Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights emerging talents in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with the London-based photographer and director Thurstan Redding about his debut book, Kids of Cosplay, and his gallery show of the same name, opening March 6th at 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 matter you chose to highlight in your first book: cosplay. I had no idea that was an area of interest for you.
I’m really happy that you were surprised by the project, because that was part of my intention. The genesis of the project was unusual. My lifelong dream has been to release a photography book—I think because I was introduced to photography via books. I was at a point in my career, though, where I knew my first book wasn’t going a retrospective of my work. I didn’t feel like I was there yet; it wouldn’t make sense to have my first book be about my early work. That work is still being made.
The first time I saw a cosplayer was in LA, and then again on the tube in London. The encounter with that 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 that goes into the costumes. The entire subculture was so inspiring, and it was naturally driven by visuals.
You’re definitely 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 sort of is cosplay. So it makes the most sense for a fashion photographer to delve into this subject.”
Exactly. Months of work go into creating these costumes and characters. One subject spent three months building the wings for her 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. That dedication to craft, to me, is the essence of fashion.
How long did it take to create the book?
It took three years to shoot the entire project. We shot over 60 cosplayers in over fifty locations. It was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had professionally, and easily the most challenging. A little known fact about the book, actually, is that there was a whole other version of this project that was about to go to press, but I pulled the plug.
The first version of the book was shot entirely at Comic Con. When I finished the book, and I was ready to start releasing the project, I realized it just wasn’t quite what I wanted. As a photographer, you need to ask yourself: if you’re going to release images that are going to be seen on a long-term basis, is this really what you want to publish? I think the problem was that the cosplayers were bringing a lot to the table, because they showed up to Comic Con in these amazing outfits, but I wasn’t bringing much of myself into the image at all—my approach was very purely documentary. The dynamic felt really out of balance… I felt like so much effort in the costuming really warranted more effort in the photography to do it justice.
I decided to reshoot the entire project, and I approached it very differently, as you can tell. I decided to create a controlled environment for each image, lighting it specifically, and creating something cinematic.
How did your feelings toward the project evolve over that three-year period?
What originated as something I was aesthetically drawn to evolved into something that I felt morally invested in and honored to facilitate. There’s a side to cosplay that involves complete acceptance of one another, and the community is very close-knit for that reason. There’s a sanctity 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 are going out and designing their own fashion for their own bodies, and building these characters. Is that not exactly what we’re doing when we photograph a high-fashion model for a magazine?
By doing a whole book on cosplay, I’ve essentially realized that fashion and cosplay are the same thing. I’ve also realized that we’re all sort of cosplaying in some form all the time. When you step into a meeting at work, and you know you’ll have to take on a certain character to appease the other members of that meeting, that’s sort of cosplay. The legitimacy of fashion brands actually relies on characters they’ve created. Each brand has a woman they’ve invented—the Celine woman is not the same as the Louis Vuitton woman. While the specific woman is not actually real, her character is what’s channeled in the creation of each brand’s imagery, and who you might become while wearing their clothing.
If cosplay allows us to transform, then it sort of feels queer, doesn’t it? It reminds me of the conversation around the gender binary being nonexistent. We’re all performing as male and female but “male” and “female” are just characters we’ve invented for ourselves to wear.
Definitely. That reminds me of one of the subjects in the book named Bella. She tends to dress up as different Star Wars characters, and she’s pictured as her favorite character, a resistance pilot. Bella lost touch with her father after she transitioned—he essentially stopped speaking with her, that’s my understanding. The one thing she had in common with her father was her interest in Star Wars. Dressing up as those characters has become a way for her to feel closer to her family despite that separation. Another subject in the book actually realized they were trans because cosplay allowed them to exist outside their assigned gender. There’s also this escapism that cosplay allows. One of our subjects told us cosplay is the only thing that allows them to feel distanced from their job at a supermarket, which they’re not fond of.
How did you first get into photography?
Photography was not my plan at all. I went to Cambridge University, with every intent of working in politics or in finance. My father was a professor, so I came from a really academic background. That said, when I arrived at Cambridge it was this environment where you’re encouraged to explore and experiment with different things, and I also didn’t have any hobbies at the time. Lily Cole, the model, who was also a student at Cambridge, was giving a talk at the university and needed a headshot. I volunteered, and had this whole conversation with her in which she explained that photography is a real job. That changed the course of my career.
What advice would you give to new university graduates who would like to pursue a creative career?
The pressure of time is entirely self-imposed. It does not exist—nobody disagrees with the fact that creativity moves at its own speed. Take the time to experiment with whatever you need to experiment with. Just because you want to be part of an industry that moves at a fast pace doesn’t mean that you have to move at a fast pace as an individual.
On this journey of artistry that you’re on, what are you most proud of so far?
Weirdly, I’ve never thought of this. So far, really, it’s this book. It’s the first time I’ve let myself explore and express this much. Allowing myself to do that is something I’m really proud of.