Burning Man is a magical place. For those of you fortunate enough to be able to take 10 days off from work and spend enough money to send (at least) a dozen Ghanaian children to primary school for a year, I encourage you to go.
I strongly discourage you from ever, for any reason, contacting and/or registering yourself with Media Mecca, Burning Man’s media/PR agency in the desert. Like North Korea’s unbiased experts, they attempt to control every image and written story that comes off of the playa—seriously.
Building a temporary city for 68,000 burners from around the world is a feat worth acknowledging. Larry Harvey (Burning Man’s co-founder and executive director) and his entire team (hundreds of which are volunteers) did a wonderful job of building infrastructure where there is none: roads, emergency medical services, rule of law (not only a moral code of conduct that is by and large respected, but also an army of federal agents and local police), regularly serviced port-a-potties, a radio station, a coffee shop (with at least 10 espresso machines!) and a fully functioning airport! IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT! It is amazing.
This was my first "burn," and while I am sure this year’s was not like last year’s, nor will it be like next year’s, I do think the Burning Man institution has been able to largely preserve the feeling and impetus behind the gathering. Assuming you bring at least a gallon and a half of potable water per day you will be on the playa, a headlamp so you are not run over at night, and at least one costume (EVERYONE has a costume), Black Rock City is a safe space.
You can roller skate topless, ride mustaches, paint your fingernails, dance inside of sharks, watch/do suspensions (imagine a 180-pound man hanging, 20 feet above the ground, from two meat hooks going through his nipples), accept candy from strangers dressed in bunny suits sitting on the ground in the middle of the street, play fire ski-ball, join a 9 a.m. dance party in your underwear, do yoga, attend a small business workshop, learn to twerk, give hugs (or blow jobs), receive advice (or blow jobs), build castles (in the dust…not sand), jump on trampolines, re-birth (literally through a birth canal made of rope suspended in the air), be a Barbie, read books, drink kava, not shower for a week, pee in bottles (that have to be emptied into the port-a-potties), kiss (consenting adult) men, kiss (consenting adult) women, wear wings and pretend to be a fairy, dance, dance, and dance some more. These are a few of the things that make Burning Man magical and like no other place on Earth.
SEX AND DRUGS, on the other hand, are two things you can do most anywhere in the world, including Burning Man, but these two things are what Burning Man does not want anyone from the media to talk about, take photos of, and/or mention in any way.
In order to gain entrance to Burning Man as a photographer with access to the media facilities there—which is the only way to reliably gain internet access from the playa—Black Rock City LLC (the for-profit corporation that administers the event and holds the trademark) requires photojournalists to sign a 2,807-word "still photo agreement." Among other things, this contract provides that a) photographers must "within 90 days from the end of the Event, provide a copy of any raw footage, including without limitation all footage, if any, of interviews with Larry Harvey" to Black Rock City; b) that no footage or photographs may be published without prior review and consent from Black Rock City, and c) that any published images will "contain no images or sound of nudity, sexual activity, the use of drugs or any act that might be considered in violation of criminal laws." The contract makes reference only to visual and audio content.
After I returned from Burning Man, I submitted the first batch of the 760 photographs that I would eventually send to Lee Anna Mariglia, a "communications specialist" for the event. On September 4, 2013, she acknowledged receipt by email:
Great pictures, Victor. Thank you for sending them. Will these images be accompanied by text?
I responded that yes, there would in all likelihood be text. She replied:
Wonderful. I look forward to reading it when it's ready. Please send it along so that I can include it in the archives.
Since this could be interpreted as a request to send her a link to the published story after it went online, I thought nothing of it. After I had submitted the full cache of photos for review, as the contract required me to do, Lee Ann replied:
Thank you for your patience. The road home was longer than expected, but I'm back in the saddle.
With few exceptions, your images are good. It looks like you had an awesome time. Terrific!
You will have our permission to publish these works on Gawker once I've had an opportunity to fact check the article which will accompany them. As you know, Burning Man requires its participants to bring everything they need to survive and thrive in a very harsh environment. We want to make sure individuals are properly informed.
I have attached a zipped folder with those images not approved. The contract you signed specifically limits nudity and any reference to illegal activities as all state and federal laws are in full affect at Burning Man. The images you are not approved to publish are rejected based on these grounds.
I look forward to hearing from you, Victor, and closing the loop on this process.
Thank you again!
The contract I signed on Gawker's behalf made no reference to "fact-checking." It did not in any way contemplate review of any text, at all. It specifically applied to photographs, video, and audio. But the agreement is structured in such a way that Black Rock City can, for any reason, deny photographers the right to publish their photos. They could have demanded $200,000. Or insist that we publish their own happy photos.
I understand the importance of keeping Burning Man a "safe space" so that people can play and explore without worrying about showing up on Gawker's front page, but to reject an image of graffiti on the inside wall of a port-a-potty that reads “DROP ACID NOT BOMBS"—which is one of the photos that Lee Anna sidelined—is ridiculous. Facebook can be as far reaching as Gawker, and Instagram can make you Instafamous—Burning Man is in an uphill battle they are destined to lose. And the idea of actively censoring images and journalism about the event is directly at odds with Burning Man's self-professed mythology of creativity and freedom without rules.
As such, we have decided to publish some of the "approved" photos, but not to submit the accompanying text, which you are reading right now, for review. Our agreement with Black Rock City does not cover photos submitted to Gawker or Dodge&Burn from other parties, so you can go here to view some images of drug use and nudity at Burning Man. And if you have any similar photos of your own, please do send them along.
Drum Roll Please: SEX AT BURNING MAN
• Feel free to have it with as many consenting adults as you would like. There are some camps (independent of Burning Man and Black Rock City LLC, ) that build environments and host events that facilitate sexual encounters. For example: Comfort and Joy’s Annual Circle Jerk, Suspended Animation’s bondage for sex seminar, the annual naked bike ride, And Then There Is Only Love’s air conditioned orgy dome, Porn and Donuts’ daily dose of porn and fresh donuts, and all of the scary things that I imagine happen in Camp Beaverton for Wayward Girls. Here is a list of some of the bigger sex positive camps on the playa this past year. Shhhhh don't tell Burning Man I told you.
• In theory you could have sex anywhere, but in reality most people keep it to tents (that may have one or 15 people in them), the middle of the dessert, in a dark corner or behind or inside of an art installation. I never saw an explicit act happen in a place that made me or anyone else around me feel uncomfortable.
• Comfort and Joy’s public tent is one of the best places on the playa. It is wonderful to know you are welcomed to escape from the sun, enjoy a glass of water, or rest your fanny while you get a blow job (or more) from your newest consenting adult friend.
Drum Roll Please: DRUGS AT BURNING MAN
• People do them. Not everyone does, but those that do, do all kinds, at all times of the night and day, and in varying amounts, all over the playa. Some burners are better at doing drugs than others, but everyone has to be keep their shit together in public if they do not want to get arrested or be taken to the medic tent. Drugs or their use is not condoned or tolerated by Burning Man, Black Rock City LLC, local or federal authorities, but people do them and everyone knows it—just like any city in America with 68,000 residents.
• I saw: cigarettes, booze, a couple of joints, MDMA, and an alcohol-based marijuana tonic. Every place I was gifted a drink, I was carded. The only place I was gifted a pill was in private, and I learned that when your food supply starts to get low, you have two great options: 1) walk around the playa with an empty container and someone will give you food; 2) more drugs in order to suppress your appetite.
• I have seen more people tweaked out on coke in the breakroom at Goldman Sachs than I did on the playa. While I am sure they happened, I did not see one bike accident. My bike was stolen/lost/mistaken for another’s on the penultimate day of the gathering, and I left my computer and cameras unattended in my tent for hours on end without incident.
So, that is it ladies and gents, I have just told you exactly what Burning Man does not want me to tell you. PEOPLE DO DRUGS. DRUGS ARE ILLEGAL. PEOPLE HAVE SEX. CONSENTING SEX AMONG ADULTS IS LEGAL. Big freaking deal. Now, will you PLEASE let me post the picture of the graffiti?