You and your damn cameras

The Federal Trade Commission just made it easier to get fired for being seen at Burning Man … by making it easier to be seen at Burning Man.

The FTC recently approved a company that conducts social media background checks for employers – and that stores the information they find in their databases for up to seven years.  It’s the difference between Human Resources Binging you just in case (I’m pretending people use Bing), and a professional private-eye being hired to go through your eLife … and keeping a file on what they find.

This is, of course, a warning to be even more cautious about putting naked pictures on your Facebook page and Tweeting about incest – but to leave it at that is to leave with the assumption that we can actually control our digital profiles.

If only.  I don’t even have a Facebook account, but I’m tagged in photos there.  If somebody takes your picture at Burning Man without you knowing it, and facial recognition software kicks in, it doesn’t matter how careful you’re been or how work-friendly your digital fingerprints are.

This isn’t a problem unique to Burning Man, but it’s a particular problem for an event like Burning Man that is explicitly not work friendly … and that people love to take pictures of.

Burning Man has policies in place to protect participants, and it takes them seriously – but it’s easier to keep some people from profiting off images of Burning Man than it is to keep others from being ruined by them.  The internet is a Pandora’s box filled with pictures of your genitals, and pictures download faster than the legal system runs.

The easiest way to protect yourself is to not do anything at Burning Man that might make a potential employer look at you sideways.  But where’s the fun it that?  Why go to Burning Man at all if you’re just doing what you’d do at home?  More importantly, who wants to go to an event where everyone is playing it safe?

There’s a paradox to the idea that a culture like Burning Man, so fixated on images and iconography, is facing a threat from the development of more images and iconography.  But it is.  The more people take part in outrageous and counter-cultural acts, the better Burning Man is;  the more people take pictures of those acts, the more danger the people involved are in;  the more danger they’re in, the less incentive they have to participate at all.

But then it’s also ironic that burners would be so fixated on creating permanent images of their time on the playa.  Everything about Burning Man, after all, is temporary:  the city is disappears, the Man burns down, the theme camps are shipped out almost as soon as they’re shipped in.  “Leave no trace” is, as much as anything, an ethos of impermanence – let it be as though we were never here.  Burning Man doesn’t sell souvenirs.  And yet we come to this temple of transience determined to take back something we can hold on to forever and share with our friends.

Ironic, but completely understandable:  very human.  And harmless … except when it isn’t.  Like artifacts in a museum, the flash of cameras at Burning Man can damage their subject.  (Unlike those artifacts, video is even worse.)

Why don't more people paint Burning Man?

So what do we do?  Personally, I think the “Leave No Trace” ethos should be extended to digital media.  A photo on Facebook is a trace.  But then again, I hate the 21st century.  As far as I’m concerned, everything after oil painting was a step in the wrong direction.  Fucking water colors.  Besides, I doubt anybody wants to do that.  So screw me.  Still:  the best way to protect each other from showing up on unwanted Google searches is to leave no digital trace.  If you can bear it, put the camera down.

If you can’t, at the very least let’s gift each other privacy.  Take pictures only of people who have given you express permission to photograph them.  If you’re taking pictures of crowd scenes, avoid faces as much as possible.   Remember that they might have to live with the consequences of your video more than you do.  The best way to not inadvertently take advantage of the privacy of others is to not take them for granted.

Amazing people are not a renewable resource:  it’s unreasonable to expect them to be quite so amazing if we’re pointing weapons at them.  Someties, that’s what cameras are.  Being conscious of that is a gift you can give back.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

20 Comments on “You and your damn cameras

  • lemur says:

    it is kind of hard to make sense of where this post is going.

    I wonder…


    Or, is it like suggested in this blog post…. “Take pictures only of people who have given you express permission to photograph them. If you’re taking pictures of crowd scenes, avoid faces as much as possible. ”

    It was mentioned in this blog post that Burning Man takes protecting privacy seriously. But, why then make suggestions and argue for points that basically say that this protection isn’t enough? Not enough because of some unknown bogeyman in the form of a online tool to do background checks?

    Why should we take your advice when everyone using a ticket agrees to the ‘terms and conditions’ ( ) where it says this:

    “Cameras are welcomed at Burning Man”

    “Burning Man does continue to support the presence of the press, and to encourage the free expression of news reporters, storytellers, small groups documenting special projects, cultural or fine art photographers, and creative authors/researchers or academics looking at Burning Man from an anthropological perspective.”

    I dont know about others, but “avoid faces as much as possible” doesn’t sound very much like ‘encourage the free expression of…. cultural or fine art photography’ in fact, this post seems to be discouraging it on nearly every point.. even the title seems to go against the well crafted line “Cameras are welcomed at Burning Man”

    maybe a few disclaimers and links to relevant text about this issue would help clear up the divide between what we agree to when deciding to use out ticket to go to the event and your personal wishes and desires for proper playa behavior.

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  • these discussion have so much fear at the center. does this really happen SO MUCH that people need to be overly concerned about it? has anyone heard of someone being fired because of a BM picture? really?! if so, i really feel bad for people that choose careers where personal life and professional life aren’t separated. perhaps those are the kind of folks that need to let their hair down and let loose the most?

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  • The most difficult thing with photography — especially the photojournalism where my thought processes lays — is what NOT to photograph.

    I conciously avoid certain things in photos, being careful to always keep in mind the question “what is the story, what is the message, what impact will the pictures have?”

    Also, I post what I shoot on Flickr and other places. I don’t have photos of naked women or anything like that. I don’t bother with pictures I can’t use, to be honest. I found over the years that if I pay attention in certain situations people give subtle hints wether they want to be in a photo or not. I noticed with “professional” photographers sometimes they don’t get it and get in people’s faces.

    The pictures people want to give are much better than one snuck with a 300mm lens from far away, or snuck from a small camera hidden under a shirt or something.

    I’m not bringing digital gear with me (except for an iPod touch. Oh yea, I don’t own a cell phone either) and I’m not hiding my cameras away to try to sneak around. I’ll most likely use a big, clunky film SLR with a big, professional wide lens. It’s obvious since the camera is the size of my head and conveys “hey, I’m gonna take a photo, are you down with that?”

    The rules change in public places where, in this country, there is no explicit or implicit right to privacy in public places, especially if someone is making a spectacle of themselves or if an event is news-worthy. The rules can be hazy and really don’t apply here. Burning Man is a private event held on public property. Buying a ticket implies you’ll follow the rules, which aren’t all that crazy.

    I’ll have my trusty Soviet rangefinder, a ripcord-powered 360 panoramic camera, a Swiss cardboard pinhole and maybe a plastic wide-angle lens camera in addition to the SLR.

    Working with film (I like digital, but it’s like “work.” Besides, I still prefer film and film cameras. Oils are way better than water color also) it forces me to slow down and think about what I’m doing. With digital, it’s trivial to shoot pictures and load them into Aperture. With film, I still load pictures into Aperture, but after I develop and scan the frames I want. It forces me to slow down and think about what’s really important, what tells the story.

    I try to avoid cliches, like the plague! How many photos can one find of naked chicks at Burning Man? Really. There is more to it. I haven’t been there yet and I know damn well there are 1000 stories to tell without posting photos of people doing something that should stay in Vegas or the playa. Maybe that guy who built the thing from parts found in junk yard, or the girl who disassembled her car on the playa (using a tarp under the car, of course). A couple from San Antonio are having their 10 year anniversary on the playa, and they’re virgin burners. If you want to find something cool to shoot, look to your camp mates or neighbors.

    Some people love the attention, love being photographed while other do not. “But it’s Burning Man, dude,” isn’t an excuse.

    I work in public affairs as an Air Force reservist and have to tell people it’s ok — even recommended — to post on Twitter, Google +, Flickr or wherever what they’re doing. It’s good for people to see what’s going on and it keeps some kid’s grandmother from worrying. However, I tell them not to be stupid about it. Don’t post exact numbers of troops or when planes land. Avoid the restricted stuff and don’t post photos of people marshaling aircraft in their underwear (yes, it happened and was hilarious).

    The principles are the same here: think and communicate. Really, do you need to post another photo of a hot, naked chick? Really? Is that the only thing you saw at Burning Man? (Oh, and no, you can’t claim full copyright of your photos, especially in a watermark, not on the playa anyway).

    That’s my opinion based on being a photojournalist and a photo editor. Think about it. If you feel like you need to set up a tripod and use your 300 f2.8 to get a photo of someone from far enough away they don’t see you, maybe taking the photo is a bad idea.

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  • Michael Doss says:

    If you don’t have a FB account or other online profiles, of course someone’s tag of you naked at Burning Man is gonna show up on Google. If you own your name out there and make sure your stuff comes up before anyone else’s, you retain some control. Hiding from the problem doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it worse.

    Cameras aren’t going anywhere, but while facial (or other body part) recognition may be an issue someday, it’s nothing you need to worry about, because it really isn’t very good, and no one’s doing it to every photo in the world just to get you fired.

    And no matter what BRC LLC says about copyright, you don’t give up ANY of your rights just because your ticket says so – copyright is yours no matter what.

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  • John Curley says:

    I think Burning Man brings together the single greatest concentration of mindful photographers on the planet. To be told to put down our “damn cameras” is both discouraging and disrespectful.

    Most photographers on the playa have been doing the right thing with their pictures for a quite some time. Yes, there are assholes with long lenses who take pictures of people they don’t know. But they are the exception, and they are rightly condemned.

    Not every photographer is villainous exploiter, mindlessly posting pictures of naked grammar school teachers (or whatever). It didn’t take a company’s new technology to make us think about the consequences of our actions.

    And as for the temporal nature of the event, and letting it end in the desert, then fine — let’s never talk or write about what happened there, either. After all, there are just as many misconceptions about the event propagated by guys who go there just for the naked chicks.

    So put down your damn pen, Mr. Caveat!


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  • Dancing Mandy says:

    What’s with all these paranoid and downer blog posts? Where’s pictures of the playa being set up! Where’s the excitement???

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  • I was at a neighborhood meeting where a local business owner talked about how he uses the Internet to screen new employees. I tire so of hearing “why did they get tattoos on their face? they’ll never get a job!” Of course the speaker is never so prejudiced: it’s just “society” that they parrot back like fact. So this business owner talked about warning people to not hang out with “the wrong crowd”, and other thinly-veiled prejudices.

    I was angry about the “don’t do things that I may find offensive”, and I understand the “I need to do what master says or I will never get a job”.

    So, rather than a negative “don’t”, I thought, why not a “do?”:

    “Do the best you can.”

    If someone takes a picture of it, or throws it out of context, or some prejudiced employer decides an article / a photo / a video tells a whole story, then it’s their defect. You did what was the best thing to do.

    What if instead of being “infected with criminality” from “the bad crowd”, you are instead acting as a role model? And Burning Man: what’s wrong with Burning Man? If you’re not hurting someone else, then you are doing the right thing — the best thing.

    That’s the standard we should be cramming down the throats of the fuddie-duddies.

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  • I don’t think you characterized the profiling company correctly. First, Social Intelligence Corp. generates a report that indicates specific worrisome behavior that a company can legally use for hire selection. It does not include any direct quotes or images from the media that it data mines.

    So if you have pictures of yourself engaging in illegal behavior (which BRC LLC actually prohibits photographers from posting anyway), then that behavior would go in your report. If you are holding a vodka bottle or wearing a tu-tu, not in the report.

    In fact, Gizmodo actually ran this check on their writers to write about what came up:

    So unless you are actually doing things at Burning Man that *actually* make you a hiring risk, it makes no difference if photos of you are captured.

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  • I do love Burning Man’s official attitude toward camera use which makes a difficult balance between photographer, subject, commodification and radical expression.

    But creating an environment that is a refuge from photography and videography is fighting against the tide of the rest of society. That’s good. Burning Man also struggles to create an environment that is free of commercialism, intolerance, dependence on others and the shutting down of new voices. And the cultural attitude toward image capturing is shifting further toward photographer’s rights over subject’s rights. Which is a big source of complaint for some (such as Caveat; strange that this message is coming from the Media Mecca team).

    It is wonderful that we can create a space when new rules can be tried out, such as “ask first then shoot”. But is it fair to have Burning Man be the advocate for one side when they are also be the arbitrator for both sides?

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  • Andrew MacLachlan says:

    I actually doubt you can be tagged in the true sense on FaceBook if you don’t have an account, tagging means having the means to connect ‘your account’ to an image. You can be named as being in an image yes, one just types that in. Also I am very sure the ability to tag a name only happens when you are in that persons friend list. But maybe someone can prove me wrong.

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  • Andrew MacLachlan says:

    I stand corrected, I just tagged your name to one of my photos (already deleted).

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  • Michele says:

    Unfortunately these issues have been around longer than facial recognition. since search engines have been around so have the snoops and nosy people looking to cause trouble. I nearly lost a job and had to drop a My space profile YEARS ago for a stupid reposted quiz some patient that I hadn’t even seen YET found offensive and reported to my employer.
    They made mey make my profile “private”.

    If you are afraid to live and be seen or take risks don’t leave the house. Don’t get on the internet, and unfortunately don’t put yourself in the situation where you can be photographed. But isn’t that what what Burning Man is supposed to be all about? Freeing ourselves from ourselves and taking a bit of that mindset away? So I am frequently told.

    This is my first burn and I already informed my boss in no uncertain terms where i’m going. Anyone who is stupid enough to Fire me for me being the naked chick on the playa doesn’t deserve me as an employee. F-em!

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  • John Glueck says:

    I know that my statement is going to be far to over simplistic, and not the “easy” answer for many. However, it is how I feel: Bottom line, if a company will not hire me because I am a Burner, they just qualified themselves. Personally, I would rather not work for them. Easy as that…..

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  • alaska glacier says:

    I will have to say that “may I take your picture today because (you look beautiful, you are a lovely couple, I dig your clothing or lack thereof, it is a wonderful day etc etc…)” works like magic. A friendly asking for permission works wonders and rare is the decline of the offer to photograph a fellow burner. Respect one another and it is amazing what can happen. As for the people afraid of a potential employer finding out, tell em up front and there is no suprise post burn (or post employment)!! Working in the health care field and the US Military (both career) I find it easier to tell em right away than explain it later… Bottom line, ask permission to photograph and be prepared for a polite no. More often than not it will be an enthusiastic “Hell Yes!!”

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  • I have personally been to many festivals with my 7D and always tried to avoid taking people pictures.

    Its a common sense and moral decency which needs to be part of every individuals ethics.

    Its a shame that such photographers exist.

    Also i need to ask Burning Man :- I release/upload my Photos under CC-No Reproduction/Non Commercial license, i do photography for fun. Is there a reason i should choose a different license for burning man pictures?

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  • Playaleen says:

    Fear not the “image recognition” or the possibility of a potential or current employer feeling threatened by your apparent ability to express your authenticity. LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE. Assume that you are exactly as you should be and no amount of paranoia, poo-pooing or disapproval of any of the ways you choose to be you deter you from a life lived to the hilt. Trust in the principles not only of Burning Man but of your truest self. Please take my picture!! I am proud to be a burner and anyone who cares to disallow my involvement in their world as a result of their own bigotry, may they too some day find their place in the sun. BURN ON!

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  • tommy says:

    …say “Cheese” motherfuckers…!

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  • darcitananda says:

    I am so thankful to see all of these responses that echo my own sentiments. Fuck the Man, the FTC, Facebook, etc.. BE YOURSELF always, not just one week a year.

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  • Jake says:

    Isn’t there a pictures page on the Burning Man website? I popped up on there a few years ago, and thought it was kinda cool. I even showed some of my co-workers. When I go to new jobs, I tell them I’m going to Burning Man and that week off is non-negotiable.

    There’s far more cameras watching your every move in your neighborhood. Set a good example and do what you love.

    Oh, and ask people if you can take their picture at Burning Man…

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  • epiphanystarlight says:

    I would prefer a choice in being photographed. I think it’s common courtesy. There are many ways to enjoy BRC, and still respect each other. This is a legitimate discussion.

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