Where photographer Arthur Drooker has gone, we’ve followed. We were in awe of the openly eccentric and colorful BronyCon, but his latest venture into the world of convention attendees delivers an entirely different wow factor. This next stop—en route to a photo book titled “Conventional Wisdom“—takes the deeply personal and ties it down, smack dab in the spotlight. Welcome to Fetish Con, a place for face-sitting, bondage and finding a whole lot of pleasure in pain.
Around 3,500 attendees gathered this August at the Tampa Hilton to discuss, observe and engage in a myriad of sexual fantasies. Originally known as BondCon when it began in New York 12 years ago, the event relocated to Tampa in 2004 and has continued to grow annually. According to Drooker, “despite the edgy fare and uninhibited vibe, FetishCon at its core shares much in common with even the most staid gatherings documented in ‘Conventional Wisdom.'” While discussing the event with Sandra Silvers, a model and fan-voted “guest of honor” at Fetish Con, the idea of unity once again manifested. “There’s a family feeling here,” she told Drooker while at her booth, decorated with large photos of her in various bondage poses. “It’s a chance to see people we don’t normally see. It’s more like a reunion.”
Workshops and lectures—such as BDSM Without the Bullshit, Feederism and Facesitting, and Pain is for Pleasure, Not for Injury—drew standing room only audiences, both beginners and tenured. Quips such as “breasts are fun to slap” were mentioned at Intro to Bondage and S&M Lifestyle. But the major takeaway for Drooker was that “it’s about communication between partners and developing trust. That’s good relationship advice no matter one’s sexual proclivities.” After the educational and exploratory sessions, many attendees partied poolside at the Hilton, or at local clubs. Drooker observed that “other attendees ventured into The Dungeon, a hotel meeting room turned private playroom, open from 10PM to 3AM—no cameras allowed, and probably just as well.” Although the nature of the conference reveals exhibitionist behavior, certain shared moments were reserved for more private locations.
Regarding commerce, “the vendor floor was literally abuzz with the sound of industrial strength vibrators and violet wands stimulating female attendees into orgasmic orbit.” The floor was filled with screams and laughter, some of which were emanating from the tickle torture booth. At a “fetish sale” nearby, one could be verbally humiliated for just $5. On the array of items for sale, Drooker saw dealers selling “everything from satin corsets, latex dresses and patent leather boots with 9-inch heels to ropes, ball-gags and blindfolds.” The aisles were a bit arduous as attendees had to navigate around those crawling on all fours, leashed to masters. On his role at the convention, the photographer brings into question observation as a form of participation: “There were more people observing than participating. But many of the observers were also photographers, which could be considered a form of participation.”
The voyeuristic elements of Drooker’s photography define the convention’s balance between public and private. There are many stigmas around everything from erotica to public displays of affection. Fetish Con reveled in these moments and its attendees found a place to truly let loose. “It was amazing to me to see how uninhibited people could be in such a public setting,” Drooker explains. “I assume part of the turn-on for some attendees is being seen in a public setting doing what most people do in private. That’s the essence of exhibitionism, I suppose.” With that in mind, the family reunion observation of Sandra Silvers makes sense: It is a comfortable place for indulging discomfort.
Cool Hunting was invited to follow Arthur Drooker behind-the-scenes as he continues to survey and photograph conventions around the US. All images in this ongoing series are by Arthur Drooker.