These are the strangest conventions in America

Arthur DrookerMerfest in North Carolina

Each year, there are approximately 1.8 million conventions, conferences, and trade shows in the United States. Conventions are a big business and, for many, an even bigger social event.

From clown conventions to BronyCon, conventions provide an outlet for niche communities to gather and celebrate their sometimes unusual interests with like-minded people.

For the last two years, photographer Arthur Drooker has been investigating the sometimes weird, always interesting world of conventions. Through them all, he’s found one common theme.

“No matter what they’re about, where they’re held or who attends them, all conventions satisfy a basic human urge: the longing for belonging,” says Drooker.

Drooker shared some photos from the project with us here, but you can check out the rest on his website, Conventional Wisdom.

When choosing what conventions to attend, Drooker wanted to avoid oversaturated events like ComicCon or Star Trek. He was looking for those like the Association of Lincoln Presenters, the first convention he attended, that have a grassroots following.

At the Lincoln convention in Columbus, Ohio, 150 people dressed as Lincoln. The group's goal is to provide real-looking Lincolns to reenactments, parades, and schools.

Each convention was full of people that were 'passionate and obsessive' about their interests. Drooker says the energy was infectious. The Vent Haven Convention in Cincinnati bills itself as 'the oldest and largest annual gathering of ventriloquists.' The convention has open mics, appearances by pros, and workshops on how to ventriloquize.

Attendees at Vent Haven range from small children who want to be performers to adults who make a living performing for kids. Many conventions tell attendees to watch out for the 'post-convention blues.' Conventions are so exciting for attendees that, afterwards, many feel disappointed that they have to return to their normal lives.

The atmosphere at the conventions he attends is incredibly positive, says Drooker. At the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships, a five day convention in Springfield, Illinois. a taxidermist told him, 'This isn't a convention. It's a family reunion.'

The edgiest convention that Drooker attended may be Fetish Con, a Tampa convention for people to engage in all different sexual fantasies. Despite the explicit content, Drooker says that the atmosphere at the convention was that of a family reunion. ''It's a chance to see people we don't normally see,' one attendee told him.

Some conventions have wild parties both at the convention and after. Drooker says that Fetish Con is known for having parties after the after-parties. At night, a hotel meeting room is turned into 'The Dungeon,' a private room for attendees to engage in fetishes.

Arthur Drooker

The annual gathering of the World Clown Association was a colourful sight. The convention is a time for clowns work on their skills, from body movement and facial expressions to make up and physical comedy.

Drooker says that attending the convention gave him a deeper appreciation for the art of clowning. 'They are very serious about their art. They see it as an artistic performance,' says Drooker.

Some conventions are in unexpected places. The Santa Celebration, hosted by the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, is held in Tampa, Florida. At the convention, Santas are taught how to answer typical questions that children ask and taught how to act as Santa. Vendors sell Santa suits, props, and sleighs.

Anthrocon is the world's largest convention for anthropomorphics, or 'furries.' The furry community is known as being very positive and open-minded. It is far from the 'hyper-sexual' community it is portrayed as by the media. One attendee told Drooker credited the furry community with saving her life. She had felt so isolated before attending the convention that she was on the verge of suicide.

Many furries have a 'fursona,' or an animal identity that is a representation of the person they would like to be. This woman, who goes by the name Thumpie Bunny Eve, told Drooker that the convention is 'the highlight' of her year.

Merfest in North Carolina is a convention to celebrate 'merfolk.' Attendees wear mermaid tails, swim together in the aquatics center, and generally celebrate sea life. Tails can sell for as much as $4000. They are custom-made out of silicone, which gives it a skin-like feel and buoyancy.

Like furries, many attendees adopt a 'mersona,' or character bearing a personality or traits they wish to exhibit. Cookie Ramirez, shown here having her wedding at Merfest, is known as 'the Harlem Mermaid.' She credits adopting a 'mersona' with helping her get over agoraphobia and working through bipolar disorder.

Of all the conventions that Drooker attended, he says BronyCon, for adult fans of Hasbro's animated TV series 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,' was 'the most spirited.' Over 8,000 people attended the convention. He sought to show how 'Bronies' defy their stereotype as weirdos, instead showing off how the community is tight-knit, supportive, educated, and open-minded.

It is a wild and strange world...

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