Burning Man 1997

The Man Burns

The Press at Burning Man 1997

A video crew 1997 was the year that the press discovered Burning Man. There were huge vans from CNN, NBC, and "local" Reno television stations, as well as a large number of camera crews from independents doing footage of the event. We saw the crew here as we wandered around, so we took a picture of them taking video of us. If we remember correctly, the producer (who is not in this picture) said they were from Florida. Most of the people carrying professional gear such as this were friendly and not intrusive at all. All friendly people are welcomed at Burning Man, even if some do happen to be members of the press. The sense of community at Burning Man is, for us, the most compelling and exciting part of the event.

There is an email listserv for Burning Man participants which has incredibly high traffic and which has several members of the media as participants. All assured that they wanted the real experience and none of the fluff of jiggly reporting with pixelated images of scantily (or un-) clad females. Some of the nonpress members of the list protested that they had been imposed upon by several so-called members of the press to pose in suggestive ways for the camera or were filmed climbing out of the hot springs when they would have chosen not to be recorded in the nude. Such is life at Burnging Man.

This is a person identified as Dwight This person wore an ID tag giving his name as Dwight. He came to our attention because he was having a loud argument with some people in a camp. He seemed to feel that he had been treated shabbily by people he was taping. The BMers were suggesting that either he had forgotten to take his lithium or he needed to have his dosage increased. Dwight was quite active, and as Phil attempted to pass by him, they bumped into each other. Dwight took this as an act of hostility and commenced his argument with Phil.

The larger photograph that "Dwight" is linked to shows three photos of Dwight taken during the discussion. The photo on this page shows Dwight walking toward Phil before starting on his discussion. As Phil continued taking pictures, Dwight at first turned his back, but then faced Phil and leaned in to about an inch from the lens, asking "You want a real close up?" Phil continued taking pictures, so Dwight then began an "interview." It seems his problem was that people were hassling him, throwing beer on him and his camera, and putting their hands on his lens to keep him from taping them. And, he said, he was the official videographer for Burning Man, not a news guy. All his tapes were on behalf of BM. Phil responded to him mildly, and he eventually wound down, but he did not make a good "press/media" impression on anybody during his temper tantrum.

We related this story to others who reported that he cursed people who asked him not to photograph them, told people that if they did not want to be filmed that they should not have come, and in general made people miserable. One person said a Dwight outburst was "definitely the most unpleasant thing ever to happen at burning man."

One person on the list related a story about a man carrying a small Burning Man doll, asking topless women to hold the doll between their breasts for a photograph. Many of us saw voyeuristic men in shorts and sports shoes, with a six pack of beer and a videocamera, walking through the camps videotaping. Even some of the police rode through camps in their marked cars with a man on the passenger side holding a video camera out of the window taping women. Sticking our necks out, we will attribute most but not all of the abusive behavior of this kind to yahoos, not the professional press.

Sticking our necks out again, we will offer a little advice to people who want to be photographers at Burning Man.

  1. Foreplay, foreplay, foreplay. If you want people to let you take their pictures, talk to them. Participants need to know you see them as people, not as grist for film clips for sweeps week. Let them get to know about you; be interested in them and their experience at Burning Man.
  2. Be a participant. If you are hidden behind your eyepiece, the real you will not be seen, only that looming camera promising to show a naked person to his or her family, teachers, ministers on national or world wide television and embarrass them forever in that recording that will last for all eternity. Be a participant -- talk to people before you film them, wear costumes, get your nipples pierced, paint your body, fit in as a BMer. Don't look like a stereotypical yahoo with a beer gut taping naked women to show during half time.
  3. Don't ask women to pose with your Burning Man doll between their breasts or the equivalent. Some women resent even being asked that. We know that will come as a surprise to some men, but it is true.
  4. If people ask you (or scream at you) not to photograph them, comply with their request. Most people really did not come to Burning Man to have their breasts or penises pixellated out on your local television news so you can get air time with cheap sensationalism. Give some consideration to the idea that nudity might be a statement against conventional concepts of attractiveness which have been imposed upon some members of our society by the "style police." Go back to item 1: If you see a naked person, find out if that person is making a statement. Perhaps you might be able to help in making that statement public in a helpful, nonprovocative way. And perhaps not.
  5. Burning Man is not for the news; it is not a media event. People pay dearly for the privilege of coming to Burning Man and participating. They bring all their own supplies, they come hundreds of miles, they put up with hostile conditions in a life- threatening environment. Some have done it for years before the media discovered BM in 1997. Burning Man is not a show. You cannot cover Burning Man in your 45 seconds of air time, not even in a half- hour. You with your camera, your mike boom, and your producer, you are an intruder. You are not a participant. The real participants have paid hundreds of dollars for tickets, food, travel, and camping supplies, have spent hundreds of hours preparing their theme camps, and they have not done it for the media. If you want a true picture of Burning Man, you must be a participant. You must be a part of it, not a reporter. Participants know that Burning Man is about the experience, that it cannot be reported without living it. If you don't participate, you cannot relate the event to others because you were not there.

As we have said, most of the media people we happened to run across were not obnoxious jerks, most of the beer drinkers with no shirts and video cameras were obnoxious jerks, and some of the so- called law enforcement people were, too. If the entire press corps stays home next year, we, for two, will not miss them. We know of some members who seem to have understood what Burning Man is about, and we would welcome them back as participants. But our opinion remains that you cannot be a reporter of Burning Man and be a participant of Burning Man at the same time. All observed events are changed by the observation. All events that people live through change the people.

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