There seem to be conventions for every kink these days: Comic-Con, FanimeCon, DragonCon. But The Conventioneers, a project that photographer Yvette Marie Dostatni started more than a decade ago, gives shape to the true breadth of American convention culture. From Abe Lincoln lookalikes to the mink coat-wearers at the Players Ball for pimps, from clowns to swinger moms, the subjects of Dostatni’s project are deeply American in their diversity and eccentricity. For The Conventioneers, the Chicago-native photographer visited more than 20 conventions around the country to capture the unique layers, languages and rules of convention culture, and somehow, despite the weirdness, she always felt accepted. Today, she’s raising funds to attend a few more conventions and release her first book. She joined R&K from her home in Chicago.
Roads & Kingdoms: What is it about conventions that fascinate you?
Yvette Marie Dostatni: I started by going to a dog show back in 2002, and I saw these nuns go downstairs, they were surrounded by bikers. I thought that was pretty interesting so I just followed them into a biker convention. That’s when I started photographing bikers and I got to photograph the One Percenters Motorcycle Club, who never let themselves be photographed. When I looked at the negatives, I thought it was an interesting slice of American culture, how people get together for two, three days with others who are just like them.
R&K: How do you select each convention?
Dostatni: I search the newspapers and I listen to the radio. Friends tell me about conventions that they’ve been to or that they find interesting. That’s actually how I found the cougar convention. My friend told me about that one. And another friend of mine told me about the clown convention – I was there within 24 hours.
R&K: Are you specifically looking for the more unusual gatherings?
Dostatni: No, I would love to go to dentist conventions and things like that, but there’s just conventions for everything. It’s not like I’m searching out unusual conventions, they just happen to be there. And these are not happening in off-the-wall places, they’re sometimes happening in places you could land small aircraft carriers in. It’s not like they’re undiscovered. Thousands of people go to these conventions.
R&K: You’ve been doing this for a while – did one specific convention particularly resonate with you?
Dostatni: Well, I used to think I was a horrible photographer, so I didn’t look at the negatives for years. It wasn’t until recently that Teri Boyd, the editor of the City 2000 project, started going through the project and reediting it with me. It’s been like a trip down memory lane. Each convention is different, I remember polka dancing at the polka convention. I love polka and I’m starting to play the accordion actually. The Fur Fest was unusual because people were so into it that they got their face tattooed and got implants in their skin. I got my back scratched while I was changing my film and I was like “Okayyy…” But I guess that was a sign of affection. At the pimps convention, Snoop Dogg and Bootsy Collins showed up and the place went crazy. The police had to redirect traffic so that Snoop Dogg could get in. It was in a little dive bar. They had put out garbage cans so the water that leaked from the ceiling wouldn’t damage their $20,000 mink coats.
R&K: What is the first thing you do when you get to a convention? Do you stay for the full two, three days?
Dostatni: No. I think that would be overwhelming. I get overpowered when I’m at a convention. I’m the kind of person that when I go there, I open myself up to whatever’s there, so I can only stay a couple of hours. Most of the time I go alone. I walk around, I spend a good portion of the time talking to people and then I start shooting. It’s not about walking in and flashing right away. I carry a high-powered flash and I sometimes feel embarrassed by that, like I’m blinding people. So I walk in, I get the feel of the place, I talk to people and then I start photographing.
R&K: Do you sometimes find it difficult to connect with people who have such alternative lifestyles?
Dostatni: I don’t know, I really love the people I meet. I don’t consider them freakish or anything like that. I think everybody’s got their own story that they’ve got, their own secret passion or whatever. I just am very interested in people and what makes them different. I play pool obsessively and sometimes I feel like I’m in the Big Lebowski but I would rather be in the Big Lebowski movie than in Friends, you know. I find that people who go to these conventions are very interesting and appealing to me, both to photograph and to meet. Because to me, this isn’t only about the photographs, it’s about the experience as well. I’m there to enjoy my life and meet people.
R&K: Still, it must feel like you’re entering a different world each time…
Dostatni: Yes. With its own language, its own rules, its own costuming… Some of the people, like the attendees of the clown convention, they’ve been gathering every year for a very long time. Some people come from South America, some people come from India, and they travel to these conventions and they become their own tribe, their own people. It’s a family homecoming. So yes, people come days beforehand and turn them these places into their own world. At the little people’s convention, the whole hotel was set up for little people, they had step stools so they could reach the counters. I just think it’s an interesting topography of different cultures within the United States.
R&K: What do you think these conventions reflect about American society?
Dostatni: I think we are so disparate as a country. When we reach a certain age, we move out of our house, we go to different cities and we lose our connection with our families. A lot of people from Europe will see The Conventioneers and say, “you leave your families so young and it seems like you’re trying to go back and find people who are just like you again, a sense of community, a sense of people you can reach out and talk to.” And I think that’s our culture. We leave our families and a piece of us is missing from the moment we leave home for college.
R&K: Do you sometimes feel like an outsider among these people who have so much in common?
Dostatni: I’ve never felt like an outsider. I completely fit in, especially at the cougar convention when I realized I was a cougar. But I never, never, felt like an outsider. Everybody’s been very accepting and people have told me things about themselves that I don’t think they would normally tell other people. Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider myself.
R&K: So perhaps these conventions are places where people can really be themselves in a safer environment than in the rest of society?
Dostatni: Yes. I do not think that people are going around telling others that they dress up as clowns on the weekends. The Abe Lincoln ones, I don’t think they can get away with that, but yes, I guess it’s a way of being yourself in a world where 99% of your time you have to pretend you’re somebody else. I think conventions are places where people can escape and be who they want to be.
R&K: I can certainly see their pride in your photos, and that might be a contrast with their everyday lives…
Dostatni: Oh that’s good, because I’m not trying to make fun of people. I find the people that I photograph beautiful. At Hair World, they have all these beautiful models walking around and people who are more so-called perfect, but I find the crowd more perfect than I would find the supermodel. I just think it’s so much more interesting to let yourself be human.