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Photography by Skyler Dahan

Take a trip inside California’s most unconventional conventions

For his debut book, Unconventional, photographer Skyler Dahan disguised himself as an Area 51 survivor, a drag queen, and a Juggalo to better photograph his subcultural subjects

“Over six years, what surprised me the most is that I thought someone would have like discovered me by now,” says Skyler Dahan, who is not an undercover agent but a photographer. His mission: to infiltrate the outsider communities that gather at America’s fan conventions.

The photos he has produced are published in Dahan’s debut book, Unconventional, which offers a glimpse inside California’s grand-scale get-togethers – from CatCon and the Emerald Cup, to the Renaissance Faire and Gathering of the Juggalos. “As a social phenomenon, there truly is nothing like attending a convention in America,” the photographer notes in his introduction to the book.

Based out of LA, Dahan immerses himself in these events, masquerading as fellow fans and posing for photos with chameleon-like subterfuge (literally like a chameleon in one image, taken at a reptile show). He takes on new identities according to the convention, transforming himself into an alien, a snake, a stoner, a gun nut, a clown, an ailurophile, a drag queen, a gearhead, and a 90s Brazilian video game character. “A lot of this project was about bringing a wall down,” Dahan says, “and showing that at the end of the day, we’re all the same, no matter what convention you’re into.”

Conventions are a beloved American pastime. In a sprawlingly fractured country, these spaces offer a sense of acceptance, escape and community. And they also have an impact on global politics – political conventions are where presidential nominees have been chosen since 1832. Today, fan conventions better resemble religious fanaticism; cosplay is a big part of the ritual, and both novices and sages have specific roles in this spectacle.

In high school, Dahan’s first convention was Comic Con. It showed him that his love for video games wasn’t something to be ashamed of but celebrated, and alongside thousands of other fervent gamers, his hobby began to take on more meaning in his life. Growing up in LA, he later relocated to Paris for four years, but he repatriated to his hometown, which he describes as “the epicentre of eccentricity.” He noticed how much louder, flashier, overdone Angelenos were compared to Parisians and wanted to excavate all the cultural offerings Europe could never allow for; “scenes that felt normal for a Californian to stumble across yet so bizarre and foreign to the outside world.”

So, he started taking portraits of convention-goers, while adapting to their subtle codes. In the months and years that followed, Dahan attended so many conventions across the country – including in obscure places like Adultcon and Telluride Mushroom Festival – that his best friend joked he should start dressing up and posing with them. It clicked for him: “I needed to do more than watch: I needed to embody [the] culture,” he says.

His quest began in August 2015, when he walked past a sea of hydraulic cars defying gravity and into the Lowrider Supershow, armed with a disposable camera. He asked strangers with face tats and blank stares if they would kindly take his photo. To his surprise, they all obliged. Growing in confidence, he threw himself into designing his costumes and concocting identities with ornate backstories. Friends or assistants came along later so he could lose himself in these characters. “I like the idea of camouflaging myself, having the camera pointed at me without having to be ‘me,’ he says.

Two main sources of inspiration were actor-prankster Sacha Baron Cohen and photographer Nikki S Lee, agent provocateurs with careers built off their transformations and interactions with people. “As a photographer, I am constantly taking photos of others: having the opportunity to turn the camera on myself was fantastic because control becomes much more negotiable,” he says.

The people on the pages are blissfully unaware that they’re posing for a for-sale book. “A lot of people I take photos of might have something that’s a little off or weird or strange, but I think that’s what makes them interesting,” Dahan says. 

Placing himself in the frame, Dahan shows a respect for his subjects, a desire to meet them where they’re at and photograph them without othering them – creating a feeling of warmth and intimacy as a result.

Unconventional is out now, and available to order through Skyler Dahan’s website.