Beyond Burning Man
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Beyond Burning Man

Sunset Salutation: Inside Will Roger’s Spiritual Photographs and Process

Come for the pretty pictures, stay for the meditation on life.

Photo by Will Roger

If you need a calming force in your life right now, just head over to Burning Man co-founder Will Roger’s Instagram to marvel at his daily photos of the mountainous sunset near his home in Gerlach, Nevada. Roger used to be an associate professor of photography and even has a book out of aerial photos of Black Rock City called “Compass of the Ephemeral,” so he’s no shabby shooter.

It also turns out that you can’t learn more about these photos without taking a profound detour into Roger’s mindset, rituals, and philosophies. How ironic, then, that a conversation that started with a desire to talk about attractive images ended up as the spiritual and environmental pep talk we need right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mia Quagliarello: So how are you handling this crazy time of coronavirus and quarantine?
Will Roger:
You know, Crimson [Rose, Burning Man co-founder and Roger’s life partner] and I are going through gratitude every day. I’ll be 72 soon, and she’ll be 70 in October, so we’re both in the age group that this particular virus is very harsh with. Even though we’ve lived a good, beautiful life, we still want to continue to do it! So we’re staying healthy and keeping our routines going, but then this kind of dark cloud comes down, and it feels like this is a change that’s happening to the whole planet.

What’s important is that we’re all united together, and we live on this thing that gave us life, Earth. So our allegiances need to be very simple: there’s only one Earth, one humanity. Once we wake up to that, then all of the things that have come up with our dominant culture over the last 6,000 years, all of those things go away.

Photo by Crimson Rose

The Burning Man community gives me a great deal of inspiration because we can change the world, and we have this feeling of unconditional love towards each other. You wanted to talk to me about my sunset pictures and it actually all ties in.

One of the things that creates community in Black Rock City is the power of the place. The Black Rock desert in the high desert is a very powerful place. It’s where the Earth Mother gives you [a taste of your] first whiteout. You go, “Holy shit.” All your inner voice stuff goes away.

Those moments when your inner voice doesn’t know what to say are the moments we remember. Those are the [times] when we feel intensely, with all of our senses, whatever is happening and causing awe.

Tell me about one of your rituals to still that inner voice: walking in the labyrinth in your backyard.
Crimson had always wanted to have a labyrinth since she walked the one at Grace Cathedral many years ago. One day, she just laid out an elaborate one in our backyard, and I spent a couple of months putting big rocks in and making it really nice. And then I thought, ‘Well, gee, what a great way to connect with nature. There’s something about humans that we all share: It’s called walking.’

I wasn’t that into it except to help Crimson, but I walked it at sunset and something happened. It became awesome to me. It became this thing that I had to do. And then the Burning Man theme of Radical Ritual came up, and I realized that my life was filled with rituals — even my role with Burning Man, I was the first Desert Operations Director, then I started DPW and all that, but every year it caused me to live primitively in a tent at first on the high desert for months at a time. I became more and more connected. I was an avid backpacker and a college professor that gave me my summers off. I walked the Appalachian Trail, and the Sierra Nevada Crest Trail and I was always outdoors, you know, living off the land if I could and being connected. So I had this in me already, but my job with Burning Man reinforced it.

The other thing that I believe in that’s really strong is that we’re all connected. You may have had experiences in your life where maybe a good friend got injured and you could feel it, or you thought of someone and the phone rings. I began to feel really connected to a couple of people, and I started saying their names when I was in the labyrinth walking. And sure enough, they were feeling it. It was really weird, right? So now I say the names of 70 people as I walk into the center of the lab. It takes me the whole walk in to say everybody’s names and visualize them; out of that I get about 20 responses a night from the people who feel [my vibration].

Every night I walk the labyrinth I feel gratitude towards the earth and the Earth Mother. I feel a connection to the people that I visualize. And then I walk out and I try to heal. I know a lot of people think that I’m eccentric and weird. As an old man, I have every right to be that, and I don’t mind.

How does all of this come together for your sunset photos?
So every night I do a ritual and I bring all of this to it. I bring the connection to it, and then I photograph the sunset. Whatever the sunset gives me. Sometimes it’s gray and dreary and sometimes it’s filled with fire.

I probably only missed two weeks in total in three years. I have a couple of spots in the labyrinth where I leave [the camera]. Every day, [the scene] changes because the sun changes where it sets every night.

There’s four spots that I shoot from each night. And if it’s really dreary, like I’m in a whiteout, I only shoot four images. If it’s really exciting, I think I’ve shot up to 12.

Do you have any favorites?
I shot some at Burning Man [in 2019] that were really good.

What equipment do you use? I think people would be interested in the technicalities of the photos.
I don’t want to be burdened with a big camera while I’m walking so the camera has to fit in my pocket. It’s a Nikon Coolpix 900.

All the images are processed. People say, “Oh, you shouldn’t doctor or alter the image.” But as soon as you take the image, you’ve doctored an altered reality. Usually I do vignetting in the corners to make the images look more painterly. I like watercolors a lot. So you’ll see in a lot of the images kind of the feeling of watercolors. That’s my favorite look.

Well, I find them totally soothing. Much needed for this time in our history. Thank you for making them.
The Earth is hurting, and the human race is hurting right now. If we solve this pandemic, we’ve all had a chance to reflect on who we are and what we are and what culture is. We have a chance to make real change here.

The Burning Man community is the perfect community to help foster this change because in many ways the Burning Man community has already made the change. That’s exciting! I’m totally honored to be part of this incredible movement that we have. The love that I feel from the community is really quite profound right now.

Find your ritual; find your way to honor the Earth Mother. That’s what’s happening. She’s showing us her power right now, and we need to have gratitude and begin to deconstruct and analyze the way we live on the planet.

If you like Roger’s work and ethos, keep an eye out for “Handbook for a Burning Age,” to be released in October 2020.

Burning Man is a global cultural movement rooted in the 10 Principles, with a vibrant network of events and communities in 37 countries around the world. Burning Man is actively influencing art, design, civic engagement, placemaking, and business, and Burning Man Project is the nonprofit organization that supports that ecosystem. Get the latest news from Burning Man Project in the Burning Man Journal, follow us on your social network of choice, and sign up for our email newsletter, The Jackrabbit Speaks.

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