For photographer Dina Litovsky, photographing the annual Burning Man festival was a real challenge, but probably not in all the ways you might imagine. “It gets very repetitive and it’s really hard to capture the experience,” she told InsideHook. Litovsky has attended the festival several times, but she’s also a photojournalist by trade — with work that has appeared in places like National geographic and The New York Times Magazine.
“At first I was very excited because the first years I thought everything was amazing. And then I was very disappointed,” she says. For Litovsky, this repetitiveness of the annual festival was a problem – and it was something she was looking to address.”There was a year where I really put my camera down and took almost no pictures,” she said. this undocumented period of the festival did not last. Instead, Litovsky found a very specific angle to shoot at Burning Man – and it was something that led to a wide range of images evocative in the years that followed.
“I found out about whiteouts, which are the sandstorms out there when everything goes completely white and you can’t see beyond a few feet,” she explained. “So I just started doing a series of whiteouts, and I’ve been doing it for five years now and then, depending on the year — just focusing on photographing these sandstorms.”
In Litovsky’s images, the landscape of Black Rock City is transformed into something profoundly unknown – part Mad Max: Fury Road, part Jodorowsky or Tarkovsky fever dream. Once you see Litovsky’s photos of the whiteouts, it becomes incredibly clear why she was drawn to these events — and even if you never thought of traveling to the Nevada desert in late August, it makes the allure of the festival even more tangible.
For Litovsky herself, her work is also a way to break with the norms of Burning Man photography. “I think a lot of people get into it and end up taking pictures,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who will really [photograph]. I mean, I’ve seen pictures, but a lot of them are portraits of burners. And I feel like that’s become the main Burning Man images over the years.
That’s not to say Litovsky’s work documenting the festival is flawless. Or, to put it slightly differently, you can’t expect to take a camera through a sandstorm without side effects. Litovsky wrote about the highs and lows of Burning Man photography in his newsletter – including an episode devoted to the technical challenges of the process. “My Nikon D2X was built like a tank so it survived, but at the end of its life it looked like it had been through a world war and a zombie apocalypse,” she wrote.
During the conversation, Litovsky went into more detail about the effect of the festival on the equipment. “I only have one system, so it’s always the same equipment,” she says. “I kill my gear at Burning Man. I would take the same lens, just a new one. You know, it’s not the safest place for equipment. I just clean the camera afterwards and hope everything is fine.
Since Burning Man is an event that brings tens of thousands of people to the wasteland, much of the documentation has focused on its community aspects. Litovsky’s whiteout photos take this narrative in a different direction.
“It’s a huge festival. I mean, it’s really huge. You can always find a place alone if you wish. And that’s exactly what whiteouts do,” Litovsky said. “They create the feeling of being alone; they cover the sky, they cover the ground and you can’t see a person who is two feet in front of you.
The frequency of whiteouts can also vary significantly from year to year. “There were years when there were maybe two, and then there were years when it was all day and all night,” Litovsky explained.
Litvosky’s images of whiteouts at the festival helped her document an essential – and elusive – quality of Burning Man. “I think Burning Man is a very amazing and very surreal place,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the photos don’t do it justice because they focus on one small aspect of it. I was trying to find a way to photograph Burning Man that wasn’t just original, but who can express the need for it and what a very surreal space it is.
For Litovsky, pushing back on clichéd images has created fascinating and immersive work. “I gave up photographing the party, which I tried for the first two years,” she recalls. “Now I focus only on the photography of the silence of Burning Man.” Looking at his work, one thing is certain: these images say it all.
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