My Camera, My Passport
My camera is my passport to a part of my life I would not otherwise experience. Several years ago, I promised myself that I would expand my vanilla middle-class life and seek out places and people outside my self-imposed comfort zone. As proof that God has a sense of humor, the first thing that caught my attention was an advertisement for the upcoming San Francisco Folsom Street Fair.
I first became aware of the Fair while driving one of our dogs to a Sunday morning training session. While en route, my seven-year-old son unexpectedly exclaimed, “Dad, I can see that lady’s boobs.” Before I could react, he asked: “Why does that lady have a penis?”
As we stopped at a traffic light, the lady wearing only black chaps, spiked leather boots, a dog collar, and a hat strutted right past us. My son’s eyes were transfixed on her every move.
Later that day, I discovered she was on the way to the Fair.
The Fair is a yearly outdoor public gathering for the city’s bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism aficionados. After exploring the Fair on the internet, my increased heart rate and the shifting in my seat was a sign that this was not the place to start. Out of my comfort zone was one thing, but this was like starting to jog by entering the Boston Marathon. I should start with something less anxiety-producing and not so far out. But before altogether rejecting the idea, I was struck with a wave of terminal curiosity. While I could not rationalize going simply as a voyeur—that felt too creepy—I could attend to document the Fair with my camera.
The Sunday of the Fair was sunny and warm with a deep blue sky. A perfect day for a family picnic or a morning at the beach. It was also an ideal day to put on your leather ensemble with spiked heels, fasten your nipple clips, and make sure the dog collar did not chafe. And if your breasts or genitals are uncovered, don’t worry; the Fair was exempt from the City’s nudity laws.
As I got closer to the entrance, the leather content of the public’s dress increased exponentially, as did my anxiety. Public spanking must have been the theme of the Fair since there were spanking booths galore. Men and women would pay a few dollars, drop their drawers or raise their skirts, bend over a sawhorse, and be spanked with a paddle or whipped with a cat of nine tails. There were lines with people waiting patiently for their turn on the sawhorse. Except for the clothing, or lack of it, they could have been waiting for a ride on the merry-go-round.
For the first hour, my palms were too sweaty to take a photograph. Whenever I looked through the viewfinder to compose a photo, my brain yelled that I should not be there. All I could think of was the line from the Wizard of Oz, where Dorthey tells Toto, “I don’t think we‘re in Kansas anymore.”
When the shock wore off enough for me to try to compose a picture, I had to fight through the phalanx of other shutterbugs to get the shoot I wanted. From the spanking booths to the Japanese knot-tying shows, I cruised the Fair that first year and for many years since. It still makes me uncomfortable, but I soldier on.
I’ve attached a few of the pictures that I took at the Fair. These are some of the more tame scenes.