Ask for permission boys, you won’t make any friends if you don’t” while they push through, create space, and remind the creepers that the best way that boys can participate is by showing their love, appreciation and respect for all the girls in the ride.

    ok. Zippin’ it….

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  • i have never been to burning man. would have liked to, but being a norwegian living in norway this event is quite a long way away.

    i do, however, have some opinions on some of the aspects being written about in this post and the following replies:

    1) clothed or not clothed: taking a picture of a crowd at such a distance that individuals can not be recognized should generally not require a consent. in the case of an up close photo of a person not “performing for an audience” asking for permission is crucial; yes means yes, no means no.

    2) women wearing short skirts or taking their tops off generally do not signal anything different than when wearing thick winter clothes. understand this, fellow men, and contribute to a better world!

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  • As a male and a photographer I would like to express some of my opinions on this subject. First, I think women who choose to participate in CT should be commended for their courage to shed societal restraints in favor of individual expression. Second, I find the female form to be one of the greatest ideals of natural beauty.

    I would like to see 2 parades. One would be for the women who do not want to interact with men and do not want to be photographed. All cameras and spectators would be banned. Perhaps this parade could go to 3:00. The second parade would for women who enjoy the attention and do not mind being photographed. By participating in this parade they are giving their consent. This parade would follow the traditional route along 9:00.

    I do not want CT to be destroyed by the insensitivity of a few frat boys.

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  • BM is a private event on public land. Walking down the Esplanade is different from walking down Market St in SF as far as photography and video. If you are topless in a parade on Market Street and someone takes your photo, it may well be published because photos taken in a public place are in the public domain. If a photographer intentionally shows you in an unfavorable way – such as taking the photo when you just happen to be walking in front of a strip club, you may have the right to not have the photo published. Even so, you would probably have a fight on your hands.

    As producers of a private event, the BM organizers have the right to institute rules that govern the behavior of the participants for safety, privacy or whatever reasons they deem necessary. The following is on the Rights and Responsibilities of Media and Participants page on the BM website: “You should ask for permission before photographing or filming any participant.” Perhaps this rule needs to be better publicized. And “should” should be changed to “must.”

    What amazes me is that very few fellow observers, men or women, say anything to all those guys at CT blatantly shooting away without the knowledge or permission of the women. Everyone needs to be responsible for the Playa to be different from any other large event.

    What about shots from afar and/or large groups? – if an you can readily recognize someone in your viewfinder, then you need to get permission before shooting. Before shooting, I routinely wave to get a subject’s attention, then point at my camera and then if the subject nods or generally looks cooperative, fire away. 99% of the time this works fine and is a great way of creating a little moment of connection in what might have been a mere mechanical process.

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  • wow.having read all the comments ,an some have a lot of thought an merit .it is all dribble.. only in the u,s. does anyone give a hoot ,pardon the slight pun . if you were on the med. anywhere, all or certainly most are topless, if you traVELED TO S.A. SWEDEN,AUSTRIA AN MANY OTHER PLACES .FROM THE JUNGLES TO THE BEACH ITS THE SAME ..WOMEN PLAYING VOLLEY BALL, CYCLING ,ETC.TOPLESS AN REALLY NOT MANY PEOPLE CARING. SOME PHOTOS, SURE BY TRAVELING AMERICANS, BUT CERTAINLY NOT BY LOCALS. ITS A AMERICAN THING, TITS A BIG DEAL, ON BOTH SIDES MALE AN FEMALE . THE KEY I BELIEVE IN BURNING MAN IS THE PARTICIPATION AN THE ENJOYMENT BY ALL ,OF DOING SO . NUDITY IS A ESTABLISED ART.AN FREEDOM/.PERFORMING IT OR CAPTURING IT…. I BELIEVE ANOTHER FUNCTION OF BURNING MAN . WHETHER BY PHOTO OR BY BRUSH . WILLING OR UNWILLING DOESNT CHANGE. LIKE SEVERAL SAID IF YOU DONT WANT TO BE TOPLESS, DONT.

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  • I agree with Kosho — “You should ask for permission before photographing or filming any participant.” is a little unique of a situation. The entire atmosphere doesn’t truly allow for people to take pictures of be it scantly clothed people (male or female) out in the open, and prior to doing so to ask if it’s OK. The party atmosphere and clothing screams for attention. If it didn’t I imagine people would stay indoors if they didn’t want to be noticed. Just as girls in South Beach go topless expect to be seen in public, so do the girls who where just as little at BM.

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  • “I invite all to consider and pass the word of the personal, civic and human cost of such unconsciousness around photography.”

    not to be a whistle blower but i just watched the BM webcast and lo and behold Critical Tits 2011 was broadcast to the entire world including multiple zoomed in shots where women were clearly seen topless. perhaps the quote above and this post should be shared within BMORG and whomever was in charge of the camera.

    food for thought.

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