The Thing About Photo-Ops at Comic Con

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Me with actor, John Barrowman (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Arrow) at Ottawa Pop Expo, November 2014.

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Me with actor, James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville, Caprica) at Ottawa Pop Expo, November 2014.

I consider myself to be a bit of a nerd. I enjoy going to Comic Con (mostly the ones held in Ottawa and Montreal so far) to celebrate nerd culture and sci-fi/pop culture with other like-minded people. I love seeing all the cosplay costumes, the vendors, and just wandering around the convention halls taking it all in. Another reason why I like going to Comic Con is that I get the opportunity to meet the actors who are in my favourite television shows and movies. There a handful of ways that you can meet actors at Comic Con: 1) autograph sessions, 2) Q&A panels, and 3) photo-ops.

The photo-op phenomenon is bizarre, yet interesting. When I was standing in line at Ottawa Pop-Expo waiting in line for my photo-ops with John Barrowman and James Marsters, I kept thinking to myself that this was probably one of the strangest things in the world–like, why would people want to spend money to be photographed beside an a person they have never met before?

Fans pay lots of money (photo-ops can range from $40-100 depending on the actor) to only spend a few seconds with their favourite actors. Usually, this is how a photo-op goes down: you are rushed in, you get to say hello to the actor, you pose and smile, the flash goes off, and you are rushed out to collect your photographic print. The whole interaction lasts for maybe less than a minute.

However, this very short interaction becomes immortalized in a photograph. The photograph is turned into souvenir that will last longer than those few seconds that it took to take the photo. As a result, the photo-op becomes more about the lasting impact of the photograph than it is about the moment of interaction itself. The shared reaction that we and our friends have to looking at the photograph means more in the long run than the actual moment of meeting the actor one is being photographed with. We participate in a shared “nerdiness” of a love for whatever television show/movie that the actor represents in the photo-op.

I think that this ties into what Susan Sontag discusses in On Photography (“In Plato’s Cave) when she talks about tourism photography and capturing experiences in a photograph. Tourists take photographs to remember certain parts of a trip that they want to be memorable so that they can share their experience with friends and family later on. I think the photo-op is analogous to this; it is almost as if fans at Comic Con are tourists photographing themselves with famous actors instead of famous places. It also speaks to Sontag’s idea that “photography has become one of the principle devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation” and that “picture-taking is an event in itself.” (Sontag, 10-11).

In order to unpack this a bit more, I will refer to the last Comic Con that I went to in November 2014, Ottawa Pop Expo. As usual, I wanted to check out the vendors and cosplay costumes that people made, however my main goal was to obtain photographs with Barrowman and Marsters (see above). I don’t know why I felt the need to have my photograph taken with them besides the fact that I am a fan of their work on various television programs. Maybe it was a need to collect photographs? Maybe the reason was that it would give shape to my Comic Con experience in some way? Or maybe it was a desire to be linked to the television shows that I loved so much? Probably all of the above in some way or another. But, the picture-taking at the photo-op ended up being THE event of my Ottawa Pop Expo 2014 experience, because I did not stay for the rest of the convention.

Furthermore, some people have used the photo-op as a backdrop for some pretty significant life moments, such as proposals. They have used the event of getting a photo-op with celebrities to create a totally different experience than what photo-ops were originally intended for.

A proposal at a photo-op with Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Matt Smith (Doctor Who, Terminator: Genisys)

A proposal at a photo-op with Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Matt Smith (Doctor Who, Terminator: Genisys)

Photo-ops remain to be a strange phenomenon to me–even though I am guilty of participating in this kind of photographic tourism. Ultimately, fans just want to be seen with their favourite actors and have this moment immortalized in a photograph to be framed, posted online, and shared with their friends and family to “nerd out” over later on. Like I said earlier, it is more about the impact that the photograph will have than it is about the rushed moment of meeting the actor in person.

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