Photos, You and the Temple

Image by Terje Sollie

         Temple Guardians often navigate the cross-currents where individual freedoms clash with individual privacy – never more so than dealing with photographers inside the Temple.  As Guardians, we know that Burners love to take home images from Black Rock City, but we also recognize that people experiencing the emotional highs and lows of a Temple visit have an absolute right to their privacy.  So, when a Guardian sees that privacy being assailed by a photographer, knowing that the images being captured could end up splashed across the Internet, we give the benefit of the doubt to the individual who may be grieving the loss of a loved one or embracing a new-found understanding about a relationship.

         For Burners who seek creative freedom above all else, such an interruption by a Temple Guardian may seem not only rude but also the antithesis of why they come to the Burn.  But Guardians have a duty to hold the space of the Temple as a sanctuary for people to experience whatever they need during their visit. We are trained to err on the side of providing freedom from interference for all who enter the sacred space.

         Consent is the cornerstone of the right to take pictures of individuals at Burning Man.  Such consent is usually given automatically by friends, family, and camp-mates at the Burn; but not by those experiencing private moments at the Temple.  Not only will we ask Burners to stop taking pictures of individuals who have not given their consent, but we will also prevent photographers from walking up to someone deep inside their grief to ask for such consent. 

         The job of monitoring photography within the Temple has become much more complex with the advent of smart-phones.  Now almost everyone carries a camera with them, thus increasing the number of pictures being taken at BRC and the unseen cameras entering the Temple.  So, we’ve put together some “rules of the road” for photographers in the Temple.

OK to Shoot:

  • The structure itself – both outside and inside
  • People in the Temple who have given their consent to be photographed
  • Wide shots of unidentifiable people around the Temple

Not Okay to Shoot:

  • Individuals who are grieving for or celebrating a life or experiencing an outward emotional reaction (unless they have given specific permission)
  • Private memorials (again, unless permission has been given) – especially when the memorial features names and images
  • Anyone who asks not to have their picture taken
  • Photos taken for commercial intent (e.g., fashion shoots inside the Temple)

In recent years, Guardians have experienced numerous attempts to use the Temple for fashion photo shoots or other commercial purposes.  In some cases, the people involved try to conceal the activity, so we have to be especially observant for hidden camera shoots and other subterfuges.  A commercial photo shoot must be stopped in its tracks because it is the antithesis of the Temple’s purpose. Don’t hesitate to call in a Voice to help if you spot such a situation.  One clue to watch for: people who look like models and who are fashionably attired parading through the Temple. Someone may be stealthily taking pictures that will show up on Instagram or on a company’s website.  It is not only wrong to use the sacred space for such commercial purposes, but it may also destroy the peace and harmony that we seek to protect.

Most professional photographers and journalists attending Burning Man register themselves and their cameras with Media Mecca and are supposed to have numbered tags on their equipment.  They’ve also been briefed on the “rules of the road” for photography in Black Rock City and signed written agreements to follow these guidelines. This registration in no way gives them priority access to the Temple or license to interfere in participant’s experiences for the sake of their shot. If a registered camera is involved in an intrusive incident at the Temple, take down the number on the tag and notify your Voice so Support can report the violation to Media Mecca.

As cell phone use on playa has increased in recent years, the vast majority of cameras on playa have not been registered cameras and their owners may not necessarily understand or respect that all of Burning Man is a zone of privacy where consent is required before an image may be recorded. Guardians are sometimes all that stands between individuals who seek private moments in the Temple and Burners who either don’t understand or respect the culture and rules.  So, what do we do when we encounter a problematic photographer situation? Here’s how one experienced Guardian describes how he deals with an intruding photographer: start by asking nicely for them to stop taking pictures; become insistent if they continue; and take action if all else fails.

In most cases, it takes no more than a gentle nudge to stop an invasion of privacy and return decorum to the Temple.  When it requires a bit more energy, we can still keep our cool and simply ask more firmly. If the situation escalates, Guardians are instructed to call for help from a more senior member of the team, preferably their Voice.  Sometimes, however, the situation warrants immediate action, and in those cases Guardians may elect to insert themselves between the camera’s lens and the person whose privacy is being violated. Always remain non-confrontational, using non-violent steps to block a photo with your body or your hand.  If things continue to escalate, then you must turn the situation over to a Voice. 

While the tips in this article are intended to alert you to the types of problems you might encounter during your shift, they are not inclusive. Your Voice and Support teams are there to help you maintain the integrity and safety of the Temple. Please do not hesitate to ask for their assistance if you’re ever uncertain about how to handle a situation during your shift.