In June 2016, I got my first email from National Geographic. It was brief and enigmatic, “We have an assignment for you. When can we talk?”
Just a couple of years earlier, I had my work reviewed by an editor at Nat Geo who told me, straightforwardly, that while she liked what she saw, I wasn't a good fit for the magazine. A series I had just finished, Meatpacking, explored the courtship rituals of an infamous nocturnal playground in New York City (more on that in a future post). Before that, I had spent two years photographing the ritual of bachelorette parties in all their decadent glory (more on that later as well). I considered myself then — and still consider myself today—a photographer of the frivolous, peering into the recesses of our collective social experience. Probably not National Geographic material. Vice, maybe.
After reading the email many times over, making sure it was actually addressed to me, I did a happy dance, opened a bottle of wine and excitedly considered all the possibilities. Was I finally going to be a SERIOUS photographer, shooting somewhere on the edge of the world, shedding light on a pertinent and tremendously important cultural issue? Would the assignment be dangerous? By the third glass, I was seeing myself in a heroic light. A Pulitzer was just a shot away.
When I jumped on a phone call with Nat Geo, I thought I was prepared for every eventuality: trekking through the Amazon or covering a refugee crisis. Then I heard what the assignment was. A Santa Claus convention. In the middle of summer. In Branson, Missouri. I was definitely not getting that Pulitzer.
After sulking for a bit and downgrading my heroic fantasies, I slowly sank into a place of acceptance. I may be a photographer of the frivolous, but I take frivolous things very seriously. That's what I’m good at and that's what lured the magazine into my inbox. Santas in Missouri, here I come!
It was a sweltering 90 degrees when I landed in Branson, an anachronistic town in the Ozarks full of country music venues and oddball attractions like the Dolly Parton's Stampede. It was an appropriately bizarre setting for an event billed as the World's Largest Santa Convention, consisting of 750 Santa Claus impersonators, their wives and one real Reindeer. These were not your average shopping mall Santas. These guys were professionals. They had long, carefully groomed, real beards. Fake beards were for posers.
The highlight of the five-day bonanza was the Parade of the Red Suits. All the Santas were dressed in full holiday gear, and they were overheating. Brownie the Reindeer had to be cooled down with a portable fan as he made his way through the city's streets.
I had one major rule when photographing the convention: Don't get seduced by the easy allure of the suit, making it the focus of the images. I aimed to present my subjects as individuals — not just professional Santas. I searched for interesting interactions, off-beat moments. One of my favorite images is of Santa Steven as he lounges by the pool, having finally discarded his heavy winter coat. His luxurious beard, red trunks and regal stature are the only signifiers of his profession.
The question that I got asked the most during my jolly few days at the convention was, "But why would National Geographic be interested in us?" Everyone was amazed, and a little incredulous, to be in the magazine. In this respect, the Santas and I were exactly in the same boat - literally, since we spent the last day of the convention floating around Branson on the Showboat Branson Belle.
In the end, I found out more about the fascinating business of being a professional Santa than a Jewish girl ever dreamed of. And I came back bearing gifts: Photographs that documented both the lighthearted and soulful side of these full-time Saint Nicks. One of the great things about being a photographer is realizing that the real world is often far stranger and more interesting than we imagine. Santa does exist, even in the summertime. And it turns out there’s room in a "serious" magazine for a dedicated chronicler of frivolity like me.
Christmas in July, Inside a Santa Summer Camp. National Geographic.
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