Cosplay in America
by Ejen Chuang
It was Sunday morning on the 20th of September 2009, and the final day of Anime Weekend Atlanta. Rain had been pouring since I’d arrived and the governor of Georgia had declared a “state of emergency”. On the local news, I watched cars submerged in roaring water and the constant scroll of flash flood warnings on the bottom of the TV screen. I thought to myself – “Seriously, what am I doing here?”
If you had told me at the beginning of 2009 that I’d be traveling across America photographing cosplayers for my book – Cosplay in America – I would’ve laughed at you. But here I was – at the last stop in Georgia ending five months of travel from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Dallas to San Jose.
After I waterproofed my camera gear by covering it with garbage bags, I wheeled the equipment cart into the convention center hoping that nothing would get soaked. I set up my background of grey seamless-paper and portable strobe light Each day, I diligently worked for about ten hours, photographing cosplayers. I had a lot of equipment to carry, so in each city I had to find a camera rental house to rent carts and stands, as well as purchase the background paper. The rest of the gear I traveled with on the plane. Many phone calls and emails were made before I even set foot in the state I was traveling to.
My expectation was to photograph around 250-350 cosplayers per con (convention), and by the end when I pressed the last shutter, I clocked over 1,650 cosplayers. Whew !
The hard part was about to begin. The photos were to be narrowed down to a select few of about 250. Going through and picking through thousands of images was a challenge. The process was like assembling a massive puzzle, spanning many months and countless hours, pulling together this book. At times I would throw the mock-ups away and start from scratch. Up till the last moment right before the book headed to the printers, I was tweaking the design of the book.
It feels like a lifetime ago when I was first introduced to anime by Battle of the Planets (Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman) on late 70’s TV. I remember sitting in front of the TV while my parents yelled at me to get ready. As a teenager, I religiously watched Voltron, Tranzor Z and Robotech as well as other shows such as Transformers, G.I.Joe, Inspector Gadget, and MASK. In 1991, Akira opened my eyes to what anime was capable of. I believe that for many in my generation, the anime gateway drugs were Robotech and Akira.
During my high school years, I drove a half hour to AD Vision to rent anime VHS tapes in order to get my anime fix. My diet composed of Devil Hunter Yohko, Sol Bianca, AD Police, and Oh My Goddess. On the manga front, I was devouring Appleseed, Area 88 and Mai, the Psychic Girl, published by VIZ and Eclipse, some of the first publishers to release translated manga series here in the States.
By college, I was searching through early USENET newsgroups looking for other folks to trade VHS copies with. Each person would post their list and the quality of their dub. We traded one VHS for another but the trick was to get as close to first generation copy as possible, since each subsequent copy would degrade the quality. In the early days before the Internet became what it is today, it was pretty tough finding anime and manga. It wasn’t as if you could walk into a Borders and just pick up a manga like you can today. Cons in the 90s were pretty much the only anime resource available to us – folks traveled the con circuit selling merchandise unavailable in our towns. Fast forward fifteen years later and all you have to do is Google “anime”.
My first con was Project A-kon in Dallas, Texas. I recall meeting and getting an autograph from Adam Warren, the penciller of the Americanized version of Dirty Pair, and spending hours in the video rooms (again, limited anime videos meant many people would go to cons to discover new series). At that time, the convention drew less than 1,000 people. Today A-kon’s attendance reaches close to 17,000. Yes, the little con I used to go to now had grown to be the longest running convention in America.
The years after college were filled with work. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue photography and slowly moved away from anime and comics, until 2008 when Anime Expo (AX) moved to downtown LA, right in my own backyard. The opportunity was too good to pass up so I bought my background and lights. Originally I figured I would just spend a few hours photographing cosplayers but those few hours turned into a day.. .and a day turned into the next day until next thing I knew, I had been there 3 days !
In the end, I put the photos away and didn’t think about cosplay again until early 2009. A number of people mentioned I should do a book and around May 2009,1 decided to travel to Fanime con in northern California and continue the same set-up I had done at AX in ‘08.1 figured if I wasn’t happy with the experience, I could just end the project, no harm done. Who knew it would turn into Cosplay in America, a project that would pretty much take over my life?
This book isn’t here to showcase the best cosplay, because frankly I’m the least qualified person to do so. I have never cosplayed in my life and I’ve only photographed cosplayers for a short amount of time.
When you walk into any con, you’ll meet folks of all ages, different walks of life, diverse backgrounds and races, and even different states and nations – all united in their love of anime! In my travels, I saw doting fathers cosplaying with their daughters, mothers with their sons, best friends, and couples. I’ve met professionals (such as doctors and dentists), students, retirees, members of the military and business owners (large and small) among others. My aim here is to simply photograph America through the art of cosplay.
Whether done in Japan or America, in the truest sense, cosplay (costume+play) is the act of dressing up and role-playing as your favorite anime, manga and/or video game character, and is no different than yesteryear’s pastime of kids playing cops and robbers. A cosplayer’s textile art is a literal translation and transformation of what is essentially a two-dimensional character transformed into our three-dimensional world and space. Their goal isn’t to simply to dress like them but to embody all of the nuances and characteristics of their anime subject – their speech, walk, pose, everything. The cosplayer’s keen attention to detail is essential.
Besides the traditional photographs of cosplayers in their characters’ poses, I photographed cosplayers out of character – mugging with their friends, having a laugh, or throwing up auV”. To me, Cosplay in America is a-rich glimpse of a moment in time, capturing the essence of six American cons in the year 2009.
My hope is that by looking through this book, you’ll get an idea of what you would see at the American cons. These three day events are a chance for friends to enjoy themselves in celebration of anime, show off some of their hard work on their cosplay, score some deals at the dealer’s room, try out some new game demos and just to hang out and have fun for 72 hours straight I kid you not; I don’t think anyone really sleeps at these! As I was informed by an avid cosplayer, It’s called Cos’play’ which means if you’re not having fun, then you aren’t doing it right.” And she was correct because at the end of the day you’re just hanging with your friends and eating Pocky.
Sundays is usually the slowest day at the cons and AWA was no different. Down in the dealer room, con-goers searched out bargains, as dealers looked on, many exhausted from lack of sleep. New and old friends hugged each other saying goodbyes – some won’t see each other until next year. Everyone had that glazed look on their faces, including me. I looked at my watch and decided to pack it up. There’s always a bit of sadness when a con wraps up. So I buried my equipment under garbage bags once again and rolled my cart to the parking lot. Luckily the rain had subsided. As I looked above, I could see some of the much-needed rays of sunlight and blue skies peeking through the clouds after weeks of downpour. To me – well, it just felt like a Hollywood ending.
Published in -/2010
Posted in 09/2010