"If you have follow-up questions, it might be easiest to email me because I'll be out and about at Bronycon," says photographer Arthur Drooker as we wrap up our interview. Since 2013, the San Francisco-based photographer has been documenting the annual meetings of America's most ardent subcultures. His project, "Conventional Wisdom," represents two years of traveling around the country to Merfest in North Carolina, Fetish Con in Florida and Anthrocon - a yearly meeting of furries - in Pennsylvania. Drooker's images of these three conventions, along with seven others, are slated for release in a photo book in 2016. "The takeaway from all of them," he says, "is the level of acceptance. It's inspiring."
How do you draw a line between documenting a convention and being part of it?
There have been some times at conventions when, for a brief moment, I catch myself slipping into it, because I find it so fascinating. I have to remind myself that I'm there to observe. At the same time, I'm there much like a journalist: I'm not only photographing, I'm also interviewing. So, I've made friends with some of these people.
How many different conventions have you been to so far?
About a dozen, but ten of them are going to end up in the book.
Do you have any more on your calendar?
You're interviewing me as I'm heading to the finish line with the photography. This year, I'm revisiting conventions to do additional photography and research. Tomorrow, I leave for Baltimore to attend one more Bronycon. Then the following weekend, I'm going to St. Petersburg to attend Fetish Con one last time. I'm finishing with a bang. It's probably the wildest convention.
Which conventions are you most engrossed by?
The furry convention, Anthrocon, is maybe the most fascinating. It's a great example of a fandom or subculture which, on the surface, might appear silly. Like, Who are these people dressing up as mascots and cartoon characters? But once you get to know these people, it's so interesting. Furries wear fur suits that represent what they call their "fursonas" - which is who they really are or who they aspire to be. A lot of the furries are very shy, reclusive people but they want to be outgoing, so their fursona becomes this extroverted, fun-loving animal. That way, they can model that behavior when they take their suits off, and the friendships they've made while wearing them can carry on.
There was one young woman I met who credits the fandom with saving her life. It was a revelation for her. There's a team of psychologists who are doing a long-term study of furries. I spoke to one of them and she said that's all too common, unfortunately: a lot of furries feel they're isolated. Then they discover the fandom and that they're not alone, and it becomes a lifeline.
What's the connection between the internet and conventions? I'm sure it's made these fan cultures more connected, but does it also lessen the need to meet in real life?
I asked a convention organizer the same question. He said that yes, people love to connect online and that the internet certainly spreads the word and keeps the community active but however good the internet is, it feels hollow compared to physically being together in the same room.
People at various conventions have told me that the convention is the highlight of their year, that everything works toward the convention. When you're at these gatherings, you would have to be inhuman not to feel the buzz that's generated by the people who share these passions. When the convention is over, it's almost like a physical and psychological let down. There's a term for it: post convention blues.
Especially with something like Anthrocon, where you're really adopting a different persona, I can imagine that going back to your other life would be traumatic.
Yeah, exactly. The furries and the mermaids, when they're amongst their own kind they don't have to explain themselves, whereas some of them get judged a lot within their own families. They are the crazy cousin or something like that, but when they're amongst their own kind, they are like, Hey, I'm normal, I don't have to explain myself, I don't have to apologize.
Do you think there's a shared personality type among members of all these really intense communities?
Each convention is organized around a very strong passion or obsession that needs to be expressed. They're very free about it and I have to say it's inspiring. Regardless of what they're about or where they're held, they satisfy this longing for belonging.
Have there been aspects of any individual subcultures that have been harder to accept?
The first time I went to these conventions, for the first five minutes I was like really? But after 10 or 15 minutes it's like, oh yeah, seen that. But Bronycon was the one where I had to work the hardest to see a way into it. Seeing these young adult males express this deep interest in My LIttle Pony… I grew up in a different generation, with a different definition of masculinity. Clearly, this younger generation, compared to mine, has a more fluid definition of masculinity. And I've come to accept that. One of the talks that I attended the first time I was at Bronycon, in 2013, was titled "So I Raised a Brony" and it was for parents of Bronies. It was fascinating. I remember distinctly one mother saying that, because of the bullying, she would rather her son had told her he was gay than a Brony because gay people are more accepted than Bronies. That's the thing about Bronycon and Anthrocon, especially: the degree of acceptance is amazing.
Are there people who don't want to be photographed?
Yes. But very rarely. At the fetish convention a few people have asked me very nicely if I would avoid photographing them. Of course I don't want to expose or embarrass anybody. But most of these conventioneers are excellent exhibitionists. In some cases, like with the clowns or with the furries, they like being photographed so much that when you put your camera up they automatically go into a pose - but that's not what I'm looking for. I'm like, "Go back to what you were doing!"
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Arthur Drooker