How your Camera, your Mind, and your Body Survive Burning Man Trey Ratcliff

Welcome to the Burning Man story!

Hi, I'm Trey Ratcliff. People have been asking me to write about Burning Man for years, an article advising how to protect your stuff in the harsh environment of Black Rock City. Well, this is it! If you don't know anything about me, here are a few helpful links.

Hello :)
Above is "Truth and Beauty" by Marco Cochrane

Okay, first things first. I’m not really an expert and you probably shouldn’t listen to anything I have to say. That goes for anyone, really, when you think about it. But, having said that, I've been to Burning Man seven years in a row and I’ve taken way more photos than drugs, which is also an ambiguous thing to say.

I get a lot of questions about Burning Man, and I’ll answer all of them here. Most people want to know “How do I protect my camera?” It’s a good question for sure, but there’s a lot of other ancillary questions you may not even be thinking about.

Two of the makers of Embrace (from The Pier Group) embrace in front of their art on opening night. The Embrace burned down just four days later.
Black Rock City Survival Tip #1: If it’s 6 AM and you find yourself by the port-o-potties, do not be tempted to put the anti-bacterial gel on your genitalia. It may seem like a good idea at the time, but it is, in fact, a terrible idea in execution.

So, let’s begin with a holistic approach to the survival of three things we all find rather important: our bodies, our minds, and our cameras. Yes, yes, we all know that Burning Man is a proxy to a Joseph-Campbell mythical quest as we hopefully re-enter our natural heroic state. The whole ordeal is one of being uncomfortable, which, counterintuitively, is the place your body, mind, and camera need to be for unlocking your creative self. There’s a reason that 60,000+ artists go out to the harsh desert every year rather than sitting in a cozy Starbucks.

A Holistic Mindset

In this holistic approach, try not to think of your camera as a “thing” that is separate from you. Go into it knowing your body, mind, and camera are going to be extremely uncomfortable and out of control from time to time. So, in many ways, the initial question of “How do I protect my camera?” has an inherent flaw in assuming that it is in fact possible to have no loss, to be without fear, to have control.

If you fully lay out the whole sentence, you can see a logical disconnect. The whole question being: “I want to go into the desert in an uncontrollable situation, but I want to make sure my camera is safe.” You see, it’s a bit of weird question to ask how to have comfort amidst discomfort. But you might also ask that of yourself. “I’m going into an uncontrollable situation, and I want to make sure my body & mind are safe.” Equally strange.

“When we are in control of everything and we have great panels of push buttons whereby the slightest touch fulfills every wish, what will we want then? We will eventually want to arrange to have a special, red button marked “surprise” built into the panel. Touch that button and what happens? We will suddenly disappear from our normal consciousness and find ourselves in a situation very much like the one we are now in, where we feel ourselves to be a little bit out of control, subject to surprises, and subject to the whims of an unpredictable universe.” - Alan Watts
Every night there are bloody fights in the Thunderdome. Get there early to spider into a good spot. This is built every year by the Death Guild.

I do actually have some practical advice for you and your camera, believe it or not. I won’t just analyze the nature of the question ad infinitum. In the holistic sense, I’m trying to prepare you to go into a wild situation where you should be more than ready to lose your body, your mind, and your camera. It’s not a scary thing. Don’t think of the idea of “loss” as a net negative, because what you get, as you relinquish control into the flow of the universe, belies the gains that are so numerous as to be unfathomable.

60,000 beautiful people in costume all week
Black Rock City Survival Tip #2: Have some kind of hot-food ritual. This can be in the morning when you wake up. Or you can do as I do. I take my sunset photos, wait for the darkness, then come back to my RV to prepare a hot meal. A true adventurer, which you are, never turns down a hot meal, as they know it sates and re-centers the body, mind, and soul. A warm-meal-ritual is something you can depend on every day when everything else is wiggly and unpredictable. After that hot meal, I'm ready to go out into the night and see what photography adventures await!
Every night is a spectacle of lights as you spiral into a parallel universe. Everyone is full of smiles and hugs. It's like an MMORPG, but it's all real.

Approach 1: Take an Older Camera

If you really want to approach photography at Burning Man with absolute fearlessness (which you DO), take an older camera that you've already written off. Older cameras are still amazing, and you know it. My camera from four years ago is 10x better than my one from six years ago. You don't need the absolute best camera at Burning Man. That's nonsense. You know that cameras that come out this year are MAYBE, even rounding up, 5% better than last year's cameras. We all trick ourselves or fall for marketing hype... but, honestly, cameras from a few years ago are more than good enough.

She has nice abs. She must work out.

Maybe you have an old camera laying around that you've thought about giving to your uncle to help his burgeoning cat photography business. Tough luck, Unco, I'll be using it at the Burn.

You can get in any art car, anytime and it will take you around the playa. Here's my favorite little gypsy car. It always shows up at the right time. How about that Moroccan lamp?

Maybe you gave your "backup" camera to your wife so she could take photos of the kids, but you and I both know she's not really using it. It's just sitting there on a desk with photos from the school play where you can't even figure out which ones are your kids. Sorry, wife-unit, I'll take this thing to the Burn and take photos of topless babes (actually, you should ask for permission, yo).

Truth is Beauty. By Marco Cochrane.

Maybe you have a point-and-shoot that you got during that cruise where you made so many bad food decisions in the buffet. Take it! Most of my best Burning Man photos are with a point-and-shoot.

The line to get in. I need to find a friend with a plane.

Maybe you have an old iPhone, you know the one from last year that is technically only 5% worse than the one you have now? Bring it, yo! Mobile phones are great. Don't let professional photographers tell you anything different. Anyone who tries to make you feel bad for one kind of a camera versus another is an asshole and a pretty good litmus test for who you should be hanging out with.

One time we dressed up my friend's skinny 10-year-old son as an alien to go freak out everyone that was on acid. Good times, my friend, good times.

Approach 2: Tape and Baggies

I've shot Burning Man with at least 10 different types of cameras. You can read more about MY actual plan in "Approach 3" below (Do What I Do). Anyway, when I am actually using a camera I care about, I do a few protective things.

Some of you know that I designed a camera bag along with the amazing team over at Peak Design in San Francisco. We did a Kickstarter and it went gangbusters! I'm really passionate about form and function. If I'm gonna have a gadget or goodie, I want it to be the pinnacle of awesomeness. These guys have made something else you gotta check out called the "Shell" (I was not involved with the design but I highly recommend it!). This little goodie will protect your camera from 90% of the elements. Plus, it looks cool. It's really for shooting in the rain, so you're covered in case there is one of those freak Black Rock rainstorms.

Barring that, you can go a more inexpensive route and use baggies and tape. Later in the article, I talk about changing lenses, which I do not recommend. BUT, I know some people have all these lenses and they want to change. Fine, I get it. BUT, if you can rock around Black Rock with just one lens, that is best. You can put electrical tape (or any tape, really, as long as it's strong and won't peel off in a few days like a disgusting toe band-aid) right around where the lens attaches to the body.

One day I came out of a massive sandstorm. I was totally lost and had no idea how to find my camp. The storm was so intense, I could not even see the front wheel of my bike. Emerging through the storm, I came across a formal Japanese tea ceremony. I sat down and was presented with a 10-minute experience. My green tea included both gold leaf and sake. (By the way, I never stage any of my photos... they are all 100% organic and irreversible, like my jacket.)
I asked her what she did in the Default World and she said, "Oh, I run an online dating service."
Black Rock City Survival Tip #3: The desert at Burning Man doesn't really have "sand" like a beach. That's what most people expect. But it's not like that. It's more of a white powder. Imagine using Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and squeezing the bottle over and over again on your camera. You kind of get the idea.
A sand-twister flirts with Pink Heart camp

Those little bits of alkaline can SOMEHOW (beyond my physics ken) get into your camera through where the lens attaches. Anyway, putting tape around where the lens attaches to the body will help out with this.

A more extreme protection is to use a clear plastic bag (like a Ziploc or anything). Put the "Opening" of the bag around your lens and tape it down like there's a Force 5 Hurricane coming. Because it will! I've been in sand storms (dust storms as I am often corrected) that last for hours. Sometimes, I can't even see my own feet.

Anyway, this is a pretty good solution, as the back part of the bag is clear, and you can still access all the buttons and stuff on the back of your camera. It's a little awkward to look through the viewfinder when there's a bag in the way, but it's not the end of the world. It also feels a little weird walking around carrying a camera in a bag, but you can get over that quickly. Don't take yourself so seriously, yo.

Black Rock City Survival Tip #4: There's a saying I never really understood until the last few years at Burning Man. Look, there's been people going for 20+ years. I'm just at 7 so I'm still a babe in the woods. However, here's the saying, "You don't get the Burning Man you expect, you get the Burning Man you need." Wow, it's so true. It's a big thing, you know, getting out there. The tickets are expensive, travel is a pain, prep is time-consuming. And, all the while, your brain can't stop thinking about what is gonna happen! Well, almost none of that stuff you expect happens. Completely different things surface themselves. But it's all part of this idea of relinquishing control and floating through the desert. Whatever happens is meant to happen, yes? Yes.
There's lots of people that climb stuff. I'm not one of those guys. I'm one of those guys that stays on the ground and takes photos of people climbing stuff.

Approach 3: Do What I Do

Okay, here we go. You read through all that nonsense just to see what I do, right? Well, like I said before, I'm learning as I go. But this is my approach... it works great.

Here's my simple approach. I use a point-and-shoot as much as possible in the daytime. The more dust storms, the more better. Bring it. I jump on my bike and ride right into the storm to see what emerges. I have no fear because it's just a point-and-shoot and there's almost no risk of it breaking.

IF, and only IF, the day is clear and there is no wind, I'll bring out my "nicer" cameras. I almost never change lenses and I have three different cameras for each situation. I have my Sony A7r Mark II with a fixed 35mm F/1.4 Leica lens. That has some nice blue tape on it to keep the alkaline dust from getting into the sensor. I have another Sony with a wide-angle lens for shots that demand that. Last, I have a Hasselblad with specialty lenses for larger works. That Hassy gets a baggy. It's a $35,000 camera so I try to minimize issues. Again, I only bring those things out when there is no inclement weather.

If you are gonna use a serious camera, try to affix as many prime lenses as possible. They have no moving parts and are less liable to get sand inside as they extend/retract.
On the night of the burn, everything gets amped up to 11. I get there early and sit on the front row a few hours early. I go with friends and bring a few bottles of wine along with cheese, crackers, and truffle sea salt. Hey look, why not be civilized? And have you tried black truffle sea salt? WHY NOT?

For night photography, if it is windy, I don't take any cameras at all. I just choose that time to partay. If it's not windy, I'll definitely bring out my three cameras along with a tripod for long exposure fun. Again, as long as there is no threat of a dust storm, you'll be fine using your best equipment. Try not to change lenses... I don't. Well, almost never. There is literally, even with no wind, a cloud of powder that goes a few meters up. You can't see it, but it's there.

Another world at night...
This is the Totem of Confessions, where Susan Sarandon brought and burned the ashes of Timothy Leary.

Approach 4: Go for it and clean your sensor later

If you don't mind cleaning your sensor or paying to have it cleaned, then go that direction. Personally, I don't clean my own sensor both because I am incompetent at that and I don't mind paying for it. One time I had my sensor cleaned at the Nikon Factory in Tokyo. It cost $10 and a Japanese Man meticulously cleaned my unit for an hour. It was a satori with a happy ending.

She has a plastic baggie around her camera. It doesn't make you look that cool, but don't worry about "looking cool" just be awesome with your plastic baggie, yo!

Do Not

Use a camera that has an automatic telescoping lens, like as the Sony RX100. I've lost a few cameras because of the tiny sand crystals that get inside those Japanese parts that so effortlessly slide this way and that. After a few days, I could no longer even "turn on" my camera because the lens could not telescope-erect itself. Anyway, use cameras that have as few "moving parts" as possible. Sand will get in there and gum everything up so they don't move so well anymore.

She breathes, and you can see her chest moving slowly...

Sidebar: Lenses

I know that photographers love having a bunch of lenses. In the normal world, changing lenses is not a big deal. At Burning Man, I'd avoid changing lenses as much as possible. I take an RV, and there's an ever-present cloud of dust even on the inside, even though I'm rather neat and fastidious.

My advice, again, is to take a few "old" bodies and attach your "other" lenses to those. Tape them up. Then you have a bunch of different cameras for different scenarios.

If you're taking photos, just flow with it. Don't be a jerk or don't try to hard. If the universe brings you an interesting moment, click it and be thankful.

My 3 Kinds of Photos at Burning Man

1) Quickie Tricky

These are often pictures I take while on my bike. It's good to be mobile, as there is so much to see. I use a point-and-shoot and go towards something interesting and "Spray and Pray" as they say. Look, I'm not proud... I'm just being honest. Most real photographers will tell you this is the mark of a hack. So be it, Jedi. To me, all the real magic is in post-processing anyway. P.S. You should mega-download my Lightroom Presets, yo!

2) People Photos

For these, I use my Sony/Leica or Hasselblad with a shallow DOF. I never change lenses on these and often prefer somewhere in the 35mm range.

3) "Scene" photos

These are often on a tripod with a wide-angle lens. I take my time and often plan for a few days around the light. I also put on strange music on my earphones and hope the universe helps make it happen. There's a lot to it, of course, figuring out where to be at sunset and sunrise (not that I see that many sunrises). It is fun to plan out a shot with the light and the composition and have it pay off.

The Billion Bunny March against Humanity. Thousands of people dress up as bunnies to protest humanity.
Desert Survival Tip 5: Get an Electric Bike. Year One I had no bike and was completely exhausted with the walking. Year Two I had a bike and got 5x further and faster. I saw more stuff and was more stimulated. Year Six I got an electric bike and I'll never go back. ELECTRIC BIKES changed everything for me... so mobile now! Sheer fatigue (which happens a lot there) can keep you from going out. If you have extra dough for an electric bike, make it happen!
The Church Trap

Final Words about the Mind and Body

Okay, I've been talking a lot about cameras and lenses and protecting them (and not) in various situations. Don't get too vexed about all that stuff. You're really there for you. And yes, you can explore yourself at Burning Man through photography and art, which I do recommend. But it's not all about taking photos.

It's about being in the right place at the right time and... OH, if you happen to have your camera with you, be with it all.

Hades crosses the river Styx as burners pull random ropes to create a strobing effect that animates the skeleton.

Hey look, who the hell am I to tell YOU why you go to Burning Man?

I'll just tell you why I go. I think everyone has their own personal reasons. At first glance, it might seem like I go just to take cool photos that people get excited about. That has nothing to do with it.

First, let me say this very strange thing. I don't know why I go, but I go.

But I do remember why I went in the first place. I had so many people tell me that I should really go to Burning Man. I was thinking, "Why the heck would I want to go there and hang out with a bunch of dirty hippies?!?" Quite judgmental, yes? Yes, I was. I'm not so much anymore. I'm kind of sad that I was once like that, but I'm not anymore, and I guess that's okay.

When I first got there seven years ago, I was confused and meandering around the white sands in the morning. People were dancing in the rising sun in front of fires. I was wondering, why are they dancing so early in the morning? And then I started thinking, "well, why not dance?"

A sunset bike ride by the temple...

I spent a few days there before I even took one picture, trying to get a sense of the place and the people. After 48 hours, I slipped into the same matrix and I got it. Now, every year, I go without exception. I'm still not sure why I go, but every year while in the flow, I promise myself I'll go the next year. It's very difficult to get there. The travel, the RV, the food, the expense, the TIME, but I do it anyway. It's not a self-important thing or anything like that. It's COMPLETELY selfish in a non-religious spiritual way and it's wonderful. But it's okay to be selfish, in which there is a universe-balancing virtue that escapes common mores.

And it's a place for experimentation with the body, mind, and camera. In the "Default World" (that's what we Burners call the world in which we are sitting now), there is a societal patina of judgment. This is acceptable. That is not acceptable. These sorts of things. And even though I'm an artist and I hang out with other creatives, I'm always acutely aware that I'm moving around a world where other muggles are constantly judging this or that. So I keep my guard up, a bit. I don't want to offend their worldviews, you know? But imagine being with 60,000 non-muggles for a week. You can creatively explore an artistic plane that is not allowed in the Default World.

I go there to be strangely and safely (that's the thing they don't tell you, the safety) aware of time and place and interconnectedness. There's this nice saying that fish cannot see the water in which they swim. What are we swimming in? I think we're swimming in a barely palpable consciousness and we can only see it through a lens of breaking down all the social fictions in which we normally live.

And, so, yes, I have my camera with me most of the time. When something of meaning and peace and truth happens, sometimes I am able to capture it. I suppose that is my raison d'être whilst there in the sands.

I'm an introverted guy. Many people there are extroverts and it's amazing. I like being around them because it's so beyond me. I sort of drift around the background, watching this and seeing that. I feel strangely comfortable around other extroverts who extrude their energy through gesticulation and voice. Maybe it's another version of me? Probably is. It's not at all unlike my daughters who are just artistic and beautiful and dance without hesitation. In some ways, Burning Man gives everyone the chance to get back to their natural child-like state.

Me and my two daughters. One wonders, one dances.

Flow State

Getting into the "flow state" is often a challenge, but it happens more efficiently in the powders of Burning Man than anywhere else. I'm not sure why. It's probably the open-minded natural state and the lack of judgment of strangers. I'm already quite independent in the real world, and, much to the lament of my friends/loved ones in the default world, I mostly ignore social convention. But, still, I'm aware of it, so it probably holds me back a bit and decreases my efficiency of entering a flow state.

Why the need or desire to enter this state? Not to be too blunt or Wikipedia, but the more time I spend in the flow-state, the more I can create and share what is beautiful and true and conscious. It also helps to bring others into that state, thus helping the flowering of all human consciousness. I say all of this without any "me" — most creatives know that when they are in the "flow state" that it's not really them at all. We're just channeling the water in which we swim.

I figure that MOST people that have read this far get what I'm talking about, or you get the edge of the shape of the truth of what I am saying.

Fin

I don't like this idea of a "conclusion." It's one of those essay rules that was created by an industrialized English literature construct. If you listen to any Alan Watts lectures (I put one at the bottom along with some of my aerial footage), you'll see they just dance around an idea or concept. One nice thing he says, by the way, that the purpose of a dance is not to end up at a certain location on the dance floor. The purpose of a song is not to get to the end.

So, in the end, move into Burning Man with this core idea. You can do a little bit to protect your body, your mind, and your camera, but don't worry about protecting it too much. Everything changes over time, yes? Your body, mind, and cameras will always change over time. Try not to think of your camera as a different thing than yourself. Be smart and savvy and gentle, of course, but use everything as an extension of your true self. For you are not your body, you are not the thoughts in your mind, and you are not your camera. You're the awareness behind all of it.

I'll see you there. :)

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