[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.
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.
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.
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.]