The Burning Man experience
Black Rock Desert of Nevada
By Jim Urquhart
I’ve been here three times and I still don’t know where I have been.
I don’t mean to sound whimsical but I still don’t know how to truly describe Burning Man. What began three years ago as idle conversation with some editors has brought me to the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for a week for the third time in the heat of the summer.
The two previous years I have spent my whole time on the desert floor working and creating photos for Reuters.
In both years I heard from a small number of burners that they felt I could never do Burning Man justice because I was working. That statement has lingered with me a bit.
Photojournalists are granted front row seats to some of the most cherished events in the world. But much of our experience is framed through the viewfinder due to the responsibilities of being an objective observer and the pressures of working on constant deadline to deliver the best photo reports possible. We rarely get to feel the joy or despair of being a participant.
I found this out a few years ago first hand after I resigned my position at a daily newspaper. Later that week my wife took me to a soccer game and I was able for the first time in my life to be a fan, drink beer, shout obscenities at the referees, opposing players and apparently I took my shirt off and danced around.
So, knowing there is a life outside of shooting other people’s experiences, I decided this year that if I was going to be at Burning Man again I was actually going to try to immerse myself in Burning Man.
As I write this I am sitting in camp with several of my burner and photographer friends. We are all exhausted and are basically a puddle of humanity. We have been here a week and are now waiting for our chance to get off the desert floor. But what is really amazing is that we have spent many hours packed in tight over the last week in the heat, dust and general fatigue and not one of us tried to kill another. We have all come together from different experiences and have made our own temporary community within a larger transient one.
A photojournalist friend of mine traveled from the east coast to come with me into the desert. Brittany Hannah made it a real point to get me into the burn before I had to produce images for work. In the several days I was here before I began working I got dressed up in various costume-type clothing, walked the temporary city streets by myself and with friends, rode my bike aimlessly and even ended up in the deepest, darkest Playa by myself at one point on a moonless night. I participated in other’s art projects, watched performers and artists without shooting a frame unless I really wanted it for myself. Right out of the gate I was able to watch as Brittany spun and danced with real fire for the first time in her experience with poi spinning. I found myself in a sound camp dancing surrounded by hundreds of men and women I would never know. I ate food and drank the beers that were offered to me as I traveled. I received hugs freely and I found it easy to embrace total strangers. I was also joined in my camp by two other photographers from the west coast and together we chatted about the politics of Burning Man and discussed the art of images. We all worked hard, offering our individual expertise and muscle to keep our systems operating. Our camp became an oasis for ourselves and to the visitors that ebbed and flowed in and out of it.
We joked and played – we really had no choice. Burning Man is set in an absolutely uncomfortable environment. The high desert of western Nevada is absolutely miserable. It’s hot, it’s dusty and the fine alkaline powder that makes up the ground gets in your eyes, your lungs, your food, and sucks the moisture right out of your skin.
But we made the best go of it possible. I brought out my trailer, over 100 gallons of water and a generator to power the air conditioning, recharge my camera batteries and run the satellite uplink to transmit my photos out and the materials for us to have showers with about two gallons of waters every couple days. I think we all pretty much gave up on showering a couple days ago.
Despite all the comforts we all brought, it is still a harsh existence but we are in this camp together surrounded by nearly 70,000 other people that chose to spend their money and time to be out here. So, although I can say I have not only covered Burning Man I have now actually gone to Burning Man. By actually attending I am at an even bigger loss for words to describe the experience.
In the past I struggled to describe what Burning Man was, rather I talked about what I shot photos of. Now, having thrown myself into it, I am even more confused.
In the past week I have participated in so much more than I expected but I barely dipped my toes into the pool of collective and individual experiences that are here. I am looking forward to getting back to my home outside of the Playa and to be back with my loved ones, have a proper meal and a very long shower. But at the same time I wish my time here was not coming to an end. I really explored and played for once and I want more of it.