PAX Through the Eyes of an Amateur Photographer

This is a thank-you letter.

It's a thank-you to PAX East -- though I suppose I could be thanking any other convention.

It’s definitely a thank-you to every cosplayer I encountered, to those who put so much hard work into their creations and were willing to pause for five seconds so this awkward guy with a beard could snap a photo.

It’s also a thank-you to everyone who enjoys looking at cosplay, who admire the craft and freak out at the sight of their favorite characters. A special thanks to those who freak out when they see your friend dressed as Chell, and beg to have their picture taken with her.

And I suppose, in the end, this is a thanks to the universe, for giving me the opportunity to silently take someone else’s work and reinterpret it for a wider audience. To quietly extend the tools lodged in my brain and render light and pixels into something new and different. To freeze a moment in time only to toss it somewhere else for the Internet’s amusement, and for channeling a sense of confidence to walk towards a stranger and just say "Hi, my name’s Bryant."

This is PAX East through the eyes of an amateur cosplay photographer.

I walked into PAX East with one mission.

Well, two. My media pass meant I probably should conduct a few interviews and preview some games for readers. But with my camera, a second mission is assigned: to help people feel good about themselves.

Photography’s an interesting blank slate. There are a lot of shortcuts and quick paths to make what we usually call "art," but when you’re done obsessing over T-stops and shutter speeds and your fingers finally flip casually from one setting to another, you start to realize what you can do with this device.

If you’re lucky, you find yourself at a place like PAX, where you can be surrounded by the energy of the world around you. Nearly everyone in attendance is there to have fun, to show off their hard work, or sometimes both -- and if you’re a photographer, your goal is to dive straight into that joyful center.

Photo by Bryant Francis

Photo by Bryant Francis

I guess I should finally disclose that I’m shy. I'm affable when in the right mood, but walking up to a stranger and deliberately striking conversation is challenging for me. Sure, I occasionally engage in small talk, but that usually indicates a symptom of anxiety instead of genuine social skill.

So that joyful center instills a gregarious power for people like me, in part because it’s a lot easier to exude extroversion if I’m doing it for someone else. And I guess that’s what cosplay photography is for me -- it’s an act of working for and with someone else. It's not just about myself.

Photo by Bryant Francis

Photo by Bryant Francis

For a few moments, I feel as if the cosplayer and I are recreating something from the original work. Building a frame isn’t conceptually different than arranging the camera for a film shoot, or designing a look for a video game. It's cool to feel as if I am placing these people back in the stories that originally inspired them. It adds an organic comfort to the shoot.

Which is why I think a key goal for photographers like me is to make cosplayers feel comfortable. We can’t bind and pry unless they pay us to, and asking permission is an important first step before firing the shutter. 

Although this doesn't always translate well since the cosplay world can be pretty cynical. We argue about galleries and clickbait, we are forced to recognize some parts of the space were built around sleazy marketing tactics, and we defend judgmental attitudes towards cosplayers based on their looks. And I know that photographers like me perpetuate these disparaging problems.

But from my camera, I just want people to know I consider myself lucky. It’s a privilege to take photos of people who cosplay characters like Ivan, Ezio and Katara, and hopefully they get as much out of the photos I take as I do.

Photo by Bryant Francis

Photo by Bryant Francis

‘Cause who knows? Maybe I’ll want to wind up in front of the camera like that one day.