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Cosplay and Currencies

A long time ago, twenty years give or take a few, I started doing the whole fancy dress thing at conventions. I can’t say I was involved in cosplay because it wasn’t called that back then. It was just fancy dress. It was basically just like Halloween, but not on Halloween, and at a convention with the costumes being linked to your favourite genre films and TV shows.

Having gone to an MCM Comic Con for the first time this year it’s safe to say that cosplay has changed since I was doing it in the 90’s.

Cosplay: 90’s Style

My route into cosplay, we’ll just keep calling it that for clarity, went from my obsession with Star Trek: The Next Generation, to joining a local Star Trek Club and from there going to genre conventions with that circle of friends (and playing role-playing games and whatever else). Once I started going to the genre conventions it was obvious the cosplay was where the fun was at.

There was numerous costumes involved: Han Solo (Empire), Men in Black (X Files related, not the movie) and The Shadow. Have to say, as a group, we had it pretty well nailed. We were often one of the big draws in terms of people taking photos and the like.

At the same time, the costumes then are not as good as now. We were good for the time but the costumes now are astounding.

The Faces Of Cosplay At MCM Comic Con

There was three types of cosplay going on at MCM Comic Con. They seemed to fall into slightly different groups. It’s interesting to pick these groups apart a bit.

Anime Madness And Masquerades

There was a vast amount of cosplay at the first MCM Comic Con I went to. I also missed a lot of it. I’ve learned there is a place the cosplay crowd hangs out, which also attracts those doing cosplay music videos, and I wasn’t aware of it. It’s not an official place, neither is it secret, I just didn’t become aware of it.

I will be prepared next time.

The cosplay was quite varied on the convention floor (and would have been more so if I’d caught it all). What was interesting is it was nowhere near as varied in the cosplay competition. The cosplay competition was dominated by Anime. This was strange only in the sense it seemed disproportionately represented.

Those Paid To Attend

There was undoubtedly those in Cosplay at MCM Comic Con who had turned up under some sort of ‘arrangement’. That ‘arrangement’ may have been financial or not but they certainly weren’t just paying convention attendees. I’m quietly confident the Supergirl and Jack Sparrow cosplays were paid to walk the floor of the convention, have photos taken and the like. There may have been others, but I’m pretty sure it was true of these two.

In some cases the people attending on this basis have official handlers. Just like Disney characters.

We’re Not Cosplayers!

Then you have the organised groups. The Imperials and Rebel Star Wars groups. The Mandalorian Star Wars groups. The Predators group. They all turn up en masse and really turn the convention into a bit of a spectacle. The 501 Legion really don’t view themselves as cosplayers. I know because I asked where the cosplay competition might be and I got a distinct ‘we do not know because we are not cosplayers’.

He was being a bit of an arse as he probably did know, but he wanted to make a point.

Why are they not cosplayers? Well, sorry dude, but you are, but I do get why you want to make a distinction. I suspect they don’t view themselves as cosplayers the way those into detailed historical re-enactment wouldn’t. They’ve just chosen a historical period of re-enactment that is a galaxy, far, far away. I believe turning up at conventions and doing cosplay stuff blurs the line. I get it though, they take it very seriously, don’t integrate with the cosplay community at all and wouldn’t touch a cosplay competition with a 50ft lightsaber.

These groups may be at the convention in some sort of semi-official capacity or they may not. It’s hard to tell. They certainly add to the convention. They provide entertainment and clearly have certain things they do to give the convention floor a buzz (especially the Imperial guys). How they are compensated, if at all, I don’t know. They often have stands for their organisations and they sell photos with some of their props, etc.

The Photography Thing

Back in the 90’s there wasn’t really a photography problem mainly because no one went to the conventions just to take photos. They were just fellow guests experiencing the whole thing who just happened to be taking photos like everyone else. More importantly, which we’ll get to, the photographs served the same purpose as holiday photographs. No more. No less.

Well, there was always the one bloke who seemed to be there just to take pictures at every convention. It was one guy though. Literally. Always the same guy. He was the same age of most of the people taking part in the experience. He just became a bit of a feature, a bit of a running joke and, if we’d had the Internet back then, probably a meme.

Shall we say, it’s a bit different now and in some cases quite shocking.

The Unnerving Photography Crowd

Did I see any creeps? We spotted one. He was taking a photo of apparently nothing and had his lens extended. We followed the lens and came to the conclusion he was taking a photo of some girl’s ass in her Harley Quinn costume from across a merchant stall isle. Pretty lame. It’s lame in any circumstance but even more lame due to his subjects age.

It’s critical to remember that MCM Comic Con Birmingam was in the same building as a camera exhibition. I’m told this did create a bit of a photographer problem. At the same time, there was similar complaints coming out of London Comic Con so maybe it’s just a matter of degree.

There is a ‘group’ of attendees who I’m going to call the paparazzi of the convention. They seem to fit a certain profile. They obviously go serially to conventions as I spotted a handful of them from Play Expo. They seem to be 50+ in age (though possibly they were the only ones I noticed since they stood out). I’m not sure why this odd age distribution exists? possibly, like me, they are fans or ex-fans of such conventions from the 90’s? Who knows.

It’s slightly unnerving for two reasons: they don’t always ask for photographs, they will go that bit extra to ‘get the shot’ as if they have free will to ‘photograph’ the event. The ‘get the shot’ mentally is always unnerving when you see it in any circumstances as it demands a complete disregard for context, your environment and those around you. They will literally jump in front of people, twist the lens and take photos (or do that walk in front of their subject shooting without asking thing). They’ll walk up to groups talking and take candid shots of people just doing stuff (like some sort of corporate event where you know such photos will be taken).

Those that do ask, who are probably a different subset to the ‘take the shot crowd’, ask in a slightly uncomfortable, embarrassed way rather than that ‘heh we are both people enjoying the convention friendly way’. It’s hard to describe, but you sort of no it when you see it, right?

Pretty convinced the majority of this group are not ‘Press’.

The ‘Professionals’

Then you have the ‘professionals’ which is in quotes because I have no idea how you define that or anything about the individuals themselves. You can tell them apart as they’ve got two cameras hanging around their necks. Some have fancy gimble equipment and other paraphernalia like really funky flashes on tripods that flash remotely and sync with the photos being taken. Have to admit the remote flash unit thing was really impressive when I saw it. These guys seemed fine. They were polite. It looked like they did take great shots. They really new where to go and stand to catch the cosplay ‘flow’.

It does raise questions of what they do with the photographs. Is cosplay for them just what landscape or portraits are to other people? They’ve invested a lot, right? So is there some sort of compensations scenario going on. What happens to those photographs?

It’s entirely possible some of these may have been present in a ‘Press’ capacity, obviously, I have no idea.

Currency And Cosplay Relationships

If I step back and look at the wider perspective on all this it seems things have changed around cosplay photography a bit. It was just fans taking pictures of other fans back in the day. But this was pre-Internet and, more importantly, before a currency of sorts was associated with cosplay photography. I don’t even mean money, but follows, subscribes, likes and so on.

Basically, the currencies of the social media age.

The accrual of these currencies and their association with cosplay fame has distorted, hell, even created, the dynamic between cosplayers and photographers.

After some thought, if I was to be honest about it, and let’s assume the ‘aggressive take the shot crowd’ were a function of the camera show sharing the building in Birmingham, it feels like cosplayers have become…strangely entitled. This is because they take on some of habits of famous models or stars who want to control the images of themselves.

They take my picture without asking. At one end of this are cosplayers who just want to look their best when photos are taken, which I get. At the other end there are those who use the language of ‘celebrities’ who think they can micromanage and control the images of themselves that exists.

I’m sorry, but MCM Comic Con is classified as a public place so people are allowed to take candid shots when and how they like. I’m conflicted in the sense I’d always advise people to ask and I invariably do ask, but if someone suggested you should always ask as a rule that should never be broken I could not agree with it. If you see a momentary and fleeting cosplay interaction that would look great as a candid, real-life interaction shot and you have the opportunity to take it..why not? That’s what photography is.

Candid photography is fine. The street photography equivalent of a convention is a valid thing.

They don’t show me the photograph. The cosplayers seem to think they have a right to see or be sent any photo they pose for. I’m sorry, you don’t. I’m fine sharing if someone asked and gave me their details but I don’t know who you are. It’s not my responsibility to ask who you are and try and make sure I share the photo with you. It’s like anyone who doesn’t share them back is slightly odd and suspect. I’m afraid not, they’ve just taken photos of an event they went to and you were part of the exciting scenery.

After every MCM Comic Con there are discussions on the internet of all the photos that got taken and how wrong it is they will not get to see them. I’m pretty sure that’s just life.

They’re stealing something from me. It’s never articulated like that. It’s articulated in a myriad of different ways but that’s essentially the belief behind what is said. It’s a bit like the old belief of tribal cultures that the camera used to take their spirit, but it’s more about somehow stealing the cosplayers skill, effort and, I would say, their potential for fame.

How dare the photographers take a photo without asking they put no effort in? That is one loaded sentence. It suggests that the photographer is getting something above and beyond just the photo. The costume was made for your own enjoyment.

I got my photo taken a ridiculously amount of times back when I was cosplaying. We used to joke about it, finding it slightly odd that we’d be in so many photos of so many other convention guests. It was kind of funny.

But that’s the crux, right? That’s all it was, just photos in other guests albums.

While now everyone wants their to be more to it than that. It’s assumed the photographer and the cosplayer have social media capital in those photographs as they can be used on blogs and social media sites to generate social media currency.

It’s that what they believe is being stolen, some sense of these currencies: why should a photographers blog or instagram get all the likes and viewers? I get it, cosplay is now a way to raise your profile either directly or indirectly, but it’s sad that has entered the whole discourse and dynamic.

And, Finally…

It’s safe to say cosplay has become complex, both in terms of the complexity of the costumes being made, and how it now interacts with the whole cosplay famous thing and social media currencies. I’ve not even got into how some cosplay has essentially become synonymous with glamour photography.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to MCM Comic Con Manchester and hopefully interacting and taking video and photos of cosplayers as a fellow attendee.


About Ian O'Rourke

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