Burning Man 2014 — Coming Soon

By Scott London — September 12, 2014

2014 marked my eleventh consecutive year at Burning Man. It was a wonderful and amazing experience as always, but also one marked by challenges—mostly the physical kind. I returned from the playa quite ill and I’m only now beginning to get back on my feet.

I’m putting together a customary set of 100 images, as in previous years, and I hope to have that online very soon.

Meanwhile, you can find 30 of my photos, along with captions, on the Rolling Stone website. It was my third year covering the event for Rolling Stone and they have just posted a gallery of “Burning Man 2014′s Trippiest Photos” — images of “the desert festival’s coolest cars, happiest campers and most mind-blowing art installations.” See the images here.

If you’re interested, you can also check out a couple of new interviews in which I talk about photography at Burning Man. The first appears in the current issue of Photography Monthly magazine — check it out here.

The second is a podcast about fine art photography, just launched a few weeks ago by John David Tupper, called Photographer in Focus. John and I spend a full hour talking shop, getting into many aspects of the photographer’s life, from keeping the creative spark alive to maintaining your equipment to becoming a curator of your own work. Download the podcast here.

Recent Publications

By Scott London — August 5, 2014

With the forthcoming release of my book with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal, Burning Man: Art on Fire — which comes out this week — my photography has been getting a little more attention than usual.

Six of my images were featured in the San Francisco Chronicle this past Sunday as part of a big spread about the book. To my surprise, one of the photos even made the front page.

“A new coffee-table tome, Burning Man: Art on Fire (Race Point Publishing, 208 pages, $35), by San Francisco’s Jennifer Raiser, showcases ingenious, breathtaking and downright wacky installations by amateur and professional artists from around the globe, with color photographs by Sidney Erthal and Scott London and descriptions of the works in the artists’ own words,” writes Carolyne Zinko.

To read the full piece, which includes a nice interview with Jennifer and a dozen photos from the book, go to SFGate.com.

The Telegraph has also published a gallery of photos from the book in their travel section. It showcases images of art cars, 9 in all, under the title “Burning Man’s Mutant Vehicles.”

“Often described as a world within a world, the Burning Man festival is a creative, temporary city with a 70,000-strong population in the middle of the Black Rock Desert,” reads the opening caption. “It is renowned for its art works, which visitors transport from all around the US. Some of these are “mutant vehicles” that people use to traverse the desert landscape. A new photography book celebrates the art works of Burning Man, dedicating a chapter to the craze of these mobile sculptures.”

Check out the full gallery at telegraph.co.uk

With all the trouble going on in the Ukraine at the moment, it’s hard to imagine anybody there reading fashion magazines and dreaming of vacations abroad. But who knows, that could be just the kind of escapism people are looking for. In any case, I was recently asked by the editor of the Ukrainian edition of Marie Claire magazine to share some photos of Burning Man. We got to talking about the event, one talking point led to another, and the story turned into something a little different—part travel piece, part artist profile.

In the piece, I talk about why I love Burning Man, how I happened to start going ten years ago, and how things have changed and evolved over the past decade. Here’s an excerpt:

Burning Man is famous for the Saturday evening ritual in which a giant man made of wood and neon goes up in flames. But there are events going on all week long. Many of them are spontaneous or loosely organized. Others are scheduled and take place every year. One of the most famous is “Critical Tits” in which hundreds or even thousands of women ride around the playa topless. The event is modeled after the Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco, but with a lot more humor and attitude. Unfortunately, I can’t show you images of this, because Burning Man doesn’t allow publication of Critical Tits photos.

As a photographer, I’m also very enamored of the “Black Rock City Fashion Show,” which is a campy and hilarious event that takes place each year. People show off their most amazing outfits and costumes and often perform little routines on stage. The whole thing makes a mockery of a real fashion show, but it also shows off some of the beautiful and amazing attire people create each year specifically for Burning Man.

A question that came up again and again in the conversation was nudity. “Why is it so important for people to get naked there?” Here’s my attempt at a response:

Well, it’s hot in the desert. But that is not the only reason. Some people choose to take off their clothes and go naked because, well, why wear clothes if you don’t have to? There is something wonderful about being free to wear whatever you like—or nothing at all. Since there are no rules, you can do whatever feels most fun and natural.

There is a lot of talk about nudity at Burning Man. But there isn’t really that much of it. Most people keep their clothes on. You do see a fair number of topless women, but not any more than you would on a typical beach in Europe. And the bona fide nudists who go to Burning Man are always a very small minority.

Because it’s August and Burning Man 2014 kicks off in just a few weeks, the media is especially focused on it now. Another magazine highlighting the event is Virgin Australia’s in-flight monthly Voyeur, which devotes six pages of its August issue to Burning Man. The article is written by Sally Dominguez and features 11 of my photos. You can view it online here: Voyeur Magazine

Finally, some of my non-Burning Man photos have also appeared in print in recent weeks. Fast Company magazine published an image I made of R&B icon John Legend. Origin magazine ran one of my portraits of bestselling author Byron Katie. And the Santa Barbara News-Press featured one of my photos of Steve Duneier, better known as the Yarnbomber, in last Sunday’s edition.

It’s wonderful to get your work noticed and into print.

Extraordinary Women

By Scott London — July 26, 2014

Women and PeaceThe late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”

His question was not easy to answer. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights they lead you to. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.

To my surprise, all of them were women.

“Why do you think they were all women?” he asked.

I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.

That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.

Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”

“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.

He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure.  ”I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”

He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”

I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”

I think most men would benefit from doing the same.

Solstice Celebration

By Scott London — July 15, 2014

Each year at the end of June, Santa Barbara, California, officially kicks off summer with a three-day Solstice Celebration. The highlight of the event is a parade famous for its whimsical floats, colorful stiltwalkers, goofy performance artists, Brazilian drummers, and giggling kids donning masks, costumes, and painted faces — to say nothing of the amazing samba dancers wearing feathers and sequins and not much else. The annual event got its start in 1974 and now attracts upward of 100,000 visitors and some 1,000 participants from near and far. Here are some of my photos from this year’s festivities.

For more photos, check out the complete set from Solstice 2014.

You can also view images from previous years here:

The Guardian’s ‘Pictures of the Week’

By Scott London — June 28, 2014


Some of my photos of art cars made it into The Guardian’s “Pictures of the Week,” including amazing creations by Duane Edward Flatmo, Jon Sarriugarte, Harrod Blank, and others. The images are taken from my forthcoming book with Jennifer Raiser and Sidney Erthal, Burning Man: Art On Fire, which will be out in a few weeks. Check out the gallery here: http://gu.com/p/3qdjj

A few of the images also made their way into the print edition (in the Weekend supplement):

Interview in Arts Illustrated

By Scott London — June 3, 2014

Arts Illustrated is a beautiful journal devoted to art, photography and graphic design. I was delighted and honored when the editors contacted me some months ago asking if they could feature a selection of my photographs along with an interview. The issue is now out and it features a full 12 pages of my photos, along with an interview in which I talk about my journey as a photographer, my sources of inspiration, and of course what it’s like to shoot at Burning Man. Here’s a short excerpt from the Q&A:

Burning Man appears to be a very seductive and transformative place.

Yes, there is a sense when you arrive at Burning Man that you’re stepping out of one dimension and into another one — one teeming with possibility, suffused with beauty, and replete with freedoms that we don’t have in our everyday lives.

The rules and conventions of ordinary life simply don’t apply the same way. At Burning Man, you are whatever you happen to be doing or creating. So you can reinvent yourself in whatever guise you like. You can try on new identies and explore new modes of expression.

I have a friend who embodies a different character each day throughout the event. Like an actor, he doesn’t break character all week. Each character has its own personality, its own history, its own outfit. Some of his creations are extremely elaborate. He spends months planning it all down to the last detail.

As a photographer what appeals to you most and as an artist what do you connect with the most?

As a photographer, I feel that our culture is already heavily saturated with imagery. We see hundreds if not thousands of images every day. They flicker by in an unending stream and we barely stop to take notice. This means that it’s very difficult as a photographer to make an impact, to touch people and say something new, with a single image.

I don’t know of any good way around this problem. But as a photographer I’m always looking for moments that contain some element of the unexpected. I think those have a greater chance of speaking to people. The most powerful photographs, I believe, are those that surprise you and perhaps awaken in you a sense of possibility.

Burning Man is a wonderful place to make such images because things are never quite what they seem there. The foreign and the familiar are always coming together in arresting ways.

Some of the images from Burning Man make it appear like a very surreal place.

The word surreal is apt because there is always a sense at Burning Man that what you’re seeing is not quite real. A sixteenth-century Spanish galleon gliding across the desert floor. A group of bankers in dusty outfits holding umbrellas and briefcases. An old country church tipped on its axis, like a mouse-trap.

The Surrealist movement a century ago was a subversive attempt to redefine art and literature by erasing the line between dream and reality. The Surrealists wanted to disrupt our habitual ways of seeing the world by juxtaposing contradictory images and bringing together seemingly unrelated frames of reference.

Like much of the art and writing from the Surrealist period, what you see at Burning Man can be startling, witty, unconventional, and, in some deep sense, eye-opening.

How easy or difficult is it to capture people and get them to participate in your visual chronicle?

It has gotten easier over the years as my confidence has grown. In the beginning, I was wary of getting too close to my subjects. My training as a journalist had emphasized objectivity — the idea that you must faithfully record events and document people’s lives but without interfering or affecting them in any significant way.

This ethos may work well for photojournalists covering the news. But it doesn’t work at Burning Man. In fact, it violates one of the essential principles of the event — the notion that each of us is a participant rather than a spectator.

To participate fully meant that I had to step out from behind the lens and create images, not stand by and wait for something interesting to happen. So I’ve adopted a more participatory approach over the years. My best images now come from working with people to create images that can stand on their own. It’s more collaborative, more creative, and a lot more enriching.

Condé Nast Traveler

By Scott London — May 14, 2014

Some of my images from Burning Man appear in the Winter 2014 issue of Condé Nast Traveler (the Italian edition). It’s a 14-page spread with images from 2012 and 2013 mostly, including portraits of some of my favorite burners, like Siberfi Stelter, Suliman Nawid, Uncle Ira, and Daniel Piotr Rozenberg.

Default World Dreaming

By Scott London — March 20, 2014

I’m thrilled to have my photography exhibited in a show opening today at Gallery 151 in New York City. The show is called “Default World Dreaming” and takes inspiration from the art and culture of Burning Man. The week-long event, held each summer in the desert of northern Nevada, represents a curious and dynamic world of opposites — an ephemeral community that rises out of the desert only to disappear again a week later, and the established, accepted, and socially constructed reality of our daily lives.

To those in the Burning Man community, quotidian life is often referred to as “the default world.” It stands in stark contrast to the culture of Burning Man which is exemplified by self-reliance, non-commodification, gift giving, and radical self-expression. For those who attend Burning Man, these values can be so creative and so liberating that they feel more real than the “real” world.

The exhibition looks at the dichotomy between living in a default world and dreaming of an alternate world, one suffused with creative extravagance and limitless possibility.

The show opens today and runs through April 19, 2014. For more information, please visit Gallery 151.

A View From the Lakebed

By Scott London — February 25, 2014

Because of the record drought in California, Cachuma Lake has been drying up. It’s now just a fraction of its usual size. Here is a self-portrait where I’m standing on the the exposed lake bed admiring a giant root of some kind.

I’m working on a photo essay documenting the drought. More on that soon…

Dharma On the Playa

By Scott London — February 3, 2014

The Spring 2014 issue of Tricycle magazine features several of my photographs from Burning Man paired with an insightful and beautifully written piece by contributing editor Allan Badiner. The article describes Badiner’s first experience at Burning Man in 2013. It was a journey he had avoided making for many years, he says, but reluctantly agreed to in 2013 in order to accept a speaking invitation. Once there, he was taken in by the event and struck by the curious parallels between Burning Man and some of the core practices and rituals at the heart of Buddhism:

Here’s an excerpt from Badiner’s piece:

Traveling the playa, experiencing scenes from the fantastic to the crudely immature and everything in between, I found more improbable resonance creeping into my awareness between this artsy hi-tech desert ritual and Buddhist ways of being. From the generosity, nonjudgment, and eightfold path-like principles practiced by Burners to the sacred geometry of the city’s layout to everyone’s acceptance that it would all disappear in a matter of days, the playa was permeated with a Buddhist view of life.

And while Burning Man is of an entirely different character, it did have its similarities to a Zen retreat: attendees are hoping for a shift in their perspectives; people are, for the most part, on their best interpersonal behavior; and they take on new names, sleep less, and have amazing insights. Unlike the program at a Zen retreat, many people simply come to dance all week, make love, or blow their minds open with psychedelics. But everyone has permission to follow their dreams and pursue what makes them happy, without judgment. And while some found happiness in pursuing sense pleasures, others took solace in yoga, meditation, and intellectual inquiry. The vast variety of intentions and possibilities don’t seem to separate Burners from one another; rather, it unites them.

Check out the complete article here: Dharma On the Playa

Here’s a peek at the Tricycle spreads:

Breaking Into Print

By Scott London — January 18, 2014

When you shoot for stock agencies, you never know where your images are going to turn up. A friend of mine contacted me a few days ago, saying that one of my photos just appeared in Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading daily newspaper. It was a rather unremarkable red carpet photo of actress Jennifer Lawrence that I had taken some months ago.

What was poignant about this particular photo credit was that Dagens Nyheter was where I first broke into print. I was a teenager living in Stockholm in the early 1980s. The newspaper ran a short commentary of mine about a city landmark—Kulturhuset—that I happened to love. To say that I was happy to see my name in print would be an understatement. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life!

Some years prior to that, one of my mother’s friends, a reporter at Dagens Nyheter, had given me a personal tour of the newsroom. The experience set its mark on my young and impressionable psyche and nurtured my passion to become a journalist.

That was more than thirty years ago. I don’t feel that same rush of excitement when I see my name in print anymore. But for whatever reason, getting published in Dagens Nyheter still feels a little bit special. Like returning to an alma mater or revisiting a childhood home.

It helps me remember where I first set out on this long and strange professional journey and, more importantly, take stock of the many places I still want to go.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2013

By Scott London — October 12, 2013

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Announcement

The routine is the same every year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee calls a press conference on the second Friday of October at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, the chairman enters the room, greets the international press corps, and announces the committee’s choice for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement typically consists of a short written statement, read first in English and then in Norwegian. The chairman then takes a few questions from the press, whereupon everyone rushes off to file their news reports.

This year was no different, except that word got out about an hour before the announcement that the winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N. watchdog group. NRK, Norway’s leading news organization, had leaked the information ahead of the announcement and it spread like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the social media rumor mill—Twitter, in particular.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting choice, especially for those of us gathered at the Nobel Institute hoping for a big win for, say, Malala Yusoufzai—the global favorite this year—or Russian human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, or the great American peace scholar Gene Sharp, whom I’ve been pulling for in recent years.

The leak meant that by the time Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, stepped up to the microphone, the announcement seemed like more of a formality than a riveting news event.

It goes without saying that the OPCW is a worthy recipient. Over the last decade and a half, the organization has been working to dismantle and destroy chemical weapons, to prevent the creation of new ones, and to help countries protect themselves against chemical attacks.The organization has been especially busy in recent months working to eliminate Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

This award follows in a long tradition of Nobel Peace Prizes to individuals and groups working for disarmament. This work is as vital as ever and a crucial part of the international peace effort.

But I was disappointed to see the Peace Prize go to an organization for the second year in a row. The best awards are those given to individuals, not organizations. Both the international recognition and the money mean far more to an individual laureate than to an impersonal institution or association.

I have spoken with individuals who were part of organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will tell you, without batting an eye, that receiving the award and being under the global media spotlight distracted them from their mission and created organizational challenges that set their work back.

It’s worth noting that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the prize, did not intend for it to be given to organizations. He wanted to support men and women who were “champions of peace.” For him, that term implied a passionate activism and idealism. He saw his prize as a kind of development grant, like the “Genius” awards given out by the MacArthur Foundation, that would have no strings attached and could free a laureate to pursue his or her highest calling.

In a curious twist, Nobel’s intentions were ignored after his will was probated. In drafting the statutes of the foundation established to oversee the awards, Nobel’s heirs and their lawyers insisted on a more open-ended interpretation of the founder’s wishes—presumably to avoid any possible corruption of the prizes. That has freed the Nobel committee to give the award to individuals and organizations alike.

Oslo City Hall

This year I reported on the Nobel Peace Prize for the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). In the reports and interviews following the announcement, the question on everyone’s mind revolved around Malala. Why didn’t she win the prize? Would it have been too heavy a burden to place on a 16-year-old girl? Will she perhaps win next year?

Who knows? She certainly would have been a risky choice for the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She’s still a child, after all, and there is no telling how a prestigious award of this magnitude could change the direction of her life. She has already been targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for her campaign to promote education for girls in Pakistan.

As I mentioned in an AFP interview the other day, Malala would also have been a controversial choice for the committee in the wake of several unfortunate awards, including those to President Obama and the European Union.

There’s a growing chorus of critics around the world saying that the prize has become overly politicized, that laureates are chosen less on merit and more on their perceived publicity value, and that the committee has, in some profound way, deviated from the original charter of the prize. Those criticisms would almost certainly have grown louder had Malala been chosen this year.

Malala said herself that she hasn’t done enough to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I agree. But she’s still young and she will no doubt go on to do even greater things. And she may yet win the prize in coming years.

As I made my way back to the hotel last night, I walked past Oslo’s City Hall. At the top of both towers, a large-scale projection with the words “Because I am a girl” marked the International Day of the Girl. It seemed fitting that for all the talk about advancing peace and doing away with chemical weapons, at the end of the day the conversation came back around to that Pakistani schoolgirl, the one who has captured the world’s imagination and emerged as one of its most compelling symbols of freedom and courage.

announcement at the Nobel Institute

Here I am (in the front row with a gray jacket) at the Nobel Institute in Oslo