welcome to Ways to see, an interview series that highlights emerging talents in photography and film, the people behind the camera whose work you should watch. In this week’s edition, Senior Content Editor Michael Beckert chats with the London-based photographer and director Thurstan Redding about his first book, cosplay kids, and his gallery exhibition of the same name, opening on March 6 at the Galerie Au Roi in Paris. Part of the proceeds from the book will go to the British Red Cross to support the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.
I was surprised by the subject you chose to highlight in your first book: cosplay. I had no idea this was an area you were interested in.
I’m really happy that you were surprised by the project, because it was part of my intention. The genesis of the project was unusual. My lifelong dream has been to publish a photography book, I think because I was introduced to photography through books. I was at a point in my career, however, where I knew my first book was not a retrospective of my work. I didn’t feel like I was there yet; it wouldn’t make sense for my first book to be about my early work. This work is still in progress.
The first time I saw a cosplayer was in Los Angeles, then on the underground in London. Meeting this player sparked my curiosity and I decided to go to Comic Con to try and engage with the community and learn more about it. I was so impressed with the level of effort and intricacy of the costumes. The whole subculture was so inspiring, and it was naturally driven by the visuals.
You are certainly the first fashion photographer to photograph cosplayers like this.
And yet, cosplay is the most fashion-conscious project I’ve ever worked on.
When I saw you drop this project on Instagram, I was like, “Well, honestly, fashion photography is kind of like cosplay. So it makes perfect sense for a fashion photographer to look into this subject.
Exactly. Months of work go into creating these costumes and characters. A subject spent three months building the wings for his costume. Ursula, who appears on the cover of the book and is a hospital receptionist in real life, spent three hours painting her body purple in her kitchen, without any help. This dedication to craftsmanship, to me, is the very essence of fashion.
How long did it take to create the book?
It took three years to shoot the whole project. We photographed over 60 cosplayers in over fifty locations. It was the most rewarding experience I have ever had professionally, and by far the most difficult. A little known fact about the book, in fact, is that there was a whole other version of this project that was about to go to print, but I pulled the plug.
The first draft of the book was shot entirely at Comic Con. When I finished the book and was ready to start publishing the project, I realized it just wasn’t what I wanted. As a photographer, you have to ask yourself: if you are going to publish images that are going to be seen in the long term, is that really what you want to publish? I think the problem was that the cosplayers were bringing a lot to the table, as they showed up at Comic Con in these amazing outfits, but I wasn’t bringing much of myself into the picture – my approach was very purely documentary . The dynamic was really unbalanced… I felt like so much effort in the costumes really deserved more effort in the photography to do it justice.
I decided to redo the whole project, and I approached it very differently, as you can see. I decided to create a controlled environment for each image, lighting it specifically and creating something cinematic.
How have your feelings towards the project evolved over this three-year period?
What started out as something that appealed to me aesthetically evolved into something that I felt morally invested in and honored to facilitate. There’s an aspect of cosplay that involves complete acceptance of each other, and the community is very tight-knit for that reason. There is a holiness that surrounds this group of people, almost like a church.
Your project made me think about how cosplay is the paragon of accessibility in the fashion world: its members go out and design their own fashion for their own bodies, and build those personas. Isn’t that exactly what we do when we photograph a high fashion model for a magazine?
By doing an entire book on cosplay, I basically realized that fashion and cosplay are the same thing. I also realized that we all cosplay in one form or another all the time. When you walk into a meeting at work and know you’ll have to assume a certain persona to appease the other members of that meeting, that’s a kind of cosplay. The legitimacy of fashion brands is actually based on the characters they have created. Each brand has a woman it invented, the Celine woman is not the same as the Louis Vuitton woman. While the specific woman isn’t actually real, her persona is what’s channeled into creating each brand’s imagery and who you could become by wearing their clothes.
If cosplay allows us to transform, then that’s kinda weird, isn’t it? It reminds me of the conversation around the gender binary being non-existent. We all play as male and female, but “male” and “female” are just characters we made up for ourselves to wear.
Absoutely. It reminds me of one of the subjects of the book named Bella. She tends to dress differently star wars characters, and she is depicted as her favorite character, a resistance pilot. Bella lost touch with her dad after she transitioned – he basically stopped talking to her, that’s what I understand. The only thing she had in common with her father was his interest in star wars. Dressing like these characters became a way for her to feel closer to her family despite this separation. Another subject of the book actually realized they were trans because cosplaying allowed them to exist outside of their assigned gender. There is also this escape that cosplay allows. One of our subjects told us that cosplay is the only thing that makes them feel removed from their job at the supermarket, which they are not fond of.
How did you come to photography?
Photography was not my project at all. I went to Cambridge University, with the firm intention of working in politics or finance. My father was a professor, so I came from a very academic background. That said, when I came to Cambridge it was this environment where you are encouraged to explore and experiment with different things, and I didn’t have any hobbies back then either. Model Lily Cole, who was also a Cambridge student, was giving a lecture at university and needed a head shot. I volunteered and had this whole conversation with her where she explained to me that photography is a real job. It changed the course of my career.
What advice would you give to recent university graduates who would like to pursue a creative career?
Time pressure is entirely self-imposed. It doesn’t exist – no one disputes the fact that creativity moves at its own speed. Take the time to experience everything you need. Just because you want to be part of a fast-paced industry doesn’t mean you have to move at a fast pace as an individual.
In this artistic journey you are undertaking, what are you most proud of so far?
Strangely, I never thought of that. So far, really, it’s this book. This is the first time that I let myself be explored and expressed so much. Allowing myself to do that is something I’m really proud of.