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Surreal photos show cosplay fans in suburbia

<i>Thurstan Redding</i><br/>Mystique
Thurstan Redding
Thurstan Redding

Oscar Holland, CNN

In Thurstan Redding’s photography series “Kids of Cosplay,” the mundane and the fantastical collide in unexpected ways. Spiderman stares pensively into the middle distance as he grabs milk from a fridge. A group of Batmen cavort outside a small brick bungalow. X-men’s Mystique lays across the street beneath an orange sky, cigarette in hand.

The fashion photographer’s everyday subjects — whom he only identifies by their occupations: A receptionist, a lecturer, retail workers — are part of the vast but elusive cosplay subculture that sees fans of TV, film, anime, manga and video games using elaborate costumes and makeup to transform themselves into their favorite characters.

It is a community that’s rarely documented outside the surrounds of fan conventions. But having initially shot portraits at London’s Comic Con in 2018, Redding spent the next three years gaining cosplayers’ trust and photographing them in distinctly suburban settings, from bus stops to nondescript scrubland. And if the backdrops feel like they could be anywhere, that’s precisely the point.

“We wanted to make sure none of the locations were easily attributable to a specific country. A lot of people have asked me if it was shot in America, which it wasn’t … it was actually within a very small radius,” he said in a video interview from Paris, declining to reveal precisely where the images were created.

The reason, Redding explained, is that cosplay has become a “global phenomenon” — one that connects like-minded people around the world regardless of where they are.

“The social aspect of it is probably the most important, in the sense that it’s a community of people who really support each other and are genuinely very good friends,” the photographer said. “During the shoots, a lot of people expressed that they had been unable to make a lot of friends or feel part of a community while growing up, and that cosplay had provided them with that.

“It’s the most inclusive and accepting space — not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also disability,” added Redding, who counted plus-size and LGBTQ cosplayers among his subjects. “It’s accepting in ways that other communities generally just aren’t.”

Fan costuming, in a contemporary sense, first gained popularity at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), which was first held in the US in 1939 and has since traveled to cities around the globe. The term “cosplay” — a portmanteau of the words costume and play — meanwhile originated in Japan, where fan subcultures exploded in popularity in the 1990s. (Japanese anime and manga continues to be a source of inspiration for cosplayers, with one of Redding’s subjects dressed as the antagonist from the manga series “Kakegurui — Compulsive Gambler”).

Today, the subculture comprises a sprawling ecosystem of online fan communities.

“Comic Cons only happen a couple of times a year and, the rest of the time, a lot of communication is digital,” Redding explained. “It’s a very fluid community in the way it communicates.”

Means of expression

Having exhibited his series at a Paris gallery earlier this year, Redding is now preparing to release “Kids of Cosplay” as a limited edition book. The publication features almost 60 cosplayers, their characters ranging from the Wicked Witch of the West and Indiana Jones to groups of Wonder Women and Sailor Moons.

The photos are accompanied by commentary from the subjects themselves. Their accounts demonstrate how cosplay is not just about escapism, but self-expression. Assuming a character can, ironically, help people be themselves, said Redding, who created the project alongside art directors Jean-Baptiste Talbourdet-Napoleone and Lolita Jacobs.

Take, for instance, a retail worker dressed as a “Star Wars” Resistance pilot. In a photo caption, she explains that cosplay helped her embrace her “true self” while undergoing gender transition.

“Her father stopped talking to her when she transitioned,” Redding explained. “And the one thing they had in common before had been ‘Star Wars.’ So this obsession of hers was, in a way, the only way she could connect with her father, despite the fact that they’re not on speaking terms anymore.

“It’s an example of how cosplay is a means of expression and a means of connecting with people,” he added.

As a fashion photographer, Redding has worked on campaigns with major labels like Dior, Gucci and Marc Jacobs, shooting top models including Adwoa Aboah and Kendall Jenner. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that his ostensibly unremarkable cosplay portraits ooze subtle drama thanks to theatrical lighting and closely directed compositions.

His experience in fashion also gave Redding appreciation for the work that goes into each costume. Often taking days or months to complete — and hours to style — many of the outfits feature elaborate accessories and meticulous detailing.

“The craftsmanship isn’t that dissimilar,” he said. “The attention to detail and the sewing skills are genuinely amazing, and I think a lot of them could work in the fashion industry if they chose to.

“But in fashion, clothes are (part of this) constant production line and cycle of everything having to be new. Cosplay costumes, however, are treated as something that is customized, refined and tweaked. Cosplayers often recycle their costumes and, over time, add extra elements to it … so it’s really interesting to see such a different approach to the to fashion.”

“Kids of Cosplay” will be published in Winter 2022 by Thames & Hudson’s Volume imprint and is available for pre-order.

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