For photographer Arthur Drooker, documenting the 10 offbeat conventions in his new book, Conventional Wisdom, was educational. And not just when it came to learning about the communities and subcultures of people who attend events like Bronycon, Military History Fest, and the World Taxidermy Championships.
“Having attended a number of conventions, I was repeatedly impressed by the effort that organizers go through to put on a convention, as well as the staff at the venues where the conventions are held, whether it be a hotel or an actual convention center,” said Drooker, whose previous collections include American Ruins, Heavy Metal, and Pie Town Revisited. “The things that an attendee doesn’t have to or wouldn’t even occur to think of, but someone who’s organizing an event or hosting an event would have to be aware of, whether it’s first aid, utilities, emergencies that might arise. It takes a lot of work to make something look effortless. I found that repeatedly the case at these various conventions I went to, at all different kinds of venues.”
Conventional Wisdom starts with the Association of Lincoln Presenters 2013 Convention in Columbus, Ohio (“They came in all shapes and sizes,” Drooker writes, “proving that anyone can look like Lincoln just by donning a top hat and a frock coat and growing a few whiskers”), and ends with Merfest 2015 in Cary, North Carolina (“One of the attractions of Merfest is that a mermaid or merman can try out their mersona and feel accepted without the fear of judgment that some get from their own families”). In between are conventions for ventriloquists, Santa Claus impersonators, clowns, and more.
No matter who the attendees, they all have one thing in common, Drooker recently told Convene: “All conventions satisfy this basic human urge, this longing to belong.”
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It came in what I would describe as an unintentional or sideways manner. For years, I had produced documentaries for the History Channel, and had worked with reenactors and found their world, their subculture, fascinating, and wanted to explore the possibility of doing some kind of photo series about them. In the course of doing online research for that, I came across the Association of Lincoln Presenters. It just so happened that when I came onto their website, they were promoting their upcoming convention. As soon as I saw that, I said, “Aha, that looks interesting, and that might be the way to go. Conventions. Likeminded people sharing what to others might seem unusual interests, passions, in some cases obsessions, and literally see what is that like.”
I contacted them. They were very nice to me. I introduced myself, explained what I was hoping to do. They were fully onboard. I ended up going to three of their conventions, three years running. I’m tall, I’m thin, I’m a history buff, and I love Lincoln, so they actually invited me to join the group. I politely declined, because I prefer to be an observer.
How did you proceed from there?
Once the Lincolns gave me permission to attend their convention, then I started doing online research about other potential conventions I might visit, and even told friends, “Hey, if you know of any unusual conventions, let me know.” Some friends recommended the ventriloquists convention, which ended up in the book. Another friend had heard an NPR story about the Bronies, these young adult male fans of My Little Pony.
Did you have any specific criteria for the conventions you chose?
I was looking to avoid the really well-known conventions. While I researched them initially, I ultimately decided not to go big-time, like Comic-Con or Elvis Festival, or the big Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. I felt like, in some ways, they had been done. They’re super well-known. A lot of people have attended them. Even if you haven’t been to these conventions, you feel like you know them because they’ve received a lot of coverage. I was really looking for more what I call under-the-radar conventions that are less well known, maybe a little more quirky, and all having great potential for really good photographs.
Yes, that’s true. Again, I’m a photographer and I also write, and I was looking for the potential for really good photos that could express the theme I was working with, which basically boils down to the longing for belonging. We’re all looking for our own kind, our own tribe, people that we share these very intense interests with, where you’re completely accepted. You don’t have to explain or apologize for yourself. That’s something I came across when I went to several of these conventions, where in many cases people would say, “You know, my family thinks I’m weird, I don’t have that many friends, but when I come to this convention, this is the highlight of my year. I feel like I’m with my family.”
Did you feel like an outsider at these conventions?
Initially, yes. There I am, dressed in street clothes, with a camera, with a flash, and a big diffuser on top of it. Out in the street I might appear to be the normal one, so to speak, but at the convention, I’m the one not in clown [costume]. I’m the one not in a fur suit, not in a mermaid tail, not dressed up like Lincoln. At the convention itself, I’m the outsider, but I have to say, everybody welcomed me. I would call in advance and introduce myself to the convention organizers. I wouldn’t just show up, because some of these conventions are private events. Again, like with the Lincolns, I would introduce myself and explain the project to every convention organizer, either on the phone or via email, and get permission, and do research in advance.
It was a wonderful experience. At these conventions, whether it’s the ones I attended or maybe the more “professional” ones you alluded to, there’s a certain kind of buzz that just happens. It would be inhuman of me not to feel it, even though I’m there as an observer and trying to maintain a certain level of detachment. I would say the biggest challenge for me was to walk that fine line from being detached enough to really observe in a very clear-eyed manner and not get sucked into the energy, the vibe, the buzz, whatever you want to call it that is generated when these likeminded people get together.
Did any groups turn you down?
One. The Sons of Confederate Veterans. I approached them as, “Hey, I did the Lincolns, and would love to do you guys, sort of like an equal-time thing.” I was very open and upfront about my intentions, as I was every time I contacted convention organizers, but they turned me down. They didn’t go into a whole lot of explanation. They said that they were a private group and they have an official photographer.
Are they any conventions that didn’t make it into the book?
There was one convention I attended that did not end up in the book. Once I got there, that’s when I realized this is really a trade show and it kind of felt outside the realm of the other conventions that were clearly going to be in the book. The convention I’m referring to is the funeral-directors convention. I thought going into it there’d be a strong potential for interesting photographs that deal, in a very matter-of-fact manner, about death. I did get a few photographs that were kind of quirky and interesting, but when you work on a project like this, at a certain point, once you’re into it, the project in a way starts talking back to you and it tells you what fits and what doesn’t. In the case of the funeral-directors convention, the very few photographs I took that were kind of borderline interesting as far as the book project was concerned just didn’t rise to the level. It really showed me the difference between something that’s strictly a trade show versus something that’s a convention built around a grass-roots interest in something that just takes off.
The “longing for belonging” that you mentioned earlier.
A few of these conventions, whether it’s BronyCon or the mermaid convention, they start out as online communities. People who are on their own, they’ve got this very quirky interest that they’re not really accepted for in their own lives, or they live in remote areas and it’s hard to connect with people who have this same interest as they do. They go online and they find that, “Oh my God, not only am I not alone, but there are thousands and thousands of people out there in these ginormous online communities that feel the same way as I do about this particular interest.”
From a convention standpoint, what I find really interesting is that, for a lot of these people, connecting online is not enough. They want to meet in a physical brick-and-mortar space and share their interest together in the flesh. That to me really speaks to, again, the overarching theme of Conventional Wisdom, which is — regardless of what they’re about, where they’re held, or who attends them, all conventions satisfy this basic human urge, this longing to belong, this longing for belonging.