Capturing the Sights of Dragon Con: An Interview with Fong Dong

If you’ve spent much time at Dragon Con, you’ve seen the people with the big cameras and the red Dragon Con Photography armbands. Whatever the time, day or night, they’re present at all the major events. The Daily Dragon sat down with Fong Dong, Director of Photography for Dragon Con, to find out how the Con’s roving photographers do their jobs.

Daily Dragon (DD): When did you start working with Dragon Con photography, and what draws you to it?

Fong Dong (FD): This is my twentieth year. I was a photographer at the old Fantasy Fair for many years. When that folded, one of my co-volunteers asked if I wanted to do this.  I said sure.  I was a regular photographer for 15 years and have been director for the last five.  I’ve always enjoyed photography and was going to cons and taking pictures long before I started volunteering.

DD: How far ahead of the con do you start planning?

FD: Unlike most departments, there’s very little I can do pre-show other than make sure my staff is on board.  I do that a couple of months out.  I make sure we have the right computers and support materials lined up.  Work starts about two weeks out, when the schedule is printed. I find out what the convention needs covered and what the photographers want to cover and then assign photographers for the weekend.

DD: How do you find your staff, and how many of them are there?

FD: I have 19 photographers and four librarians on staff.  Even though the volunteer commitment is 25 hours, most of them work about 60. Finding staff has been an odd process over the years, going back to before I was director.  We started out as a group from the Fantasy Fair. About half a dozen of us who had worked other shows formed the nucleus. I’ve had recommendations over the years, and people volunteer.  We have no formal training, so the learning curve is a vertical cliff.

To join our staff, you have to already have good photography skills.  Sometimes people email me, and then I check their portfolios and talk to them on the phone.  I prefer verbal contact over email to vet the staff.  The armband provided by show is … I like the phrase used by Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” That armband allows complete, full access to the show.  The only areas we’re not allowed in are the green rooms for the guests.  I have to know I can trust the people who wear that armband.

DD: How many events does your staff cover?

FD: Generally the show asks to have 40 to 50 specific events covered, including some specific guests and panels. Unlike with other departments, the entire convention is the space we’re responsible for.  Our job is to document the convention.  When our photographers step onto the floor with cameras in hand, they’re on the clock until they go to their rooms and pass out or go home. We shoot everything—fans, parties, panels, guests, interesting costumes, and so on.  We may stick our heads in a panel if we hear it’s good, even if it isn’t on our schedule.

DD: Which events need the most photographers for coverage? How do you handle them?

FD: Because the parade is so big, it’s open to all if they choose to go. Generally, 10 to 15 of the 19 are likely to be there because they love the parade.  We may assign multiple photographers to cover a specific guest.  For example, if there’s a Battlestar Galactica panel and we need a group shot, we do that backstage before the panel, with two photographers.  One is primary and the other’s backup. We may not need two, but the guests’ time is important.  Having backup, we can get it right and get them out there onstage.

The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday costume contests also have two photographers for the same reason.  We allow only two photographers for the art show and autograph alley as a courtesy to the vendors and guests in those areas.  Otherwise, photographers can request to see specific events, but we assign no more than two to most events.

DD: Aside from the Daily Dragon, who uses the photos your staff generates?

FD: Last year, we supplied a large group of photos to newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We create the Closing Ceremonies slideshow and one for the Dead Dog Party. We also provide photos to magazines, newspapers, and other publications, some overseas but most stateside. Some of these are news publications and some are event-oriented.  We sent a photo to a parenting magazine last year and supplied photos for an Atlanta Magazine article in August 2014.

DD: What’s the biggest challenge you and your staff face during the event?

FD: Our biggest challenge is the overall footprint of this massive convention. Our photographers work in all five host hotels as well as the Apparel Mart and the Aquarium. Even with 19 shooters, we have a hard time covering all of that space and all of the events. So we have to be careful how we schedule our staff. We can’t have someone covering an event at the Hyatt and be at another event right after at the Sheraton. Also, the crowds make it difficult to move quickly, especially with a lot of expensive gear hanging off of our bodies, so we really have to take that into consideration in order to get everything covered and to not make our jobs a constant live version of “The Running Man”.

DD: What do you enjoy most about Dragon Con weekend?

FD: The energy. As a photographer, my first love is not so much management as the inordinate number of opportunities to get photos—moments like Patrick Stewart backstage meeting a child from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, guests interacting with fans, people having a good time.  We always have a few photographers go through the dealer’s room and take pictures of people buying things.  This year we’re doing macro photographs, close-ups of some small items.  Tiny figures, shot close, look giant. We want viable and creative images of those products.

I consider myself a photojournalist.  I try to shoot with a longer lens and keep a low profile because as soon as people see cameras pointed at them, they straighten up. We’re trying to capture people enjoying panels, having fun, and seeing friends, and we don’t want to taint that moment with a lens.

Our photographers have different backgrounds.  One is a wedding photographer, one works for the symphony, and another is an architectural photographer. The wide range of the staff’s experiences and backgrounds gives us more of a variety of pictures.

DD: Would you like to share any particular experiences with our readers?

FD: Sometimes, our photographers can’t get to a panel right at the beginning. I ran into one such panel featuring the beautiful Marina Sirtis a few minutes after it had started. Apparently I had missed the beginning, where she asked everyone to get their picture-taking done right away, and then not take any photos for the rest of the panel. As I am known to do, I went right up the center aisle, with my big honking lens pointed right at her, kneeled on the floor and proceeded to shoot. She stopped her panel and called me out on it, telling me I had missed the opportunity to take photos of her by being late. I apologized and explained that I worked for the convention and that I was just there to do my job. She accepted my apology and, right there in front of everyone, did several poses, just for me.

Some guests aren’t comfortable with photographers.  They don’t realize we aren’t paparazzi.  We have no interest in putting out photos that make them look bad or awkward.  That’s why the armband is so important and why I protect it so zealously.  Everyone on my staff is a professional and will conduct themselves in that manner, or they won’t be on my staff anymore.

In closing, to all the fans that may read this, please understand that we have a job to do.  It’s not our intention to interfere with your enjoyment.  If one of us is blocking your view, please know we’ll move as soon as we get the shot we have been asked to get.  We appreciate your consideration in allowing us to do that job.

DD: Thank you for your time.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.