Burning Man – the job

The intention of this post is to assist other media professionals preparing to cover Burning Man for the first time. I read many such accounts in the lead-up to my first Burn and, while nothing can fully prepare you for Black Rock City, they still helped immeasurably.

Covering Burning Man was one of the most difficult assignments of my life.

It was physically and emotionally grueling, is staged in an environment that is death to equipment, and is a constant trade off between a powerful personal journey and professional responsibility.

After 10 days shooting in the Nevada desert, the state of my gear horrified me so much I couldn’t even take a picture of it, not that I had the ability to. I only had one remaining camera, my phone was dead and my ride out had just fallen through.

I was exhausted, filthy and alone in the dark at 4am with 3,500 images to edit and a 2,000-word feature article to write.

But, the playa provides.

This is one of the sayings often heard around the event and refers to the fact that, no matter how bad a situation seems, the Burner community will ensure that everything turns out OK. The playa (pronounced plyer) – is the ancient high-altitude desert basin in north-western Nevada where the event is held.

Members of an adjoining camp were also packing up at the time and they kindly gave me a lift out to the nearest town, Gerlach, before heading north to their final destination of Vancouver.

I made a sign in their RV saying; ‘Reno, San Fran’ and felt pretty confident that, even in my bedraggled state, one of the constant flow of dusty vehicles pouring out of Burning Man would stop.

My plan was to just hole up in a Reno hotel for a few days but my saviours, Jim and Gabe, turned out to be a father and son team travelling all the way to the north Bay area. They were excellent company and I did my best to stay awake and engage the driver in witty repartee, but fatigue got the better of me on more than one occasion.

They dropped me in Novato where I caught a bus for the remaining two-hour commute to San Francisco.

This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The driver of the first bus took one look at me, closed the door, and took off. This made me realise how much my appearance, while acceptable on the playa, was out of keeping with my new surroundings.

I had been wearing the same clothes for three days, both my gear and I were covered in a thick layer of dust, I hadn’t shaved for a fortnight and my hair looked like several small animals may have been living in it. I was like a wild thing that had happened upon a placid, conservative regional community after two weeks lost in the desert – which wasn’t far from the truth.

A slightly more forceful approach with the next driver was successful and, in the end, I made it from Burning Man to my friend’s Haight-Ashbury apartment in 14 hours – not a bad result.

After the best shower of my life and 12 hours sleep I entered the creative cocoon. I emerged two days later with a feature article, three blog posts and a final cut of 300-odd images.

The next task was to pack my gear up and send it across the country to a service centre in New York for cleaning and repair. I received two D4s bodies in return – also a decent result – as it allowed me to test the capabilities of Nikon’s newest offering.

However, this did little to offset the impact of the email containing their invoice.

Technical and physical challenges aside, what I found most difficult at Burning Man was capturing the essence of such an overwhelmingly diverse event.

This year there were almost 66,000 people on the playa. You can bet every one of those participants will recount a different stand-out experience, the most powerful interaction or memory of their week in the desert.

There are very few scheduled happenings at the event, apart from things being set on fire, and even these operate on ‘playa time’.

So you are constantly on the lookout for these key interactions, something that seems remarkable even in this ocean of oddity, a participant’s ephemeral moment that will endure after most other memories fade.

This was made even harder by the fact I was a ‘virgin’, or first-time Burner. No amount of research can really prepare you for the experience of being on the playa. Just surviving is difficult enough, let alone being charged with delivering the message of Burning Man to the general populous.

One factor which did make the experience easier was being part of a theme camp. I attended an event in Oregon earlier this year called What The Festival with a Vancouver-based crew called Areola 51 and I was fortunate enough to be one of their number again for The Burn.

In its media advisories Burning Man encourages immersion over simple observation and I think this is crucial if you hope to accurately portray the event.

It brings you closer to participants and their interactions and, on occasion, you will even play a part in them.

Some will insist such a submersive strategy compromises impartiality, but Burning Man is the perfect environment for gonzo journalism. I believe any account told by an observer who had deliberately stepped outside the experience would be cold, inadequate and incomplete.

I helped cook camp meals, worked the bar at our Wednesday night Pants Off Dance Off and, most importantly, made enjoying and enduring Burning Man a beautiful collective experience.

Veteran Burners insist camping in a tent or some kind of creative structure is part of any true experience of the playa – learning to embrace the dust and heat – rather than wimping out with an RV or campervan.

Having flown into San Francisco only four days before departing for Nevada, I didn’t have time to organise my own vehicle, so I ended up on the playa floor with the veterans.

There were people in our camp with RVs and some just can’t last the week without such a refuge. The dust will still get inside, but the vehicle does provide a relatively clean environment for your equipment and a better opportunity for sleep.

If you are filing images or copy during the event I would say it’s a must, as well as your own satellite internet access. There is a media centre (Media Mecca) but it’s only open from 9-6 every day, is extremely dusty and is not a wonderful space for editing images or transcribing interviews.

While the staff there are polite and helpful, they will not pander to your every need, nor should they. Support and patchy Wi-Fi is provided but there is stacks of information in the media section of the Burning Man website on how to prepare.

Another dilemma was deciding how I was going to protect my cameras on the playa because it’s during extreme conditions, like dust or electrical storms, that you’re going to make the best images.

Factory-issue weather covers just don’t cut it at Burning Man, and I trawled websites and blogs looking for the best DIY method of sealing up my gear against the elements.

There are as many different techniques for protecting and transporting gear as there are photographers and videographers – everything from vacuum-cleaner bags to expensive underwater housing.

I eventually settled on something like this; cutting a hole in a zip-lock bag, sealing the lense in the hole with a UV filter and tape, and accessing controls through the top of the bag.

I attached the 70-200mm to my D3s, the 24-70mm to the D4, bagged both bodies, and added (non-gunky) duct tape anywhere I could to aid sealing. I also covered most controls with tape to protect those from dust damage.

After a few hours shooting in dust it became almost impossible to use the viewfinder through the bag. In these cases I just locked the focus point centrally and shot wide, taking care of composition later with cropping.

The bag needed replacing daily but, using big CF cards, the theory was to not open either camera for the entire week.

This was working fine, but the playa threw a big curve ball my way on only the second night.

You know the scenario; you see a shot, you immediately forget the task at hand, put everything you don’t need down somewhere dumb, and run off to start shooting.

In this case the dumb place I had left my D4 was the back of a Lego-clad art car.

Having missed the shot I took off after, I returned to where I started just in time to see a participant suddenly step backwards on the car and the camera bite the dust.

I picked it up, initially thought it was OK, but when I tested the shutter it made a very odd noise and the camera returned an error message.

This left me with one body to shoot the majority of the event and blew my thoroughly-researched theory out of the water.

I was still cautious for another day or so, trying to choose long or short lense before leaving camp, but I was missing so much that by the end of the week all bets were off.

There was no choice – I was being paid to record the event – and that meant doing things with my gear which almost broke my heart.

The state of the camera by week’s end was awful. I didn’t realise how attached I had become to these inanimate objects which I use on an almost daily basis – I felt like I’d willingly inflicted an injury on a puppy.

The playa, especially at night, is a chaotic adult playground of sound stages, mutant vehicles and thousands of intoxicated people. It’s a dangerous place for you, and your gear, and it really pays to keep your wits about you.

Whatever sealing method you use, sending your body in for cleaning after Burning Man is essential. Playa dust is three times finer than talcum powder and its alkalinity makes it corrosive – you need that stuff removed pronto.

Think about your shooting set up before you go. I didn’t see anyone using camera harnesses or belts, but some photographers had customised bicycle trailers for carting around their gear.

I had a second-hand electric bike (that was no longer electric) with lady baskets to hold a tripod, light stand and umbrella. The playa is so rough that various bits and bobs constantly shook free, and I was forced to get off and push in areas of deep dust.

A decent bike with fat tyres is what you need – you’ll be happy you made extra effort in this area by the end of the week. There are also four or five bike shop camps around the playa which gift running repairs and a tune up.

The etiquette of shooting at Burning Man is also extremely important. There is nudity everywhere, people are frequently in compromising positions and you don’t want to negatively impact on the experience of a participant.

The general rule is to ask permission first and only rarely did I find this ruined the candid nature of spontaneity of a scene.

A couple of minutes after you’ve been granted permission, chances are that Burner will be just as immersed in the activity they were pursuing before your approach. The images will be just as genuine.

How you approach is also key. Explain where you’re from, where the image is likely to appear and promise to send them a copy for their personal records. This is a way you can ‘gift’ to the playa.

Don’t underestimate how powerful an image of someone’s Burning Man experience can be. It’s a wonderful thing to receive after the event and the gratitude is worth every minute of the day or so you will spend emailing them out.

Also make sure you enjoy the experience of immortalising someone’s moment. I had some beautiful engagements with subjects on the playa.

In the real world I am rushing off to the next shoot before I’ve finished the last, but it was so refreshing to have the time to get to know people, ride with them for a while and appreciate the confidence boost someone gains when you deem them remarkable enough to be part of your story.

It also took me a few days to stop chasing the image. The first night you walk out on to the playa it’s difficult to decide where to point your lens, there is so much going on.

In time I found occupying the same space for an hour or so is just as effective and much less taxing. The crazy mutant vehicle will eventually come to you – or just be at the location where the light is amazing and wait for an appropriate subject to enter the space.

Whatever strategy you employ, I don’t think you could ever claim to have recorded it all. I survived on an average of about three or four hours sleep a night, didn’t drink that much or do drugs, and made sure I was on my game at dawn when the light was best.

I didn’t think I was in that bad a state at the end, but the aforementioned bus driver obviously didn’t agree.

Despite the many difficulties, I found covering Burning Man an ultimately rewarding experience. Shooting does tend to be how I interact with any new environment – it comes very naturally to me and I love what I do – so most of the time it doesn’t really seem like work.

But the responsibility of covering the event definitely changed my Burn. Had I been shooting less I would have engaged in a wider variety of activities, spent less time fretting about dust and probably abused more substances.

Even so, many of my campmates commented after viewing my images that I saw more of the place than they did.

Covering Burning Man definitely doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. I think the same principle applies as for every participant – you get out of the event what you put in.

If you go to some effort with your outfits (but keep it practical for shooting), engage with your subjects and try to immerse yourself as much as possible it could still be a life-changing experience.

Especially if you follow the lead of one of my colleagues and survive solely on tortilla chips for the entire week.

Further reading:
Watch Roy Two Thousand’s wonderful time lapse composition from the 2013 Burn. It may well be the best seven minutes of your day.

Some musings from Reuters photographer Jim Urquhart, who covered the event again in 2014, and from the first year he attended.

The trailer for Spark A Burning Man Story, filmed during the 2012 ticket fiasco, offers a rare insight into what it’s like to actually run the event.

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