Porn stars, pimps, and Lincoln impersonators—convention photographer Yvette Marie Dostatni has shot them all

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Convention photographer Yvette Marie Dostatni - ROSARIO ZAVALA
  • Rosario Zavala
  • Convention photographer Yvette Marie Dostatni


Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Yvette Marie Dostatni, convention photographer.

"I guess I thrive on the bizarre. If it’s not there, I’ll find it, and I love looking for it. I’ve been photographing conventions since 2002. I was at McCormick Place, and I saw these nuns going downstairs with a bunch of bikers, so I took my camera and followed them. I still have no idea why the nuns were there, but I followed the bikers into a biker convention—I think they thought I was working for Harley-Davidson, because I was wearing an orange shirt and motorcycle boots—and I thought, God, it would be great, just photographing conventions. I’ve photographed over 20 of them now, and I’m working on a book.

"I just went to a hobo convention in Britt, Iowa, and that was fun. Apparently a hobo is not a homeless person; it’s a person who rides the rails looking for work. I’ve also been to the Players Ball, the pimp convention. It was in a dive bar, East of the Ryan. People were showing up in $30,000 mink coats, and there was water dripping from the ceiling into cans. There was one pimp who had women following him around like a choo-choo train. Every time he turned, they turned with him.

"The furthest I’ve traveled was to a convention of Abraham Lincoln presenters up by Detroit. It was hot, and everybody was wearing their Lincoln suits and their top hats, and they all got on a bus to go see the rocking chair Lincoln sat in—that was the highlight of the convention. The alarm went off at night in the hotel, and all these Lincolns ran outside. I was surrounded by Lincolns in the middle of the night.

"When you’re at one of these conventions, you’re in a bubble. It’s so surreal that it becomes real, you know? So when you photograph it, it doesn’t seem bizarre anymore; it just seems like you’re cataloging a culture. I went to the Everything to Do With [Sex] show, and there was a porn star there who was selling replicas of her butt. There was a long line of men waiting to buy them. I remember somebody grabbing me and saying, 'Here, take a picture of her.' This porn star looked so happy to be holding her virtual ass.

"For some of ’em, I call up the organizers and say, 'I’m working on a book, and I’d love to come photograph your convention.' For others, I just show up and see if I can get in. I’ve been pretty lucky. There was one that didn’t let me in, the Tampax convention. Oh, there was another—the Christian puppeteers. They said it wasn’t in their best interest.

"I’m not trying to exploit or make fun of people. I am not trying to say, 'Look at the weirdos.' I’m just trying to find the idiosyncrasies that go along with living. It’s like a celebration of what is off the beaten path. I love people who express themselves as individuals. I love people who like to be themselves and are fun to be around.

"I love taking photographs, but I love going to these conventions as well, because I want to enjoy life as I photograph it. Maybe I’m living my life through these conventions, but that’s not such a bad thing. To be an outsider is a hell of a lot more fun than being an insider."

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