On Book Conventions, Photoshoots, and Boundaries

This past week was BookExpo/BookCon in New York City, and as usual, it was incredibly busy and exhausting. It was also super fun and great! But, as I thought more on my experience this week, I decided I wanted to share some of my feelings with the internet. There were around 70 people in our group photo the first day of BookCon, and as a result of that photoshoot, there’s been a lot of miscommunication and tension. I decided I wanted to be open and honest with you guys about how I’m feeling because I am the person who set-up those photos and I’m the person who’s taken most of the “official” photos for the bigger booktubers.

A few years ago I started taking photos of my friends at conventions because I needed the practice and I loved doing it. (Still do.) It brings me so much joy, and that's why I keep doing it whenever I can. However, this year's convention week was kind of overwhelming for me. Until this BookCon, I didn’t realize how stressful it is to schedule group photos, take photos for a million individuals, and send some of those images to people to post on Instagram while the convention is happening. I think I pushed down the overwhelming feeling because I was having fun and I wanted to be *seen* and praised, but looking back on it now, I am exhausted.

I think I will have amassed close to 8,000 photos from this past week in New York. (If you want a reference point, most of my professional shoots that last an hour have about 300-500 photos. And my weddings are maybe 3000 tops.) All I’m saying is, that’s a SHITTON of photos. This year I didn't really get individual photos out to people the day of, I hardly did any timely edits for Instagram. At the end of the day, I felt like I let people down by not giving them all this content I have to offer. And by “letting people down,” I actually mean letting myself down because I’ve done this at almost every convention since 2017 and it’s become my goal to give people some day-of Instagram content to post on their feed. Which is honestly bullshit because no one even asked for that. I had multiple people telling me not to worry about it, to focus on taking care of myself, etc. (Honestly all my friends have been nothing but supportive this week and I kinda feel like I’ve been the center of attention this week and…it’s been very nice actually. So thanks for making me feel important guys — truly.)

I took almost a thousand photos a day for almost 5 days straight, and it's just not POSSIBLE to have a fast turn around with that. On top of that, I felt like I was really not up to my normal quality standards because all my shoots were rushed, relocated, or missing key people. I had all these expectations from past conventions where I shot maybe 10 people every day and we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted without drawing attention. This time was slightly more challenging. But it was also so much fun!! I genuinely LOVE getting to take photos of my friends because they’re all gorgeous and kind and they dress up so nice!! I do photography because it is a wonderful passion of mine, and even taking 8,000 photos in a week can’t make me mad at this point. However…it’s a lot for my brain to handle right now.

I’d also like to add, because it’s important, that I do this all voluntarily. As in…no one hired me to do this and no one is required to pay for my services. My main job at home is working as a professional photographer, and so even though this is my passion, it’s also work for me. However, it was always important to me to not charge people because I know good photos are hard to come by, and in the beginning, I was the one BEGGING people to let me take their photo. (Like I would message my now-friends and go “Okay but will you please let me take pictures for you because I think I can help your social media presence!”) And as time went on, there was really no reason (and no polite way) to ask my dear friends for money when I knew I would be taking photos regardless. For fun. And for social media exposure. (When I do this, I usually gain at least a few hundred followers in those weeks surrounding the convention. Isn’t that payment enough? …that is the question.) I already didn’t really want payment in the first place because I like being generous when I can, but on top of that, I don’t really have the business bitch attitude to ask my friends for money. So what can ya do?

I would like to pause and reiterate this here because it's important: above all, I want to be inclusive and accessible. It is my mission to use my photography to make people feel confident, loved, and beautiful, and if I have the opportunity to do that (regardless of payment), I will. There’s no way I would want to turn someone away from free photos just because I’m tired or because I want to sit down or because I don’t want to edit them later…even if I don’t know the person well or we’ve only talked once on Twitter. (Does this sound ridiculous reading back? Definitely, but that’s how my brain works at cons.) A lot of my best friends are people who(m?) I photographed without actually knowing them in the first place, and then we ended up bonding as a result of that photoshoot. However, because I am a Type 5, I will ignore my own needs to work on a project (read: PHOTOSHOOT). I think a lot of that comes from me going to a Type 7 when I’m stressed, so I push down the pain and the bad stuff and just go hard on whatever I’m working on. This means that even though mentally I think I’m doing fine, when I process the events later (or when my friends are like “Uhhh you’re working too hard and you need to chill”), I’ll come to find out that uh…yeah…I was really not fine because I wasn’t taking care of myself at all.

That said, a lot of the stress I felt this week was self-imposed. Not one of my friends pushed me to do anything unreasonable - in fact, most told me not to do any of the work I was doing. They kept telling me to stop or to work on it later or to eat lunch instead of editing (true story), but the fact is, when I put my mind to something…like giving people photos to post on Instagram, few things can derail me because I’m stubborn as hell. But even so, a lot of that stress also came from the increasing size of our group. This year was probably the biggest convention group we've had...maybe ever. It's because we're being inclusive. Because I work hard to make it inclusive.

But at the end of the day, what Twitter sometimes fails to understand, is that for me and my friends, this isn’t always some BookTube crew where we gather all the booktubers and hang out in one group. The BookTube community is far too big these days for us to hang out with every single BookTube creator in one group at a convention. It just doesn’t make sense. More than that, for us this is our friend group. We have created relationships with people over the past few years, and these are people with whom we feel safe, with whom we’ve travelled across the country (dare I say the world?), with whom we have purposefully connected. They’re people who we KNOW and trust, and therefore, we feel comfortable being around them for extended periods of time...because we’re all close friends. And sure, just because the group might seem big from the outside, that doesn’t mean we are actively taking in every single person who talks to us. A lot of times people will attach themselves to our group without our knowing or without our explicit permission, and that unfortunately leads to discomfort, hurt feelings, invasions of privacy, and overwhelming photoshoots. And that is because we haven’t set boundaries. Our specific friend group is only a small portion of people who attend these events...and that’s because we are just a group of friends. We aren’t the whole BookTube community.

But, for some reason since we’re some of the main people who post about conventions through photos on Twitter, many who don’t attend these events assume that we are the be-all, end-all in the community. (Which, maybe we are if most of our people have hundreds of thousands of followers, but who’s to say…) These people assume that since our group has a lot of white people (but we also have a number of POC people in our group?), then there aren’t many POC creators at an event or that we as a group aren’t actively discussing the need for more representation. They assume that since our group posts group photos, it’s excluding everyone else who didn’t take group photos or who didn’t get to be in ours. They make these assumptions for valid reasons -- they want to be included, they want to see more diversity, their feelings are hurt -- but at the end of the day, it’s hard to understand a situation if you aren’t there in person, and most times it’s not that dramatic.

I have made an active effort to reach out to smaller creators to make sure they get in photoshoots or that I can take photos for them, and I do that because I’m personally friends with those creators and I trust them. I know what it’s like to be excluded or to not be the cool kid or to want to try & break into a group but not knowing how to do that. So I want to be someone who can bridge the gap, who can make sure no one gets left behind or forgotten. This isn’t to say that anyone in our group is deliberately exclusive, but people can get naturally cliquey, and I also think it can be hard to make new friends or join certain friend groups. In the book world or in life. And photos are an easy way for me to befriend people. Plus, I am also one of those hopeless romantics who wants all their friend groups to merge but forgets that not everyone is destined to be friends and sometimes you can’t merge friend groups no matter how hard you try -- but you still try anyway because you want to include whoever you can.

I have a hard time saying no to people for photos because I genuinely WANT to take everyone's photo. But it's becoming apparent to me that that isn't possible. I have become a hot commodity and so have my friends, and as a result...it's too much. We had SEVENTY FREAKING PEOPLE in a group photo this weekend. And if it weren’t for my close friends supporting me through that…let’s just say I had a moment where I almost broke down. I didn’t let myself fully give into that feeling, but I did notice it at the corners of my brain. We had about 30 people (which was still too much and very unexpected) set up in two rows for the photo, and then more unexpected people showed up and my brain couldn’t process how to pose them or position them. I almost just stopped right there. (Like actually there’s probably vlog footage of me saying “No, we are not doing this.”) But my friends helped, they were patient and quiet, and they made sure to pay attention when I turned into a bossy director. My friends thanked me endlessly, and that was enough for me to carry on.

However, I will point out, that that number, 70 people in one group photo…that was unplanned. And if I’m being honest, I did not want to have to deal with posing that many people for one photo, regardless of being inclusive or showing off our community. Now, if I had set out and said “I want to fit as many as we can in one Bookternet photo! Invite everyone! Let’s do this!” that would be a different story. I would have been mentally prepared to deal with it. But as a volunteer, I did not sign up for that. That was using brain power I did not have. And I want to be open with you about it because I don’t want people online to say “Well what about this group combination? Why wasn’t this person in the photo? Can I be in the next one?” because honestly…I did not ask for this. I did not broadcast myself to the entire Twittersphere saying I would take a Bookternet group photo or a class photo of ALL OF BOOKCON, I just wanted to take a nice photo of my close friends who I hang out with once or twice a year at most. (This isn’t to say I regret the photo or I’m mad at those people for showing up...I’m more just frustrated with the situation and how it came to be. If you were one of those people, please don’t feel like you have to apologize. I value you and I am thankful you are apart of our community, whether I know you or not.) And again, I don’t say any of this to be mean, I genuinely wish I always had the energy to photograph every single person in the book community because you are all beautiful people and you deserve to be captured but…I just can’t. It’s physically impossible.

I don't have the time or the energy to take 20 photos for 50 different people every single day of a 5 day convention and give back any preview edits that same day. I just don't. And I realize that now. It’s gotten so confusing and complicated to find times that work for everyone, to accommodate everyone’s personal Instagram theme or their own poses or whatever. When it’s my close friends, when it’s like 10-15 people, that’s one thing, but at this point I have too many people reaching out to me to continue on the way I have before.

So how do you approach that situation? How do you tell people that even though I took photos for 20 people before them, I cannot take theirs? How does one choose who gets their photo taken and who doesn’t? How do you exclude people from a group photo just because you don’t think you’re close friends but the other person/people does? And how do you make sure everyone knows they’re wanted and included and loved without necessarily hurting anyone’s feelings?

Do you see my problem?

I never want to be that person that says "Sorry you can't photoshoot with us because I'm not as good of friends with you as these people I’ve known for the last four years." I never want people to feel left out because they aren't cool enough. Bottom line. But also…I don’t want my friends to go through another week like this. Not because I can’t handle it (this is actually a pretty great week all things considered, and I did have so much fun with these photos!!), but because every single one of my close friends kept going “Jenna can I pay you?” “Jenna you need to sleep!” “Jenna I’m so sorry you have to deal with this!” “Jenna where are we going to photoshoot because people are waiting for us at our location and we don’t feel safe there!” (A sad reality that I think needs to be vocalized.) More than that, I don’t want other people who aren’t necessarily friends with me to come to a convention expecting a free photoshoot or free group photos or whatever just because they’ve seen fifty other people get that opportunity. And I do not want anyone to have hurt feelings or feel unsafe or to have their convention experience ruined just because of some dumb photoshoot.

At the end of the day, this is all about boundaries. It’s about making sure that everyone is on the same page and we stop beating around the bush. Even though I know some of you may be teenagers and not full-fledged adults, I do know a lot of the people I meet are grown-ass adults. You know how to be respectful of other people. I think we can mostly agree that this community is not malicious. Most of us are not out to hurt other creators or specifically exclude anyone just because we’re feeling petty. It’s not so hard to understand that some people want privacy or that some people have specific friend groups or that sometimes it isn’t your place to attach yourself to a group just because you see the opportunity. Maybe we never set boundaries before because we didn’t need them, but I am putting my foot down right now to say we need to start talking about this. We need boundaries with my photoshoots, but we also need boundaries when it comes to relationships and convention behavior. And good friends, serious friendships, know how to use boundaries in a positive way.

(There’s also a separate discussion that can be had about the boundaries for bigger creators at conventions and how they’re treated, but that doesn’t necessarily fit in with this topic.)

So right now, the boundary I regretfully have to set is that when I am shooting at these events with my friends, I am the big Booktuber photoshoot gatekeeper. I am claiming the power to say who is involved in my photoshoots. (If my friends have other smaller shoots or want to do something on their own or if I’m not at the event, these rules don’t necessarily apply, but when I’m in charge, this is what’s up.) Do not to ask me to take your photo at events unless you 1) approach me in the months/weeks before the event, 2) hire/pay me specifically in advance, or 3) I specifically approach you prior to/at the event. (This goes for my friends too, but you guys know who you are and we can communicate that in private.) Please do not approach our photoshoots unless you have permission to be there/are invited. This is a matter of safety and privacy, nothing personal, and I reserve the right to protect my friends just as much as myself.

I don’t know if/how much I’ll charge just yet. That’s a serious decision, and it’s one I’ll have to think on, but if I am going to a convention or an event and I’m available for photos, I will share that information via my social media handles in advance so you can have adequate information to prepare. I reserve the right to decline whoever I choose for whatever reason, so if for some reason I don’t have time for you or I need to prioritize my friends over a stranger, don’t feel bad because it isn’t personal. But I sincerely want the Bookternet community to know that this doesn’t mean I don’t love you or support you or want the world from you. I just need to put myself and my friends first. End of story.

I don’t want to be the bad guy, but I am passionate about my friends and they deserve better than this. And this is what’s within my power to do to create change so I’m doing it. I’m sorry if it hurts your feelings or you think it’s unfair, but it has to happen like this. We need boundaries because boundaries are healthy.

And from the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate all the support I’ve been shown and offered this week. Seriously. Your kind words and shares do NOT go unnoticed. Even if I don’t say it or show it well, I really know my friends have my back and that you guys love me. Even if I’m just helping you boost your Instagram feed. ;D

We’re all just trying to do the best we can, and I hope that the community can understand that.

I love you so so much. Seriously.

Thanks for listening.

(Comments are open down below if you have any suggestions, advice, or kind words to share. Please be respectful.)