Last Thursday, I stopped for gas at the intersection of US-395 and CA-299. Alturas, California. While I looked at the map as fuel flowed into my car, I realized that I was 2 ½ hours away from Gerlach, Nevada. Normally, that wouldn’t mean much. Gerlach is a very small place with a couple of gas stations, a motel, and a scattering of houses on the edge of a dry lake. This is the time of year, however, when tens out thousands of people gather on the dry lake near there for Burning Man. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know the pull I was feeling towards that dot on the map. After a few minutes thinking about what-ifs and what-could-have-beens, however, I turned south. Away from the playa and many of my friends that are out there right now.
It’s been five years since I was last there. 2006 was my last burn. Every year since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of going again. Several months ago, I almost hit submit on a filled out payment form for this year’s burn, but didn’t pull the trigger. Not too long after, the event sold out cementing my decision.
Why the hesitation? Usually, I just explain it away to others—sometimes even myself—as not being able to get it together in time. That’s not really the reason why, however. While preparing for the burn takes time, it’s not that big a deal. No, here’s the real reason:
I’m a photographer. I don’t feel welcome at Burning Man anymore.
The primary reason I don’t feel welcome is found in the terms and conditions that come with the purchase of a ticket in a contract of adhesion. In short, if you want to show a photograph you’ve made at Burning Man in public, the contract stipulates that you have to get permission not only from people in the photograph, but from Black Rock City LLC. Furthermore, if your camera can capture video—and what camera these days doesn’t—you have to register it and have it tagged. Finally, in a rights grab that’s usually associated with the kind of clueless big companies that burners love to hate, Burning Man also grants itself rights to your photos.
For an organization and event dedicated to creativity and radical unregulated self-expression, it’s counter-intuitive. Hypocritical even. You’re welcomed with open arms if your a sculptor, painter, builder, performer, DJ, odd, eccentric, or most anything else. Gothic furry rainbow suits? Sure! Bicycle riders with flame throwers? Awesome! Trans-proto-humanoid post-sexual progressivist? Come on in, whatever the heck you are! Photographer? Oh, wait. Hrm. We don’t really… Go over there and sign some stuff and let’s make sure to get you tagged so that others can be extra careful around you. And, oh, if you do come up with something good, it’s ours to use.
I could go all hyperbolic and violate Godwin’s Law here by comparing this behavior to oppressive historical regimes, but I’ll restrain myself. Surely, you get my drift. Besides, despite my obvious feelings on the matter, I’m not really interested in tilting at this particular windmill much. After all, I’m quite aware that Burning Man’s decision to radically squash the creative potential of photographers is popular with some portion of its 50,000 participants.
I’ve actually considered going without a camera. Put my photographer-self into the closet, if you will. It’d be easier, really, on lots of fronts. I could just enjoy the moment without thinking about the dust creeping into my gear. I wouldn’t concern myself with trying to be creative while respecting anybody else’s rights or demands. I’d have to turn off part of myself to go without a camera, however. Among all the other things I do, I create images. My art is created in the moment and lasts far after the moment is gone. For the last five years, I simply haven’t been willing to check that part of me at the door.
Maybe next year. Maybe. Maybe not.