Beyond Camera Consumerism, Photography Can Also Be Art

[Olivier Bonin, filmmaker, responds to a prompt from excerpts from Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, On Photography (1977) and from the Burning Man website, to reflect on documentation on the playa. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]

Susan Sontag

Background

Susan Sontag, American author, artist and literary theorist, lived from January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004, but her work lives on in art schools around the world. In 1977, Sontag wrote the essay On Photography, which continues to provide media students and scholars an entirely different perspective of the camera in the modern world.

Our Prompt

We sent Olivier the following prompt to respond to:

“Review these excerpts from On Photography by Susan Sontag (1977):

1. To collect photographs is to collect the world.

2. Photographs furnish evidence.

3. That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption — the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed — seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.

Review this excerpt from Burning Man’s Ten Principles:
‘Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.’ Burning Man Website (2010)”

Olivier’s Response:

Yes, there might be a problem on how we try to document every single thing we see, but that problem is sourced in the way we consume, in the way we are as a society: it is entrenched into our contemporary culture. To change the way we photograph, is to change the way we live almost. It’s all inter-connected… a giant neurosis, that we need to work on all together. And of course I think Burning Man is part of the solution if it demonstrates a bigger interest in the method of doing art together…

On Consumerism
Burning Man prides itself not to participate in consumerism, but to go to Burning Man is to consume. Each person that goes to Burning Man has to spend a lot to be self-reliant for one week in the desert. To create a city in the desert, is to transport everything to this environment. To truly reflect on our consumerist society would require minimizing our exposure to it, but that’s not what a deserted dry lakebed calls for.

Budget Truck in line for Burning Man, ©2007 Dust & Illusions
Budget Truck in Line for Burning Man, ©2007 Dust & Illusions

I would even go further, and say that escaping consumerism was never was part of the original intentions. The need to escape the traps of our larger society was definitely there, but I believe the original intentions of the Burning Man project were to create a temporary site to simply relieve us from the constant attack on our senses of the mainstream cultural Act. It was a place to create our own reality, and express ourselves freely in the rawest manner possible without the need for it to be judged worthy of any value by our society’s standards. It was only later than Burning Man started to be associated with an anti-consumerist alternative, but the resistance to consumption has ever only been expressed through the lack of commercial sponsorship, transaction or advertising, and not necessarily through deeply dealing with the consumption that occurs pre-event.

In the depth of the event, you can of course find a real call from its participants to recreate a world where community is more important than capitalism. There are many examples in the artists’ group, and the theme camps, but these examples need to become the driving principles behind the event in order to effectively alter the consumerist reality. Where Burning Man really thrives is in offering an open stage for anyone’s artistic expression. And that is the single reason why Burning Man is still an important event today. The event has produced important artistic content, and truly inspires people to create! Let’s focus on this aspect to create a community with strong and deep artistic values, and the rest will follow.

Cameras During an Impromptu Show (©1993 Peter Goin)
Cameras at an Impromptu Show (©1993 Peter Goin)

On Photography
With 50,000 participants at Burning Man, there are at least 25,000 cameras on site, documenting each micro-event dozens and maybe even hundreds of times. Photography is embedded into our lives just like eating. We can not fully express ourselves, and do not feel complete without the documentation of our every moments. We consume photography even more than we consume water. Our fast-paced, highly consumerist world reflects the way we takes pictures, thousands of pictures. We click, click and click, to create a massive database of visuals that we end up browsing through without ever taking the time to reflect on the meaning of our experience there.

We often bring photography into a situation without any care for what we’re trying to photograph, since most pictures are simple snapshots. When “taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption”, we might have been more thoughtful about what we were capturing, and might have always tried to bring real cultural value into each photograph. This is not the case with “sleek pocket cameras” (in Sontag’s words).

The real value in cheap and “sleek pocket cameras” might be that more people with deeper intentions have access to them, enabling for a small subset of higher quality output in the midst of so much noise.

"Media Frenzy", 1998 (Photo Eric Slomanson)
"Media Frenzy", 1998 (Photo Eric Slomanson)

And so there’s no way to escape photography, nor to control it. Those who will engage in photography in manners that the community of Burning Man doesn’t approve, will always find a way to do so. We should accept all cameras even if we don’t like them. This phenomenon is new, and the community will have to learn the best way to keep some spaces and moments sacred away from the cameras. The current set of rules established by the Burning Man organization hasn’t prevented excesses from happening.

I have been to the desert on six different occasions, and have been filming on every single one of them. I have always been very aware of my position as a photographer/filmmaker. My presence can directly interfere with other people’s experience there, either preventing that experience to happen, so preventing me from capturing it, or more often altering the truth of a situation (in the end, preventing me from capturing what is really happening when the camera isn’t there). I have continued filming, and created my own way to immerse myself into the event, and film a less altered reality. I decided to connect truly with the culture, and fully participate with my camera to become an integral part of the experience, instead of being simply an observer of it.

Olivier Bonin Filming Rosanna Scimeca, ©2004 Dust & Illusions
Olivier Bonin Filming Rosanna Scimeca, ©2004 Dust & Illusions

That’s how I came to join the Flaming Lotus Girls (FLG). I first chose to document the FLG because of their ethos. They create art for Burning Man, but their main goal is to teach the art of metal and fire with a focus on women, and create a strong group of artists that can then go do the same. That inspiring model inspired me to go look much deeper into the Burning Man experience and history. I became an integral part of the group as their documentarian, producing short film pieces to help them promote their work or present it for education purposes to institutions like Stanford. With such an integration, it created a situation where I the filmmaker wasn’t a voyeur but rather a full participant. I belonged to the group, who in return gave me full access. I was able to film without disturbing, and I wasn’t just taking since I was producing a lot of videos for them. It became a very fruitful relationship, which allowed me to understand what was happening at Burning Man in its deeper strata. And I worked with another half dozen groups with which I have shared all my footage. Filming the Burning Man experience in this way was enlightening for me and non-intrusive for the subjects.

Preparing to Shoot the Burn, 1991 (Photo by George Post)
Preparing to Shoot the Burn, 1991 (Photo by George Post)

I would hope that Burning Man would start considering photographers and filmmakers as part of their community by modifying certain aspect of their approach:
1. The contract between Burning Man and photographers and filmmakers should simply state what is not allowed to be filmed, and what context such footage should never be used in. This would prevent abuse from both sides, and open up a real freedom of speech.

For issues of privacy, photographers and filmmakers should always have to ask first, and that should be clearly stated in the contract. For such content, the Burning Man organization could have a “veto” if the content is not used in a respectful grander context.

2. Considered like artists: All artists at Burning Man are allowed to sell their artwork, and this is true for granted artists by contract!

Photographers and filmmakers should be given full freedom to sell their work. Even the most successful will certainly never be able to cover the costs they have engaged to produce the artwork. And if one were to be successful, then we should celebrate her/him rather than engage into pitiful battles of who the money should go to. This would be an economy we should embrace as a community, since all it does is support an artist, so she/he can continue what she/he’s doing, and potentially provide food for thought for the community.

Black Rock LLC makes it harder for photographers to sell their work, when they support all sorts of businesses (see: Jack Rabbit Speaks Resources Edition) without taxing them (most commercial use of photography is taxed by 10%), some of them who are far from engaging in sustainable practices. But the reason the LLC allows this is “Burning Man is NOT anti-commerce. We’re against commodification, which is quite a different thing. We recognize that commerce makes the world go around, and we believe in the creativity and drive of small business owners.  Those are the folks we seek to support here, in the face of mass market consumerism. (JRS: Volume 14, Issue #18, June 18, 2010)”. So why can’t photographers do the same, they are also part of the small-scale economy, the ART economy at that!!

3. Since commercial sponsorships is forbidden, preventing any business or corporation to use the Burning Man event to sell or promote their product, corporate media should never be given access to the event as well.  Black Rock LLC said that this is a great way to spread the word about BM, but isn’t that simply engaging with corporate media, that are being paid by the very commerce the 10 principles try to keep out of BM. These medias are engaging in commodification of our values, and are banking on the popularity of the subject to get us to watch commercial advertising. And as independent photographers we still have to go through considerable hoops to sell our work. No corporate TV stations, or internet media outlet, or commercial papers should be allowed on the ground. If members of these organizations wanted to film there, they could do so with financial, editorial and logistical independence from them. This could prevent from the superficial news style content that comes from these organizations and that usually doesn’t help our community to progress. That content is too often simplistically consumed rather than used to bring dialogue and progress. There’s enough simple content produced by everyone else with their pocket cameras.

On the other hand, thoughtfully produced content by photographers who come from the community could be sold at the photographers discretion to those commercial outlet, allowing a more thoughtful portraying of the event to come out in those bigger media outlets.

4. If limiting the number of camera crews at Burning Man is needed, then only the crews who are already seriously integrated within some artists groups, theme camps they plan to document should be allowed, since this would voucher to their level of seriousness.

[Born in France and educated with an engineering degree in microelectronics, Olivier Bonin showed an early interest in photography and film. He studied photography in San Francisco, where he found his way into filmmaking. Starting with short fictions, he quickly found a perfect symbiosis between his interest and knowledge in social movements and filmmaking in the documentary form. Attending Burning Man, he knew he had found a great subject combining film photography in such a beautiful environment, and a complicated human story of community building.]

About the author: Olivier Bonin

Olivier Bonin (born 1973) is a documentary filmmaker, whose first movie is Dust & Illusions, 30 years of Burning Man history. His first attendance to the Burning Man festival coincided in 2003 with his debut in filmmaking. Bonin quickly decided to pursue an in-depth look at the infamous event as his first documentary subject. In 2004, he joined the Flaming Lotus Girls as their videographer and through that, he met some of the most important earlier makers and organizers of the Burning Man event. He discovered little by little the complexity behind the history of the event, the many faces, ideals and politics that came with it. In 2009 he released his first feature documentary film under the name Dust & Illusions.

20 thoughts on “Beyond Camera Consumerism, Photography Can Also Be Art

  • Having “sleek pocket cameras” (why the chintzy quotes, guys? what are you trying to say here?) is nothing new. Portable pocket photography has been engrained in our culture for at least 100 years. The general public left box cameras and large format film long ago.

    Photography isn’t new, and the implication that the interest people have in making images has anything to do with the consumerism so many wish to avoid in 2010 really misses the mark. People like to have photographs, period.

    And what the heck does capitalism have to do with anything here? It seems like someone is making the case for something using some appropriate buzz words that the Burning Man community is sensitive to. I guess we can toss out this line of thought when we consider the people living in Russia/Soviet union (and many other places) were and are just as much interested in making photographs as the capitalists, and for the same reasons. They wanted to create photographs.

    Again, I think you miss the mark by applying consumerism in any way. It reads like you are attempting to draw the Burning Man community in to listen to your attempt to get them to accept photography by using buzz topics they can get behind, consumerism, capitalism, modern culture. You needn’t do that.

    I do not see any line of separation between being ‘embedded’ within one of the groups that is integral to Burning Man and just being a citizen of the city. Remember, no spectators? Are you really meaning to imply the only way to not be a spectator or to be offensive with a camera is to be doing a ‘documentary’ for a group of artists? That is how it reads when you say ‘I wasn’t just an voyeur but a full participant’

    I would hope that photographers (like yourself) wouldn’t need to preface their opinions with, what to me, largely seems like a big rationalization in order to convince people that photography is OK.

    1. This would not prevent abuse.. It is an abuse. We are in the United States after all and while Burning Man is a ‘private’ event the right to make images is pervasive, especially on the public land we love so much out there. We do not want to go down that road. Would you have limits on the Sculpture at Burning Man? Or Music?!

    2. Anyone who needs to make an agenda item to get photographers seen as artists is already fighting a losing battle. You would think that 100 years past Stieglitz it would be well engrained enough to have no need for doing this. If that isn’t the case already, good luck trying to convince someone now (especially after you dissuaded them with remarks of Consumerism and Capitalism).

    3. This is foolish. The media, if they pay for a ticket and do what they claimed they would do has just as much right to be there as anyone else who is at Burning Man. Remember, that No Spectators thing? You don’t think Media Mecha has done a great job at giving media folk and understanding of the culture? The media is an integral part of any city. Black Rock City has Police, Fire, Ambulance, an airport, multiple radio stations, street lights, sanitation, DMV, DPW…. Why can’t we have Media organizations?! If there were a newsworthy event to occur at Burning Man I know I would rather professional news gathering crews get the story than a bunch of Capitalist Consumerist voyeurs with “sleek pocket cameras”.

    4. Again, what does embedding a crew within groups of artists have to do with anything? It seems more to me it is an attempt to justify past work (such as maybe Dust and Illusions) than to do anything to help future work. This requirement is foolish. No spectators at Burning Man, we already have this one covered.

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  • Louis, the land may be owned by the public, but while it is rented to the private organization that runs the event, it is private land. The money for that rent goes to public funds, much in the way that logging or mining rights are leased to corporations. (At least Burning Man has a leave no trace policy!)

    While it is private land, the body that can restrict photography is the organizer of the event. Typically, venues like concerts, strip clubs, museums, and other locations where there is an interest in restricting photography just take the easy route and ban camera use altogether. Burning Man is trying to figure out a different solution.

    What Oliver is trying to do here is suggest other compromises that could be tried. If one of the concerns is that film crews are exploiting the event, why not try a system where the film crew needs to be vouched for? If there is no difference between a traditional media crew and a film maker, why not remove special access for media? He also wants photographers to be able to sell their art without restrictions, but his suggestions are aimed on finding ways to vet these artists without risking a Girls Gone Wild incident again.

    At least, that’s how I interpret his blog posting. Note that the plan to embed film crews was specifically listed as a compromise in that case that “limiting the number of camera crews at Burning Man is needed.” All of these suggestions are based upon his perception of on-going complaints against the photographer community. To me it reads as if you do not think these on-going complaints have merit.

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  • Of course the event is private. But to claim that 45,000+ people gathering on public land for a private event honestly really and truly gives any of those people a right to any more privacy than is granted anywhere else in Nevada is asking a bit much in the way of getting off on a technicality.

    If they truly want to forbid photography, it becomes an instance of trespassing in the closure area if the photographer doesn’t stop. I have the same rights to every freedom that federal law and nevada law grant me whether I’m on private property or not. One of these rights is Freedom of Speech and the free expression that comes with it.

    Burning Man can impose their own rules and if they are not abided by you will have to (or should be told to) leave. You do not get a blanket of protection just because the event is private, the photographers still have their rights and if Burning Man decides one of those rights being practiced is unwelcome on their event site they are welcome to have that person removed.

    It is understandable that compromises are being offered but if they are to be anything like the ones suggested in this article I cannot say I would approve of any such compromise.

    The film crews already have a process to be “vouched for” Burning Man and Media Mecha work very hard on the media and with camera tags. People who slip through the cracks will happen whether photography and videography are outright banned or not.

    I’d love to see photographers be able to be able to sell their art without restriction, but I do not think we should restrict what they can do, so long as they abide by federal and nevada law. This would allow artists to be able to sell with art with no restrictions, but they’d be selling a restricted confined work. Not an ideal suggestion, at least, not if you enjoy art that isn’t limited by arbitrary constraints.

    I do not agree there should be a limit on the number of film crews at Burning Man in as much as I would never want a limit on the number of Art or Sculpture installations at Burning Man. They all paid the price of admission and part of Freedom and Radical Expression is that it goes both ways… You’ll likely find something that you wont like.

    You are spot on Todd. I do not think these on-going complaints have any merit. At least as long as we hold the event in the United States of America.

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  • Difference is I don’t think anyone’s going to complain any time soon that there’s too much art, Louis D., but they complain regularly about too many cameras, especially cameras wielded thoughtlessly. Film crews tend to have the highest impact to participant experience and are the most strongly regulated in terms of numbers.

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  • Great point, Andie.. And like any Metropolis the community is free to decide and set the standards they feel make the most sense for the public good. If that means limiting video crews or photography that is wholly understandable and acceptable. There is always going to be a minority that might oppose whatever change comes about in any community.

    But the good of the overall public must trump the desires of a small minority.

    One of the great things about our fine city is that we can make these choices and have these debates while still fostering the creativity and free expression that we all love so much.

    I mean, we all live within the perimeter fence for a week, don’t we? We are used to limits.

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  • First of all this post is taken out of context. I was invited to react to the following prompt:

    ——————————————————————-
    ROOM FOR DEBATE PROMPT #1
    Photography & Decommodification at the Burning Man Event

    Excerpts from ON PHOTOGRAPHY -Susan Sontag (1977)

    1. To collect photographs is to collect the world

    2. Photographs furnish evidence

    3. That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption — the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed — seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.

    Excerpt from the 10 PRINCIPLES -Burning Man Website (2010)
    Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience
    -Burning Man Website (2010)

    ——————————————————————-

    Media team, please update the blog posts about Digital rights mentioning how you went about it, and that invitation to react to this prompt especially.

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  • Second, the Media team has invited a bunch of us to reflect on camera use at BM… so I’m participating in the discussion.

    1/ On Camera Use Limitations:I think there’s no way to limit camera use, no matter what your country’s federal rules are, as you point out, even Russians take pictures. It is a cultural thing, it’s been here for a long time, and small and cheap digital cameras have been here for 10 years now. But I guess, unless you missed that, LD, the community is trying to redefine what it means to be together (is it successful at it, I don’t know), and I think people are actually voicing concerns about cameras, and want to think about a way to work with them in a more respectful manner. That’s what I hear, that’s what Andie is reporting.

    One of the goal of this discussion was to actually talk about limiting camera use, in certain areas or certain circumstances for example. So indeed as you point out again, this has been in our culture for a long time, and that’s the way things are, it’s going to be hard to limit it. Good point LD. That was my point too. But rather than talk about the obvious, that cameras have been here for over 100 years, I wanted to bring in another aspect of the way we use small digital cameras, which relates to the way we consume.

    Let’s take a parallel with Fat and Sugar. We are programmed to look for Fats and Sugars in our food. 10,000 years ago, we were hunting and gathering, and tried to take on as much Fats and Sugars as we could, but given the natural limits to their availability and the difficulties to get them, we couldn’t abuse them. Make a 10,000 years step forward, and now thank mother USA, we have McDonalds, pure fats and sugars. Also in that leap we’ve come to understand that we should limit our exposure to fats and sugars, especially artificial ones. But we can’t do it. 2/3 of americans are overweight.

    Same thing is happening in consumption. I don’t know if that’s also a survival requirement that we’re touching on with consumption, but whether you’re in Russia today, or the US, the problem is the same, people want to be able to consume. Before in Russia, they just couldn’t, but given the chance now, they will engage in that pattern. And I think that our way to document everything is also done in the same extreme manner, we just can’t stop ourselves, we can not control nor limit this power, in order to reflect on it, what it means and how we can use it to improve our condition.

    I personally took a stab at it, with making a film about the event. And I found a way to use the camera in some healthier way, less intrusive, that fit me, and what I was doing at the time. I’m not saying that everyone should do that. I’m simply sharing my own experience with that.

    If you look at point #4, that is again as a reaction to “should we limit camera use”, I’m simply offering an idea to do this based on my own experience, if that’s what BM ORG wants to do. But as you noticed I argue that this is also part of our culture, and that is impossible to do so, nor do I think we should do it. I’m just offering a suggestion in reaction to the request to think about “limiting camera use”.

    2/ Photographers considered as artists, there are thousands all around the world. It’s different at BM.

    3/ On Media Corporations: Black Rock City has Police, Fire, Ambulance, an airport, multiple radio stations, street lights, sanitation, DMV, DPW…

    Ok thanks for the comment. But how is commercial corporate media related in any ways to these infrastructure “Departments”. These medias are not run by BRC, they are not govt agencies. They are what they are, commercial corporate media. They do not investigate any of the subjects for the most part, usually the print papers still do investigations, and then the commercial corporate TVs pick up on them. When they come to BRC, I really don’t see the value they bring, except to bank on a subject that is popular and will generate revenue to them!! I thought the 10 principles that BR LLC live by were against that.

    But Andie told me that basically these large media corporations are a good way to spread the word about the BM culture. On the other end she also told me that she dismisses that exact argument about spreading the word when small unknown first-time participants were offering to make yet another film about BM. Her point was that the large commercial media corporation had a much more instant and immediate outreach to millions of people, and that it can spread the word much faster. That’s publicity, isn’t it? I read so many times on BM’s website how proud they were that this culture was spreading by the word of mouth. I seriously doubt it. There wouldn’t be 50,000 people today out there, without that media coverage.

    There’s some sort of a marriage of convenience b/w corporate media and BM ORG to my point of view.

    Your point on corporate media being professional is well taken.. they are professionals indeed. But what exactly are they professionals at? They have a clear agenda, which is to produce news that make money, that is that simple. And I understood maybe wrongly that BM doesn’t engage in this type of behavior, except maybe when it is convenient and not that obvious?

    I’ve also always been surprised about the content generated out of BM by these corporations. It’s always the same thing, how incredible it is to have a city of tents (and RVs) that produces large scale art, does it for free, and doesn’t engage in commercial activities. None have gone to question in a deeper way what BM culture is about. Often they are simply interested in the eye-candy, fast paced video they can generate about Burning Man that’s gonna get everyone excited about this crazy freak-out in the desert (with the obvious, but never spoken subject of drugs, just to get people more excited about it), and generate the audience level they need to cover their financial needs. That’s the bottom line. And BM ORG is clearly engaging with this type of attitude, which I feel is denied to almost anyone else.

    And if your name is Louis Daguerre, then mine is Unkown Soldier.

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  • Here, though, you misinterpret what I said at that event, conflating my personal desire to see the story of Burning Man reach more people with a corporate desire to get more people to come to Burning Man. The former is true, the latter is not – we don’t need to grow to stay alive and we don’t seek growth proactively or we’d be soliciting people to come cover us annually, and we don’t do that.

    But yes, I think storytelling about Burning Man can reach more people than will ever attend the event, and serve as a great example to the world. . Keeping Burning Man in a box and not sharing it with the world, to me, would be antithetical to the aims of the event.

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  • I understand the purpose, but how does that fit into your non-commercial agenda?

    And really I think it’s beyond the point. My point is that these folks produced news pieces for their bottom line, maybe without the real interest in the Burning Man story and values. And yes they might say in their piece things like “Burning Man is creating community opposed to consumerism, people who care about each other”, but one liners are only there to please you the Media Team. In the end the eye-candy visuals and shallow representation of the community don’t serve the purpose of telling the real story of the event. I think the most it does is preach to the choir, and re-inforce to others ideas that BM is just a drug festival or whatever they want to think about it. The ideas of the need to recreate community, inspire the artists inside of you, not always think in terms of commercial/business terms, or recreate economies of human scale are often missing the depth in the corporate portraits, or even missing at all, to carry the message appropriately.

    BM ORG doesn’t have an interest in growth, but if there were only 5,000 people, BM wouldn’t be alive today. Now that the event attracts 50,000 people you have reached a number that will allow to keep the event going in the longer run, at least financially. AND 1/2 of the folks that come only ever come once (cf Census Data), so without that constant corporate media coverage, you may lose a good portion of these one-timers, potentially killing the event, again financially. And how do you make people embrace new values by coming once? Some people might say they’ve been affected by the event, but often it’s because most folks were already open to all the ideas/values of Burning Man, and it just helped reinforce these ideas.

    But BM has profited from the commercial media corporation advertisement, these guys call news, to grow and continues to profit from it to stay alive. The growth was also exponential. Such growth is not natural, and I don’t think manage to communicate values and ideals as well as slow growth. Rather we’ve seen an increased element of partying (or shallow participation should I call it?) to the expense of art and creative participation.

    I really believe that the work by long time participants, and the depth they have brought into their work is much more valuable and relevant compared to the corp media news pieces. And not allowing the corp media to come to the event would open up new channels for these indie works, channels that you seem to consider important to sharing “it” to the world. So let’s share it from within the community.

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  • I think anyone can look at our media questionnaire and its rigorous inquiry into motive, cultural comprehension, and reach of each individual project, and make up their own minds about whether we do enough to vet the people we allow to come cover the event. We ask if they plan to volunteer or be involved in some way, who they know, who they want to talk to and why, how many times they’ve been to the event, who they camp with, and what it is about Burning Man that they think is so special they need to come film it. Many are turned away. If the review team (made up of participant volunteers and Burning Man staff alike) are not convinced they’ll make themselves part of the community and be thoughtful in their coverage and considerate of Burning Man’s participants and their culture, then they don’t get approved to shoot the event.

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  • Oliver and others here make some very good points about “Professional” photography but it’s the elites carving out their niche and limiting the populace. Even so I emphasize that he makes very good points about the situation an maybe I have the elitism all wrong.

    So what about me, the non professional with a nice camera? I want to take pictures and share them with my friends. I want to document this special event and what I saw and experienced. There are too many events from the past that never got documented, memories were lost and it’s been forgotten. I’ll be damed if i’m going to let a bunch of idealists prevent me from capturing this event. And you know, if my photos are any good I’d like to put them in the local art show and maybe even sell them.

    The vast majority of us are respectful and don’t take the picture that might be embarrassing to someone, at least we didn’t think it would be. We also hope that anyone in the sight line might say something to us. Again in the majority of cases we will respect that. Yes there are those who will not respect that but it’s never correct to punish everyone for the wrongs of one.

    There is also a technological issue about to pounce on all of society. In the very near future everyone will have the ability to record, in high definition, their entire day, using nothing more intrusive than a pair of glasses or belt. Setting the parameters of polite responsibility for using this power needs to be done now. It can’t be stopped. Just like the prohibition of alcohol didn’t do anything more that establish organized crime. Prohibition of photography will only promote the kind of up-skirt photo nonsense you want to prevent.

    I guess I didn’t offer any solutions but these are my concerns and fears so keep talking maybe we will come up with a reasonable solution that most can live with.

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  • Marc, actually. That’s what I think too, all cameras should be allowed. I should have only made my points. When I was offering ideas about the camera limitations, I was trying to offer compromises to suggestions from the BM media team, where they were asking us if we should consider limiting camera use.

    The real problem is the tight limitation on “professional” camera use. On how we can use our images! The LLC allows corporate media when they explicitly say they don’t engage in commercial activities, it’s a basic violation of their 10 principles. Ultimately I don’t even have a problem with commercial coverage of the event, I just want to point out the hypocrisy here. The idea is that commercial coverage is free publicity, which they claim they don’t engage in, and that publicity is needed to keep the crowds coming to the event. As I have said, 1/2 of the people who go to Burning Man only ever go ONCE! That’s it. A lot of that new crowd probably heard about BM from those news sources, and the hype they create about the event. They will not stop commercial media for this very reason. It’s about spreading the values of Burning Man, which you can’t really do unless you go to Burning Man for a while, and start to adhere to the ethos of the community. Watching a TV report on the event, no matter what they say is only going to reinforce whatever ideas you already have about life really.

    The LLC sells tshirts on their “Marketplace” http://marketplace.burningman.com/catalog.php, they sell videos, they even have gift certificates. Isn’t that commodification?? So they can do it, but no one else can? Who are they to tell us what we do? They ask the community to send their submissions about their business that are burner-friendly, and they post it (advertise it!) on their website and their giant mailing list. A lot of those businesses don’t even engage in sustainable practices, and then when a photographer wants to sell his art, it has to go through “rigorous” (as Andie says) checks of the validity of your request, and then they have an all-powerful veto on whatever comes out of your artistic point of view, and it is stamped worth of distribution, you still have to pay a %10 tax! No one from these businesses is asked to pay a 10% tax, why not?

    It’s simply unfair to make photographers go through this kind of treatment when everyone else seem to get an easy ride. In their “resource edition”, the LLC claims to
    that they’re not against commerce, they’re just against commodification, well i’m sorry but i’m starting to feel that these words are used whenever they’re convenient, they sound good in the right place.

    Why should photographers have to go through this, when all they’re doing is participating in the production of artistic content. And if they want to sell their art, let the community be the judge!! If they don’t want to buy it, they won’t. No photographers is going to make $50,000/year out of their work from Burning Man. $50,000 is the average salary the LLC pays to its employees. And if they did, why would it be a problem.

    Again in that resource issue, the LLC claims that they prefer small-scale businesses, as opposed to giant corporations, and I very much understand that and support it too! I also support the idea that all photographers, that are NOT coming out of the corporate media should be freely allowed to sell their work to the community. All they’re doing is participating in the small-scale economy that the LLC supports, and what they’re selling is ART.

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  • In my previous comment I meant: (note I forgot the NOT there):

    It’s NOT about spreading the values of Burning Man, which you can’t really do unless you go to Burning Man for a while, and start to adhere to the ethos of the community.

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  • Andie, in response to your last comment.

    If you didn’t allow corporate media into the event, you would be freed from doing these rigorous checks, you could spend your time on more important community work. Let people photograph, and film whatever they want, they’re already doing it anyways. There’s 1000’s of videos on youtube about Burning Man, everyone is taking a stab at showing their version of Burning Man, for everyone to enjoy.

    If you still are trying to limit nudity, it’s also all over the internet, just go on flickr, there are 100’s of pictures of naked women there, for everyone to see… so even this is failing.

    Also as I pointed out, the french mega TV station M6 got denied access to the event, but they still came, they film everything they wanted, they made a 30 minutes piece, that’s basically showing how easy it is to get laid at Burning Man, it was broadcasted on the air for millions of viewers to see, they put all the commercial ads they needed to cash in on that broadcast, and they will never have a problem from the LLC, because it’s in another country and the LLC will not be able to enforce their rules there. Plus it’s too late. That really means that anyone can do it, and publish it without feeling threatened.

    Here’s the link to the M6 piece, it’s all in french:
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2v4gw_burning-man-zone-interdite-delire-e_music

    So let’s ban corporate media from Burning Man, and let the community speak!

    One of the first thing that I got from Burning Man was that it was about self-expression. Let your inner artist come out, no matter what others will think about what you do. I’ve always been behind such a philosophy, ART should be not only for all to enjoy, but also for all to create. And that should be true with photography as well.

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  • Thanks, Olivier, for your commentary. I really enjoy your statement comparing consumption of entertainment and media obsession in general to fat and sugar. It’s like we’re hard wired for it. I still believe that it is our duty to get more clear about where the burning man project will draw the line on photography/media uses online and outside of the playa. Mostly, the burning man project is against porn and advertising.. So lets come up with something clear!!

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  • Photography, Video, and Audio recording are NOT the same as other artistic mediums – they are ‘capture’ technologies, and are much, much more prone to the commodification that the BM community seeks to avoid. I have great respect for the work of my photographer and filmmaker friends – it’s clearly art, and sometimes powerfully moving or transformative. But a photo can also objectify people and events, reducing them to a visual product to be mass-produced, sold, and consumed.
    Much of the compulsive picture-taking we do at BM is a symptom of our social conditioning to be consumers, with all our experiences mediated by some sort of commercial marketing, and genuine human-scale culture replaced by corporate spectacle. The professional photographers I know at BM are less stuck in this mindset, and more likely to really show up and engage with their full creative selves while looking through the lens.
    Still, there is something about looking through a camera, or having one pointed at me, that makes me more self-conscious and controlled, less spontaineous and genuine and present. Last year at BM, after a day or two, I decided to leave my camera back at camp, and just went out and experienced everything without recording it, without that little mental distancing that happens when I decide “Oh, I want a picture of this!”
    So I’d like to propose an experiment. What if we all left our cameras home on one day of burning man, perhaps in the mid-week? What if we declare a “camera-free Wednesday”, and see if it feels any different? Let’s see if we can all be together without recording the experience. “If an art piece burns on the playa, and nobody photographs it, will it still be beautiful?”

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  • Olivier I think I agree with you more and more. There are a number of areas of apparent hypocrisy coming from Burning Man and yes the photography policies are among the worst. Other artists use Burning Man to their advantage so why can’t photographers?

    I must say the videos and photos on the net played an important part in getting my wife and I to attend last year. We can’t be there this year and we are a bit depressed about that but we look froward the images and videos that will be posted after this year. They will have a different meaning to us than for those who haven’t been there. I hope we don’t become another of the one time attendees.

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  • As a seven time Burner AND a semi-professional photographer/videographer this discussion is of great interest to me and I’d love to see it keep going.

    I think for the most part that Olivier is right. The staus quo of photography at Burning Man is outdated and in some cases doesn’t feel in line with our espoused values, particularly of free expression. This is something that’s happening not just at Burning Man but in society in general. The democratization of the message. Thanks to smaller and smaller cameras and websites like YouTube anyone anywhere can create a record and post it for the world to see. Its incredibly easy.

    There is no longer any such thing as “personal use” – not since YouTube, flickr and facebook. Now we are all broadcasters. There is no way to predict the next viral video. Personally I think this is a great thing. Finally we can begin to have a dialogue between thousands, millions of people instead of everything being shunted through monolithic news organizations or the established lines of the art world. Ultimately this is good for art and community, but with the good comes the bad. For every great piece of art or beautiful moment unveiled there will also be some embarrassing skeletons or dirty laundry. That’s the Girls Gone Wild guys.

    What I find distressing is that in an effort to control and limit the unsavory and embarrassing we end up also blocking some of the most committed and creative among us. As Olivier said its the perceived professionals that get the most obstacles thrown in their way by these policies when ironically its the professionals who can invest the time, knowledge, resources and creativity to capturing unique and inspiring visions of what BM is all about.

    All this being said I do understand the problems with cameras at Burning Man and regional events. There’s definitely a distancing and chilling effect that can (but doesn’t necessarily) happen when a camera enters into the equation. We’ve all seen someone shy away or shut down in front of a camera, fear that what might happen next will be remembered and passed on shutting down the feelings of being free in the moment. Similarly many of us who’ve stood behind those cameras have felt distant, detached, unable to touch or engage with what’s going on just a few feet in front of us.

    These are problems. Yet they need not be.

    I have also had moments where the presence of a camera has brought forth the inner actor, an invigoration, a desire to be seen and to share with others. Making silly faces or performing for the camera are great ways to turn this relationship around. Similarly the photographer doesn’t need to be detached from a situation in order to get great shots. Indeed I think some of the best shots come from when the photographer really engages and gets involved in events as they unfold. If this interaction can be fostered then the chilling and distancing have no grip on the interaction.

    I rarely shoot footage at Burning Man. I did a documentary one year and that was enough. I prefer to be immersed in the moment and not be worrying about f-stops, battery levels, composition or how much dust is getting into my lenses. When I do I often feel a distance from other participants. I think photographers/videographers and other participants need to both put some effort into bridging this gap because its the only way we’re going to effectively deal with this complex issue. BMOrg can try to keep cameras out, but increasingly that will prove impossible.

    This is a cultural issue, not a policy issue, let us resolve it in the culture. We came to the desert to get away from rules, not to write a whole bunch of new ones.

    As for selling images/video/audio captured at BM, well that’s a whole other can of worms…

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