Media / PR

Both image use and the traditional meaning of “press” have changed drastically in the digital age, and Burning Man’s approach to privacy, creativity, and the use of images from the event has evolved drastically as our event has grown up right alongside the Web itself. Each year the Media Team process must make adjustments to address this evolution, whether it’s to accommodate a heretofore-unseen new media format or to reconcile the proliferation of personal photosharing websites with Burning Man’s longstanding policies governing image use. These issues are in a constant state of flux, and in 2009, many of them came to a head.

Media Mecca

In 2009, hundreds of photographers, filmmakers, and news media came through the gates of Black Rock City to participate in the 2009 “Evolution” event. Media Mecca hosted international press from places such as Germany (ARD) The United Kingdom (BBC Radio 1) The Netherlands (BNN) Alhurra TV (Middle East Broadcasting Networks) Belgium, and Australia. Domestic news outlets included PBS, NPR,, The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Geographic, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Filmmakers from around the globe also pursued storylines about their own Burning Man experiences or those of others for independent projects.

From April to August, the Media Team reviewed 400 media proposals. This process helps to identify crews that demonstrate an understanding of the Burning Man culture and the Rights and Responsibilities of Media and Participants. Though Burning Man attracts more and more attention from the media each year, we strive to limit the number of cameras at the event and ensure that the crews that do receive permission to shoot will tell the stories of Black Rock City in new and exciting ways.

Of the 400 proposals we received (including three for 3D films), 315 were approved; 85 were declined. Oftentimes, we will tell a producer to refine her approach and reapply next year, or to come and experience Burning Man without a camera first, so that when she returns with a project idea, she will understand how the playa feels on the other side of the lens; we might invite another to take still photos and do research instead of bringing a full camera crew, and reapply the following year. We’ve learned that typically, these crews get a headfull of a personal experience all their own in that first year — sans the cameras and hassle of managing a film crew in the dust — and often either decide not to apply at all, or return with a much-refined and more appropriate proposal.

Each year, member of the press and other media-savvy participants come to Media Mecca in hopes of being given a walk-in registration. We assess their requests on a case-by-case basis and though we approve a small number of photography projects, we seldom allow walk-in registrants to shoot video for professional use. We feel that preparation is key and that registering early gives media more time to refine their approach to covering Burning Man and a chance for us to gain an understanding of their interests and aspirations.

The Media Team works closely with the press before the event to acculturate the new Burners among them to the experience of participation in Black Rock City, and to helpfully aim them towards art and events that may enhance the scope of their story. This year, we streamlined the workflow of our registration emails to make it easier to track correspondences and reduce overall email load for team members.

The crew from Current TV’s Emmy-nominated “TV Free Burning Man” team from previous years put down their cameras for 2009 and joined the Media Team proper, bringing their own dome and camp supplies to create The Filmmaker’s Lounge, a dome within Media Mecca where independent filmmakers could network, gain technical skills, and share their expertise with like-minds. The Filmmaker’s Lounge boasted an outdoor movie theater and a comfortable and cool place to meet, and provided the venue for our media Q & A discussion panel with staff. This collaboration between Media Mecca and the Filmmaker’s Lounge was great in its first year, and we’re aiming to increase the media’s awareness of this valuable resource in 2010 and to further integrate the Filmmaker’s Lounge into our layout and activities.

Not only did the Media Team strengthen relationships with the press and expand our volunteer crew, but we also deepened ties with one another through shared efforts at making Mecca an even more enjoyable place to be.

Over 4th of July weekend, Media Meccans flocked to the playa from as far as London and New York to build flat plywood furniture from designs by Playatech to replace our worn out, space-consuming and heavy couches. We sawed, sanded and painted by day and enjoyed the wide, open spaces of the empty playa by night. The weekend was a tremendous success and we are looking forward to another work weekend in 2010.

About this photo: Media Mecca got a facelift in 2009! During setup weekend, the artists of the Media Team decked the halls of Mecca with murals and prayer flags, bright fabrics and a new sign.

This year there were many new faces in our Media Mecca family bringing all new skills to the table. For instance, one new team member created silk screens and set up screening station where the press and our team could make adorn their clothing with a beautiful design commemorating Media Mecca 2009. (show photo).

The dedicated leadership of our returning Media Wranglers and Team Captains allowed for smooth operations throughout the week and even during the most hectic registration times. Returning team members took pride in mentoring new volunteers.

Our three Media Mecca Art Tours were packed to the gills and were a huge hit with the press. Two returning Art Liaisons headed up mid-week tours aboard the Nautilus bus replete with open forums with artists, live entertainment, and a top-notch support crew. Another dynamic duo facilitated an evening tour for the media to experience the art pieces in their full nighttime grandeur.

Media Mecca’s daily Press happy hours continued to be a popular late afternoon destination for media, artists, and volunteers seeking to share their stories with the world. Logistics have been taken over by a new Bar Manager and a corner of the Mecca became a stage, where we held impromptu performances and DJ sets during happy hours and into the early evening. Even late at night, Mecca was alive with reporters and photographers milling about, charging their cameras and filing stories while live jazz and spontaneous vocal group appearances hummed from our tiny makeshift stage.

On Wednesday, we held our Team Appreciation Barbeque, commencing with an all-team yearbook photo and ending with a Mutant vehicle ride around the Esplanade.

Come Burn night, there was no rest for the weary. A core team of Media Captains worked with Heavy Equipment and the Performance Safety Team to coordinate safety training and lift access for select photographers and Inner Circle access for Fire Conclave videographers. This small group of media contributes the images captured from this unique vantage point to our event archives each year. Several of our Media Mecca team members collaborated with BMIR to provide a webcast of the Burn to 6,700 web viewers who were able to join us from afar for this singular occasion.

Media Operations Year-Round: Image Use and Follow Up

Post-event, Burning Man races to keep up with demand as photographers, filmmakers, and eager participants request permission to utilize their imagery of the event for public consumption or for commercial purposes. 2009 marked the biggest year yet for this type of request, despite decreased event attendance. The Communications department has struggled to refine its process and policies rapidly to accommodate the new level of interest and use, and the complexity of the constantly-evolving world of image rights.

The complexity of this issue came to a head on August 13th, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a blog post criticizing Burning Man’s policies (none of them new) on commercial use of imagery from our event. Burning Man responded with our own blog post, aimed at defending our event as private and expressing the culture-, creativity-, and privacy-preserving intent behind the strict guidelines enacted around camera use in Black Rock City.

A fascinating online dialogue around the issue carried forth at several sites for the several weeks leading up to Burning Man. It continues to this day, with online forums and public conversations debating the possible ways Burning Man might evolve these use policies (which are either “Antiquated! Barbaric!” or “The only reason I feel free to express myself in Black Rock City,” depending on who you ask.)

Despite what anyone else says from the outside, we have to uncover whether our participant community truly understands the protections in place, and really explore everything that’s affected if Burning Man were to change how we deal with copyright protection and image use at our privately-held event. We plan to host a discussion or discussion series in San Francisco in the coming months and to continue to collect input from our participants. We will be sharing what we discover in the Burning Blog as this issue evolves.

The Communications Department also manages the team of volunteers and legal counsel that protect Burning Man from trademark and copyright infringements. Trademark is another area of legal evolution that keeps this team constantly studying and responding to the ever-shifting and ever-growing tide of requests and the interpretations of each of those inquiries.

Perhaps not surprisingly in an economic downturn and in well-established local communities, 2009 saw many local groups and organizations discussing how Burners might find each other to conduct real-world business transactions. Navigating their own tricky cultural territory, Burning Man-identified affinity groups are forming on personal auction sites (such as, where handmakers can sell their crafts online), and Burners are asking how they can share information about what they do for a living and how to connect with one another for resources, or how to share information about job searches or openings. These discussions explore real-world economic questions on local Burning Man discussion lists within the context of participation in this culture.

Some Burners have an apparent interest, it seems, in spending their own money at “Burner Owned Businesses” year round, or in connecting around their business worlds and sharing. How this affects the use of Burning Man’s intellectual property (the phrases “Burning Man,” “Black Rock City,” and “Decompression” are trademarks of Black Rock City, LLC) and our methods of nurturing and supporting its local communities and culture has provided interesting food for thought. We seek to protect and nurture worldwide Burning Man communities as they evolve into this discussion.

We constantly seek to remain abreast of the many nuances in the evolution of privacy, identity, cultural and creative expression, and the Internet. By now, almost every experience at Burning Man has the potential to become a public story in a heartbeat, and often without any buffer at all. How does our approach to that inevitability in BRC affect how we interact in the immediate moment, as cameras get smaller, and image use regulation by firmly-held copyright protections is increasingly hard to manage or maintain in this, the age of Open Video Movement and the Creative Commons license? Media Mecca on the playa is really the home not only to the traditional press, but to a larger and more fascinating public conversation than we ever could have imagined – our playa experience is truly just one week of a continual effort to nurture, protect, and honestly share the story of a beautiful, evolving culture.

Submitted by,

Meghan Rutigliano and Andie Grace