It’s 9pm in Central Park and a cloud of cloaked figures huddle beneath the glowing moon. Photographer Amy Lombard thought she was lost but as two women donning witches hats hurry past to join the crowd, she knows she’s in the right place.
For The Group Who Shall Not Be Named (TGW), the world of Harry Potter is not consigned to the pages of a novel or cinema screen. As the largest Potter fan group in the world, its 2,000 New York-based members are testament to the power of J.K. Rowling’s magic. “Our group is here to spread the love of Harry Potter and the associated love of literature and reading,” organizer Jonathon Rosenthal tells TIME. “The world is a pretty tough place and there’s a lot of things that push you down… I believe there’s nothing wrong with having a little bit of magical fun, even as an adult.” And just as J.K. Rowling makes no secret of her continued absorption in Potter-world – the final book in the original series by no means spelled the end – her fans also remain as devoted as ever.
Lombard, for her part, has spent time documenting the New York-based group, as part of a wider project studying the world of online communities who meet offline. But the dedication and commitment of this group’s members stood out as something special. “Jonathon runs this so consistently,” Lombard tells TIME. “Some groups don’t meet that often. But you see the same people coming to this meet-up and new faces as well.” TGW hold a monthly meet up as well as special events nearly every month, which range from Wizard Rock Shows, Harry Potter-themed crafting to in-costume ice-skating.
The testimonials from members are impressive. One enthusiastic member, known as Deanna the Elder, found a Potter book lying on a downtown Manhattan sidewalk back in 2001. Having never read it before, she took it home, devoured it, and it “basically changed her life”. At a time when 9/11 was a very recent memory, Deanna found that the books offered her emotional refuge from a world in a state of flux. For many, TGW, provides the same. “I have had people literally tell me that they are staying in New York because of the people they met through the meet up,” he says. “I admit the city is hard to live in. It’s challenging. But I love being able to provide something that connects people to the city and gives them something they wouldn’t have anywhere else.”
With the popularity of Rowling’s books, the Potter-head network is vast. But for TGW members, a shared love of all-things wizard is just the starting point. The meet-ups create a milieu of openness and positive energy, a magical atmosphere where great friendships and even marriages have been forged. What may begin as a discussion about chapters and characters will quickly widen into other literature and interests. “First-time convention-goers are always shocked because they’ll go into an elevator at an event, full of people they don’t know, and they will instantly start having conversations,” says Rosenthal. “And that doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s incredibly rare.”
Parading New York in costume is a popular activity for the group and Lombard is not the first to see the aesthetic potential. As self-confessed “photo hams”, TGW are willing subjects and the group have had scores of professional photo shoots, including Sleepy Hollow at dusk by a Vogue photographer. As for the general public, they almost never get a negative response. “Most people are really, really thrilled to see us,” says Rosenthal. “You get the whole range of reactions, starting from the little kids whose jaws drop, teenagers who are kind of goofy about it and then adults who are like, ‘Oh, my God, I love what you’re doing. I wish I could do this.’ And we are like: ‘You can! Here’s our card’.”
With members ranging from 18 to 80-years-old, the group’s attraction clearly cuts through normal social barriers. “Being an adult is not an easy thing to do,” says Lombard. “And just the fact that this group of people can approach life in this way and still have this love is something that is magical, literally.” Their shared joy and creative passion is what first compelled Lombard to photograph them and, she says, just looking at the results make her smile. As a wise wizard once said: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
Paul Moakley, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s deputy director of photography and visual enterprise. Follow him on Twitter here.