[Neil Girling, aka mr. Nightshade, is a photographer and blogger well-known for covering the San Francisco Bay Area underground. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]
Six weeks hence will again see me covered in dust, in the middle of a desert wasteland and my largest project of the year, that thing we call Burning Man. It will be the sixth year I bring out a glittering array of sparkling glass and battered camera bodies, trying to somehow make the unimaginable scale of the event fit within a small viewfinder, compressing the four dimensions of time and space (leaving out sound entirely) into a measly two, and somehow still try to convey just what it is like — near sensory overload — within a few photographs.
In 2008, I posted a few photos during the week from the tenuous WIFI connection to my website; last year, I took this up a notch and posted photos each night of the event from their respective day. With a generator running, a laptop atop the pickup and photos of the Man burning trickling up to the web at 3AM — scant hours after his immolation, and while his embers smoldered still — I hastily packed my remaining belongings to escape the mad rush of Exodus, and my photos beat me to the rest of world.
The reaction was huge, and the outpouring of thank-yous and appreciation overwhelming. They came from Burners and non-Burners alike: those who were unable to make it out to the desert due to financial, health, work, or familial situations; or those who had friends, family or significant others on the playa but had to themselves stay home. My nightly image postings allowed them to live vicariously and catch a glimpse into a world that they could not be in at that time. They drank them up.
I realized then that this was my art project. In years previous, I’d tried to work on other projects or infrastructure, and took for granted the picture-taking aspect of my trip; it was after these folk came forward to say how much being able to see images while the event unfolded meant to them that I realized this is why I go out there, to try to give a real-time “this is how it is” view of the Burn. Taking photographs is not just something that I do, it is what I do. My enjoyment of an event is intrinsically an inextricably linked to my taking photographs of it, and when I can’t, my enjoyment is substantially lessened.
Amongst 50,000 Burners, you’ll find 50,000 different ideas of “what is Burning Man,” and what ideals we have there and why we go. Some people are looking for freedom, and the idea of finding themselves on a website later is seriously restrictive to that, while others think that taking photographs interferes with one’s ability to enjoy the event and therefore hold in disdain or contempt us photographers. What they forget is that, for the “good ones” at least, we’re as much members of the community as they are.
We are not silent observers — voyeurs — sneaking through the event and surreptitiously taking photos that magically appear on the internet later; no, we interact with our subjects, striking up conversations and asking permission, getting drunk and partying with the rest of you fine folk because we are you folk, too. You tend bar, served grilled cheese, give out free hugs (creepy or otherwise), yell belligerently on a megaphone, run a radio station, ride a bike and look at art, build the city or clean it up afterward, guard the Temple, work with the medics or serve as a Ranger; I take pictures.
My photographs are my gift to the community. I license my images Creative Commons, freely granting non-commercial use, only asking that they not be modified without permission (my watermark is on them and I don’t want to take credit for someone else’s modifications) and requiring attribution. They end up on blogs, as peoples’ profile pictures, hosted as galleries on other peoples’ Facebook and Flickr accounts, sent to friends and families, used as fliers for parties or even integrated into other art projects, and it thrills me to see them enjoyed so widely.
I am, however, a stickler about the attribution requirement. Why is that? Isn’t a gift supposed to be in the giving, expecting nothing in return? The answer is important, and my reasoning is one built over years of photographs of people.
Taking photographs of people is an extremely personal action. I have the ability to make someone look good or bad, to potentially catch and bear witness to an illegal activity or to expose someone to friends and family (or worse, coworkers or constituents) back home where there might be serious professional or personal repercussions. Many people are thusly gun-shy around cameras. It’s a great responsibility to hold the power to potentially damage someone’s career, and I take this very seriously. People are rightfully so very hesitant when someone points a camera at them; as such, my reputation is of the utmost importance when it comes to photographing people.
There are a great many who do not ordinarily let themselves be photographed, but who will allow me to do so, being already familiar with my work and knowing I hold the greatest respect for my subjects and their privacy; this is a great honor, and one I do not take lightly. It is therefore very important that people I hope someday to photograph are familiar with my work ahead of time, and why attribution is then so very important. Failure to attribute a photograph–or any work of art–is a deprivation of social equity, and it directly impacts my ability to effectively shoot in the future.
Another aspect very important to the Burner community is that of decommodification; some take this to mean Burning Man is a commerce-free zone, but others rightfully point out the ice and coffee sales, and others the amount of money spent on preparing for and getting to the event. Photographs are one of the most ubiquitous pieces of media to leave the Burn, and commercial entities seek them: advertisers, gear and clothing retailers, and magazines and other publications seek images in addition to Burners themselves seeking images of a piece of art that defined the event to them or especially one that they helped build.
This presents me with a quandary: when it comes to prints, I can’t afford to simply give them away, for they’re expensive. And if someone else is making money from my images, it’s only fair (and enables me to make more images for you) to share those proceeds. I do not and have never ever supported pure commercial use, such as using a Burning Man image for advertising. That runs contrary to the principles of Burning Man, and I think it a betrayal of the trust the community places in me to use them in such a manner.
But what about a news editorial? Those companies make money from content: should we say that they can’t run a story on Burning Man because of that? No, because that’s ridiculous. But then why should I be obliged to give my work away for free to people profiting from it, either?
I allow anyone to use my work noncommercially, and am happy to lend my images to artists for fundraisers and the like at no cost (or, for prints, at cost). But if you’re going to profit from my images, I expect to share the proceeds with you, money that then goes right back to the community as I pay for new gear and cover the large expense of taking and providing images for the community. I’m no DJ or performance troupe, so it’s hard for me to throw a fundraiser for myself (also, how lame would that be? Woo!) so consider that to be a potential source of my budget (so far, know that everything I do out there is 100% out of my own pocket).
The issues surrounding digital rights are extremely complex, and there are no right answers: a right answer for me might impinge upon your rights, and vice-versa. And with a community as vocal and opinionated as Burning Man’s (and we love you for it), there’s no way to make everyone happy anyway. I have attempted to put forth my thoughts and feelings on the matter, and have, in my humble opinion, what I think to be a fair and respectful approach to this most confusing state of affairs, but certainly others will feel differently. I do absolutely appreciate constructive feedback from you, the community (and my potential photographic subjects!) as to ways I can best serve with my images, striking a balance between art/documentation and invasion of privacy/paparazzi, and commercial (editorial) use and decommodification.
If you see me on the playa, don’t hesitate to ask me to take your photo! Willing subjects make the best subjects. Or if you can’t make it this year, check my website or Flickr each night around 7am (yes, you heard me right) for my daily photo posts (announcements are made on my Twitter stream. Choose your poison.
[Neil Girling, aka Mr. Nightshade, is a photographer and blogger covering the San Francisco Bay Area underground. Larger than a breadbox and something of a chameleon, you may find him after dark at unusual haunts betwixt and between the unusual, making you ask yourself “Why wasn’t I there?” You can see his work on TheBlight.net.]