As a globetrotting freelance journalist, Jake Warga has never struggled to explain and photograph the cultures of foreign lands, but Americans, of which he is one himself, were always an elusive species. That is, until he trained his lens on U.S. expos and conventions.
“It’s difficult to describe the outside of the house when you are inside of it,” says Warga, 40, who lives in Seattle. “The best way to understand Americans is through their hobbies.”
With an anthropological approach, Warga — who has bylines with This American Life, NPR’s All Things Considered, American Public Media’s Weekend America, and PRI’s The World — has photographed attendees at over a dozen expos and conventions, including cat ladies, comic-book heroes, sex freaks, steampunks and zombies.
“My photographs are technically boring — straight, shadowless — but that’s exactly what I want,” says Warga. “A lot of photographs I see say more about the photographer than the subject. I don’t use fancy lighting. At first, I ask them to pose as if they were sitting for a passport photo; afterward they may perform for the camera.”
Warga uses standard tools — a Canon 5D mark II camera, a 50mm 1.4 lens, AlienBee strobes and a white paper backdrop.
“I want to separate the convention-goers from their environment,” says Warga. “Convention halls can be overwhelming. It’s very difficult to make sense of it all. I want to look at each tree, not the forest.”
Some of the things Warga says he has learned from all the expos include: scrapbookers are the most paranoid people; makeup used by amateur zombie and corpse freaks is as good, if not better, than in Miramax horror sequels; and that if “Erotic” is in the title of any convention, the reality is the opposite.
Of his subjects, the furries are the nicest: “Granted, there’s a lot of teens on E, but they all wanted to hug me after I’d taken their portrait,” he says.
The cat owners are the most amusing: “[The movie] Best in Show doesn’t come close to describing the insanity of those pet competitions!”
But of all the groups, Warga has the most affinity for steampunks. He applauds the certainty of their philosophy, if not always its practical applications.
“Steampunk is based on a premise in literature, that humanity made a mistake with the invention of the internal combustion engine,” says Warga. “If I was to put down a camera and get involved with any group it’d be steampunk. It’s defined by authenticity — you can’t buy a costume, you have to make it. They have panels on airships and how watches work!”
He’s established some ground rules for the project. Big conventions — which Warga thinks are too corporate and lack authenticity — are a no-no. ComicCon, although a large brand, remains manageable in Seattle. He also decided against opportunities to shoot at cheese-maker, barista and dentist expos because he believes it’s our pastimes and not our work that define us.
“People always ask others, ‘What do you do? They should be asking, ‘Who are you?’” he says. “A lot of people have shitty jobs, but once a year they get together and you get a glimpse of their personalities. You can find the toughest dude, but I bet he’s got a model train set in his basement.”
The project is ongoing and there’s still many personalities to be discovered. “I’m fulfilling the obligation of a lost soul,” says Warga. “The best stories in radio or images begin with people to whom you think you’ve no relation, but the longer you look, the more you see yourself.”