Surviving the Burning Man experience
“My body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park” – random quote.
Covered from head to toe in a fine alkaline talc while wearing a woman’s blouse, standing next to a completely naked middle-aged sun-baked man it hit me; Burning Man is not a story you cover, rather it is a visually mind blowing experience you endure.
I just barely survived and will be paying the price for a long time to come, but I relish the scars. I lost over eight pounds, got one long stretch of two hours of sleep and have fallen asleep three times trying to write this blog entry so far and all I have been able to do is write a sophomoric lead sentence; Burning Man still owns me.
I was assigned to cover this year’s 25th anniversary Burning Man festival with reporter Zelie Pollon. Luckily she had been several times before and tried to prepare me as much as possible beforehand. However, no level of preparation could have saved me from the almost debilitating mind-melting experience of being confronted by the amount of art and over 50,000 people living on the desert floor in a self-made community that never sleeps and thrives on free expression, sharing and gifting.
As a journalist you have to try to fit in. You are not a participant, but you need to feel and look like you belong there in order to survive. That was a tough challenge for a first timer like me; made even tougher by the fact I stood out by carrying professional cameras when many people had opted not to. As it turned out the cameras were my shackles in this environment, but it was up to me to figure out how to quickly fit in with a community that lived with little barriers and almost any behavior could be deemed socially acceptable.
You don’t know where these people are going or where they have been, but you follow and run with them into the desert in order to experience something that has so many different meanings to each individual.
But what did it mean to me? Minutes into the first day of coverage, showing up after driving all night long, I was smacked in the face. All my well thought out preparations meant nothing. We brought hundreds of dollars of food we were not going to have time to take breaks to eat. (You can not buy anything other than coffee or ice in the desert. You need to be completely self-sufficient and also watch out for those around you.) The bearings, cranks and in general my two nice mountain bikes I brought out would be forever ruined by the end of the first day.
It became obvious I was going to sacrifice at least one camera to the dust and I tried to limit it to just one of the three I brought out. But what do you do? I was being mugged by the talc, the heat and the idea I needed to drop many of my conventions of journalism to do this assignment justice. I let go and embraced the idea my cameras and lenses were going to be ruined. I was not going to have time to eat or sleep, there was no way I could consume enough water to stay healthy. I was throwing myself into this and dropping all my ideas of what is socially acceptable behavior. I was consuming the art and expression taking place around me. As my health faded more and more my heart pounded stronger and I became more aware of the conclave of living without restriction happening around me.
But mine seemed to be a quite different experience from those participating in many ways. Yes, there is a collective discomfort that bonds everyone. No one cares that no one else has showered in a week, or if someone is naked or doing drugs, you just roll with it. But I had to work. I had to find compelling images. I had to cover many miles on my bike on dusty roads lugging cameras. I had to problem solve to get photos transmitted to the world outside of this experience. I had to let go and experience and witness what was taking place in front of me and also be the objective observer for the world outside.
I was fading and fading quickly. With that I would jump onto my bike and go in search of images. We would work all day long finding images and interviews. We would drink and talk about taking the time for making a meal that would never happen, file images and text and head back out. Maybe finding time to sleep for an hour as the sun came up the next morning.
This is the life of the professional photojournalist covering one of the largest festivals in the world in one of the most challenging environments around. No phones, no cars; just me, my gear and my ever growing thirst.
But as the last art was burned in the intense flames on the last night and I could feel my skin melting in the cool of the desert night, I knew I had made it.
I made the images that needed to be made. I made the pictures I wanted to make. As I filed my last batch of images with trembling hands due to hunger and exhaustion, there was a moment there under the stars with dust in my teeth and eyes that I didn’t want to return to the world I had come from. But I also knew, if I stayed longer I would lose my stamina and not have a choice to return on my own.