When I first started attending DragonCon in 2005, there weren’t all these social networks focusing on cosplay. Don’t get me wrong, there were tons of people attending and taking pictures and posting them on Flickr, or other, older photo sharing websites, but it was nothing like it is now, where thousands of photos come out each month celebrating cosplay. And back then, it wasn’t about “likes” and “followers” and “fans.” It was about finding your picture and experiencing what it was like to see how someone else saw you. My friends and I would spend weeks waiting for photo albums to appear so that we could go through the pictures and find ourselves.
Was it vain? Sure was. Am I ashamed of it? Not really. I put a lot of effort into dressing up and at the time, the ONLY pictures I would have were the ones other people took of me. So, yeah, I’d look for myself. I’d also see all the costumes I’d missed during the convention, but that was just a bonus. I was really just in it for me and my friends.
Then cosplay became a thing and you saw cosplay sites popping up all over the internet. Sites with image galleries of their favorite costumes, characters and cosplayers. The convention photography scene changed from people being a fan and loving that someone…anyone dressed up as a character they loved and it became this place where people wanted to see cosplayers who looked as close to their favorite character as possible.
In case you didn’t know, the vast majority of those characters have pale skin and fit either a male strength ideal or a female sexy ideal. That is to say, the men are muscular, with trim waists, slim hips and muscular thighs. The women all have hourglass figures, long legs, large, perky breasts, and generally long hair.
Did I mention the pale skin? Most of them have pale skin. And they are slim. Two characteristics I don’t have.
So when people became less interested in the fandom and more interested in seeing their characters in real life, you saw the shift in who had their pictures taken at the conventions. You saw photoshoots pop up looking for canon characters. You saw people having race and body requirements before they’d take your picture. You saw photo galleries showcasing people who fit their ideal of the character, which generated site visits that potentially generated revenue.
In a nutshell, white people sold to white audiences, something that is shoved down our throats at every turn. From movies to religion, we are conditioned to center the white identity in everything we do. Now that people were finding a way to monetize cosplay, white people were put front and center. It’s safe to say that my number of photo opportunities hit a steep decline. This community where I’d at one time I’d been sought out now actively marginalized me.
At first I was enraged and resentful. The rejection was so blatant. I’d be standing with friends, talking, and someone would come up and ask for a picture of my friends. The first time you are asked to move out of a photo is shocking, especially when two years prior, they would have taken pictures of both of you without a thought.
Then you’d see people, usually thin, white women, get asked for photo after photo, reinforcing your feeling of otherness in the community that used to celebrate otherness. I told myself it didn’t matter, but I felt my attitude changing. I felt myself pulling away to protect myself by saying it didn’t matter that nobody wanted my picture, I was there for myself.
For the record, that was a lie. I wanted pictures of me in my costume. I just needed to figure how to make that happen.
I decided to change tracks. I sought out opportunities to be included and started asking photographers to take my picture. That had interestingly negative results. They’d take my picture, but it would happen so fast that I didn’t even know if the picture was good. And it was obvious that they were waiting for me to leave so they could grab someone they WANTED to take a picture of. And that picture they took? I’d never see it. I’d go to their pages and it would never get posted. I’d see the photos they took of the people before me, and after me, but none of me.
And it HURT. Oh man, did it hurt. My friends have no idea how much I relied on them to keep me involved in cosplay. They were awesome. They reminded me how much I loved putting the look together. How much I enjoyed the process of trying to make something from nothing. Because as much as I wanted the gorgeous picture, I also wanted to have had a strong hand in bringing that vision to life. Did I mention that I don’t sew? Well, I don’t. Nor do I measure. I basically look around and figure out if I can build it from the trash and scraps in my house and when I can’t, I figure out the easiest way to make it happen without using power tools or killer glue. Or a sewing machine. Or a ruler. I basically use a lot of duct tape and fabric glue. I’m pretty much a hack with a vague plan. Anyway…
I realized that the constant rejection was taking a toll on me and that I needed to recalibrate my expectations and goals if I was going to keep doing this. I had to get real and I had to get messy, but mostly, I had to get honest. And honestly, I was jealous of the attention other people received for wearing a unitard. I was jealous that a Party City costume on a societally approved body held more value than anything I put on my fat, Black body. I was jealous that this felt like Thunderdome and I was always without a weapon. I was jealous and angry that I would never measure up.
So, I stopped trying.
That sounds simple, right? Like I just let everything go and it got better. That is not what happened. I had to forcefully push the considerations of other people out of the situation. I had to really ask myself what I loved about cosplay and conventions and what I hated. I had to re-center the conversation on me, not on the other cosplayers, not the photographers, not my friends, not anyone else. I needed to figure out what I wanted out of this.
I realized that I wanted stylish and gorgeous pictures of me in my costume. I wanted to take my pictures to the next level. If I could get the money shot, it was all worth it to me. And once that became my goal, that other shit stopped mattering.
If you look at my pictures, you can see the year it happened. In 2011, I took my first picture with Bryan Humphrey in my Blade costume. Bryan is a genius with lighting. That was the first time I’d ever had anyone take the time with me to make sure the lighting was right on a picture and I fell in love. The thing I love most about Bryan is that he takes that time with EVERY cosplayer he photographs. Every. Single. One. After my experiences with other photographers who were clearly trying to get me out of the way, it was so respectful and awesome. Working with him, I felt the same amount of appreciation for my cosplay that I had. He appreciated the people in the costumes and wasn’t just trying to be the next big thing. Maintaining that human connection in this hobby is important and when I was treated like an obstacle or a chore instead of a person, I knew that wasn’t the photographer for me. It wouldn’t be until very recently that I would have any must-see photographers on my roster.
The biggest thing I learned through all this is that doing this stuff is about me. It’s about doing something I enjoy for as long as it’s fun. Once I focused on myself, I became better at navigating the social pitfalls that made me feel bad about myself. I won’t say I stopped comparing, but I got better about it and about feeling “othered” in cosplay. People are going to think what they want and seek what they want, but I don’t need to internalize their biases anymore.
These days, I’m focused on creating a space for myself.
I stopped trying to get people to care about me and focused on doing my own thing. Anybody can start a blog or create a website and make their own space. It’s a bit of work, but it feels right to me. And it’s giving me the opportunity to build community and share space with others with whom I share interests. Right now, my space is small and it will probably stay small, but it’s something I created and reflects who I am.
I’m no longer waiting for people to figure out if they want to make space for me. I make a space for myself.