We caught a rare moment between adventures with Olympus Visionary Philip Volkers, who’s been, quite literally, on fire for the sake of his art. Get the low-down on his new book, a compilation of images from the desert festival, Burning Man.

Image by Philip Volkers

It’s been a while since we last caught up. We’ve seen you’ve been busy, what have you been working on over the last year?

It has been a while! This last year I have been very busy, including working on my first book Dust to Dawn, a decade of photographs taken at the Burning Man festival; a counter-culture art festival held in the Black Rock desert in Nevada, USA.

How did the idea for Dust to Dawn come about?

I have always been fascinated with human gatherings – both spiritual and hedonistic. I first heard about Burning Man in 2000 and had always wanted to visit it, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I managed to get myself there. It was actually around this time that I had decided to pursue a full-time career in photography too, which coincided with my relationship with Olympus. I signed myself up as an official photographer with the Burning Man media team and that’s where it all started. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Burning Man; every year 75,000 people descend on a blisteringly hot alkaline lake bed in Nevada, to let loose and make art. Burning Man is a human gathering of colossal proportions. What started as an anarchist San Francisco beach party, where revellers would ‘burn the man’, has become a highly influential festival and a haven for many enquiring minds.

Image by Philip Volkers

How much research and planning goes into travelling for a photo project of this scale?

A lot of planning goes into a project like this. Since 2006, I’d always planned to do a book of my photographs and so each year of attendance I have to submit my project to the Burning Man media team. They have been behind this project from the start, which has been great. When I arrive at the festival I have to have each camera tagged, sign the necessary forms and also attend a health and safety meeting as some of the places I want to photograph are very dangerous, especially when the Man and the Temple are being burned. Another thing that has to be taken into consideration is the dust. This is no normal dust, it is so fine that it gets into everything and to make it worse, it’s alkaline so it corrodes metal, leather and your skin. Each day you have to wash yourself with lemon to neutralise the alkaline, and your cameras never look the same after a week in the desert.

You shoot a broad variety of subjects from portraits to fashion, travel and events. How does your wide range of photographic experience help when it comes to shooting such unique events as Burning Man?

As you have mentioned, all my varied skills are put to the test in the desert. It’s an incredibly visual place to photograph, and there are amazing people out there. Portraiture is one of my favourite disciplines, and the light in the desert is incredible for this. Shooting fashion and events in London and around the world has helped me enormously as you want to capture the event and people without getting in the way and ruining other people’s experiences.

Image by Philip Volkers

Were there any particular challenges that you faced?

It’s a very inhospitable place to live for ten days; nothing can live out there, you will not see any wildlife. The heat during the day is incredible. Last year it was recorded at 47 °C in the shade and at night it can fall to freezing temperatures.

One of the main principles of Burning Man is radical self-reliance. You have to bring everything you need to the desert, there is no money, and everything is gifted. The only thing you can buy is coffee at centre camp and ice, everything else you have to bring with you. The amount of water you need for a week is staggering!

The batteries are getting better, thankfully, but you still need a load of extra ones if you are shooting all day. I have about four or five extra batteries with me at all times as it’s a challenge to keep everything charged and to keep track of all your kit in the desert. This year I was in a camp called Ooligan Alley, a huge sound camp with a Funktion One sound system. Luckily we had a huge generator to power our camp so keeping equipment charged wasn’t too hard.

Another aspect of photographing an event like this is getting right into the thick of it. It’s a health and safety nightmare; there are explosions, propane fire shows, enormous mutant vehicles cruising past you on the desert… you have to keep your wits about you. A few years ago I was in the inner circle on the Saturday night when the Man was set on fire. The materials they used that year were highly flammable and the wind picked up and blew dust devils (tornadoes caused by the heat from the fire) towards us. I was near a fire marshal and he had to grab me and pull me away with my jacket and rucksack on fire.

Image by Philip Volkers

Which Olympus cameras and lenses did you use, and what’s your typical approach under such challenging conditions?

I think I have shot on every Olympus DSLR in the desert. In 2006, my first trip out to Burning Man, I used the E1, Olympus’ first digital SLR. Since then I have used the OM-D E-M5, E-M1 and the new E-M1 Mark II. The new pro lenses on the Olympus are fantastic, they are great in low light and very sharp. I love to shoot with the motor drive on the Mark II and as long as you have a fast card you can shoot a lot of images in a burst; this is good for me as I like to capture movement. You just have to be prepared to do a bit more editing. My favourite lenses to take to Burning Man are the M.Zuiko 7-14mm F2.8 PRO, 12-40mm F2.8 PRO and 40-150mm F2.8 PRO.

The kit copes very well under the circumstances. It really helps that all the Olympus camera and lenses are hermetically sealed and have a dust removal system built into the camera. I normally have my camera on manual as the light changes so quickly in the desert, especially when there’s dust in the air. In the evenings I will play a lot with the ISO. This makes a big difference when the light starts going down and you need a longer exposure.

I always take a tripod with me as well; it’s a good idea to have the camera stabilised. For extra light I used a Quantum flash head with wireless triggers for my portraits as this gives a really nice fill in for portraiture, especially with the beautiful blown-out light from the desert. The new OM-D E-M1 Mark II is a great camera. It’s very light and versatile, and is perfect for photographing at a festival. Its rugged design means you can really knock it about. I am very happy to take it with me wherever I go, whether it’s a wedding, out and about, or a dystopian festival in the middle of the desert.

Image by Philip Volkers

What advice would you give to our readers who may have a photo project idea of their own that they want to pursue?

Go for it! Doing personal projects keeps you passionate about what you have chosen to do. My main aim for photographing festivals like Burning Man is that it has always given me a good excuse to attend. As long as I am taking photographs I can justify going back again and again. I didn’t realise it would take me a decade though!

Also, what advice can you give on how to get better travel images and magazine-worthy shots? What should people look for and how can they get their work noticed?

Always take a good camera with you, get up early to take advantage of the best light or wait until sunset when you have the golden hour; for landscapes this is the best time to capture photographs. In terms of portraiture, it serves to be nice and ask people if you can take their photograph; I believe that you are given a photograph by a person.

Image by Philip Volkers

What have you got in the pipeline?

I am already working on my next book – I’m planning to do a book on horses around the world. Last year I was fortunate enough to travel to the Gypsy festival in the Camargue, where I got to photograph the beautiful white horses in marshes. I have also been out to the USA and worked with the mustangs and crossed the Namibian desert on horses a few years ago. There are some more places I would like to visit but that will be in the future.

Where can we buy Dust to Dawn?

I will be having an exhibition at the Project Space running from 9 to 16 September and will be exhibiting a selection of my images from Burning Man which will be printed and part-sponsored by Metro Imaging. The book will be available, so I’d encourage readers to come down and say hello. My book will also be available through my website.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 58 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.