Burning Man is trying to figure out how to respond to the revolution in digital photography.
Old timers will tell you that cameras weren’t much in evidence in the early years of the event. But now you can’t help but see cameras everywhere on the playa — from cellphones and point-and-shoots to expensive and sophisticated digital recording equipment that produces everything from stunningly artistic imagery to high-res but low-rent voyeuristic crap.
And the places that those pictures wind up is changing, too. Burning Man has always said it was fine to share your pictures among your friends and family. But what are friends and family these days, when you might have 1,000 “friends” on Facebook, or thousands of visitors to your Flickr or YouTube sites?
What happens to the privacy rights of, say, a schoolteacher who enjoys the freedom and empowerment of the Critical Tits bike ride? Should she have to worry when she gets back from the desert that her picture will be easy to find on the internet?
Last week, the organization gathered photographers, videographers, artists, event leaders, legal experts, technologists and just plain good thinkers to explore the ramifications of the digital revolution. Are Burning Man’s policies and procedures still up to the task of protecting privacy, preventing commercialization while still nurturing the creative image-making process?
The discussions were heartfelt, impassioned, informed and on the whole amazingly constructive.
Much more work remains to be done, and a team of people, including the communications department and legal team, are charged with turning the talk into action items.
Here is some of what was said, plus, if you’ll forgive the intrusion, a little of what I think:
It was pointed out numerous times that there is language for lawyers, and then there is language for the rest of us. If you read the fine print on your ticket to the event, or you read the terms of agreement on the Burning Man website, you’ll find very powerful legalese that accurately reflects the organization’s concerns on the subjects of photography, moving images, privacy and commercialization.
But behind it all is this: Burning man wants to protect people’s privacy, and it wants to protect itself from commercialization. That is what drives all the legalese. But it still bears repeating, in plain and simple language, as clearly and as often as possible: The community of Burning Man believes in the right to privacy.
There was a great deal of discussion about the appropriateness of protecting people’s privacy with the weapons of copyright enforcement. From a practical and legal standpoint, the copyright tool is effective, so there doesn’t seem to be much reason to stop using it.
But the problem is greater than a person’s image appearing on a tittie website. The issue is one of culture, of what kind of experience you will have at Burning Man. And the issue is respecting each other, including the desire to let what happens in the desert stay there.
If someone’s privacy is violated because their image appears on a tittie site, Burning Man has ample ability to get that photo or video removed.
But there is much less control over images that appear on social media. And all the discussion in the world about copyright infringement is not going to be helpful here. But there is a way to empower ALL the sides in this issue — the image makers, the people who ENJOY being photographed, and those who don’t.
It would seem that Burning Man must make it clear to all photographers (and this is going to sound harsh) that they do not have the RIGHT to take photographs at the event, but they do have the PRIVILEGE. And with that privilege comes responsibility.
Really, there are two kinds of people at Burning Man (and in the world): Those who like to have their picture taken, and those who don’t. And I believe that every image maker at Burning Man must accept the RESPONSIBILITY of figuring out which is which.
This is the culture of the event: There are people who like to make images, there are people who enjoy having images made of them and/or their art, and there are people who don’t. The Burning Man image-maker is expected to find out, and then respect, the difference.
Ok, so now you’re back from the event, and if you are a serious photographer, you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures. How should you be able to use them? Can you have a gallery show, or produce an art book? For years, Burning Man’s answer has been mostly yes. But what about an enterprising photographer or company that wants to post thousands of photos on a website and offer them for sale? Is that fair use? Are people’s rights being violated? Is the event being commercialized?
You can only buy two things at Burning Man: coffee and ice. I don’t think there is any desire to add pictures to that list.
So maybe Burning Man should allow books to be made (including those from self-publishing sites like Blurb), but maintain that it is a violation of the terms of agreement to set up a website that commercializes the images captured at Burning Man.
(People ask for copies of pictures that I have taken of them all the time. And I give them to them. I’ve never sold a single picture that someone has asked for. I consider it part of the gift culture to give them the image. If someone wants something other than a digital file, I might charge them what it costs me to make a print, but nothing more.)
But offering to sell images that no one has requested is, to my mind, different. But still, is this a service that the community would appreciate? Would it be good to be able to get great images from the desert without having to trash your own photographic equipment in the process? Maybe so.
I would love to see greater and deeper collaboration between artists and photographers. There are lots of creative things to be done. Burning Man IS a great place to take pictures. And making great images, be they literal or interpretive, is the kind of artistic endeavor that Burning Man seeks to promote.
I also would love to see the curation, appreciation and dissemination of Burning Man images a truly interactive activity in the Burning Man community. Again, I think there are many creative things that could be done. Looking at the Burning Man site, it’s evident that a herculean amount of work has already been done to review, sort and post images from the desert. I’d love to see the power of the community brought into the process as well.
And finally (for now anyway!), there was a proposal to make the Critical Tits ride a “camera-free” or “camera-optional” event. What if participants wore kerchiefs that indicated their preference? In other words, if I’m wearing a kerchief around my neck, it’s fine to take my picture. No kerchief? No picture.
Maybe that parade will be the testing lab for image-making policies for the whole event. I could see the kerchiefs catching on throughout the week.
I’m a photographer, so of course I’d hate to see the prevailing condition be that Burning Man is a camera-free event unless you are wearing a kerchief that says it’s ok to take my picture. (I mean, think of how they might clash with costumes!)
But the people will decide how they want it to be, and that’s the way it should be.