This month’s Featured Photographer doesn’t need an introduction. You probably have his book on your shelf right now. Ejen Chuang is a busy man, but we caught up to him recently to chat with him about the past, present, and future of Cosplay…in America.
Cosplay Photographers: Thanks for joining us, Ejen! It’s impossible to get a hold of you some times, you’re such a busy man! Everyone knows you from your first project: Cosplay in America. I feel like that book came at the right time and really brought cosplay to the mainstream media as an art form. Do YOU think it helped shape the public’s perception of cosplay at all?
Ejen Chuang: I like to think I had some small part in it, but truthfully I have no idea. The fact of the matter is it is up to all of us to shape the public’s perception with what we do. The images, the videos, and explaining to people we come across who may have questions.
CP: Tell us a little about yourself and the origins of the first book? What made you want to do a whole book?
EC: The book came about in a dark time. The economic crisis had started to take hold, I had been working as a freelance photo assistant for a number of years by then and felt exhausted of always working on other photographer’s gigs and not on my own. It was the chance meeting with Bill Eiseman who ran a little bookstore on the bottom floor of an building where I rented an office from that inspired me the most. Dare I say if it wasn’t for Bill, Cosplay in America wouldn’t have existed.
I had taken to hanging out at his bookstore for a needed break from work and struck up a friendship over several months. When I brought him photos I took at Anime Expo 2008, Bill suggested I do a book. Conversations lead to more conversations lead to a plan to travel to five cities for the first book. Eighteen months later, I had a book.
CP: And that takes us to your current project: Cosplay in America – Volume 2. What inspired this one?
EC: Ah, it is actually called Cosplay in America V2 ! I tried to stay away from saying 2 or volume 2 so I shortened it to V2.
After the first book, I really didn’t plan on doing a second book. I was worried it would turn out to be similar to a Hollywood movie sequel. The first movie tends to be the best, the second gets worse, the third even worse. I didn’t want my second book to seem like I was just doing the same thing over and over.
Luckily I hit on an idea I hadn’t seen covered before in a book format – the behind-the-scenes cosplay! Most people’s exposure to cosplay is through the internet – there are literally millions of photos of cosplayers at a convention. You see the cosplayer in their final form – makeup is done, costume is done to the best of their ability, it is photo ready.
What people may not see is what goes into making the costume – well, unless you happen to be a cosplayer or be friends with a cosplayer. So in addition to portraits done like the first book, I spent a week in a number of cities around the United States following cosplayers to fabric stores, hardware stores, to their backyards to watch them spray paint their props to convention – getting ready in the morning, the green room at a cosplay competition, the photo shoots done on the convention floor. I hope through these images to help educate people on what goes on behind the scenes. With education of what goes on behind the scenes, I hope there is a better understanding of the cosplay culture.
CP: What’s the status of V2? When will V2 be available? How can someone get a copy of it? I need it now!
EC: Currently the book is being printed and shipped to the United States. The arrival date is slated to be mid-June. I’ll have a number of books shipped ahead by airmail to make sure I have copies available at our booth at Anime Expo 2015. People can pre-order the book at www.cosplayinamerica.com.
CP: How much time do you think you’ve put into these books combined?
EC: Roughly six years of my life went into these books. Far more time than I care to admit. I don’t think I can do another book on cosplay at this point.
CP: Do you feel it was easier or more difficult to do the second book?
EC: It actually got more difficult. To give you an example, the first book I travelled to 5 cities in the country over 6 months for the photos. For this book, it was 20 cities over 3 years for the book. The climate has changed though. It is definitely more mainstream than when the first book came out in 2010.
CP: What was your biggest challenge along the way? How did you overcome it?
EC: Exhaustion was the toughest challenge. You are always toughest on yourself and I think I went a little crazy over this project. Like any creative endeavor, there are days you wanna throw everything you done so far in the trash and start all over.
There were times I was exhausted going to cons, exhausted of making videos, I think I overdid it because I thought that was what people wanted. I realized if I didn’t take care of myself, I would be burnt out fast. To overcome, I took things slower than usual at some points. I learned a lot about myself during this time. I learn to balance my life and not let cosplay overtake it.
CP: What did you enjoy the most about working on the books?
EC: The people I met were the greatest. They invited me to their homes, to their hotel rooms, to their workshops. They gave me tours of fabric shops. Some were cool enough to let me crash over. I’ve met so many wonderful people on this journey. So yes, for me, the best part wasn’t exactly taking the photos, but it was listening to the stories people told me about how cosplay had influence their lives.
CP: Were there any memorable moments you had while working on this second book that you’d like to share?
EC: Sounds a bit strange but the memorable moments were the quiet times. Driving in the car on the way to Colorado Springs, CO staring at awe at the landscape, or the early morning in the con hotel as people slowly wake up, and start putting on make-up. The musical beeping a cosplayer’s phone would give. The hearty laughter as a group of cosplayers shared drinks at the hotel bar. The thrill of victory when a cosplay group managed to make it to the top at a cosplay competition. There’s so many memorable moments I would cherish.
CP: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from doing the first book that you applied to doing the second book?
EC: Preparation! The first time around, I had no idea what I was doing so I tried different methods. Through trial and error I figured out what worked and didn’t work. Preparation helped me with the second book but since the scope was larger, I ran into new situations I would have to solve. Biggest thing I can tell people is prepare the best you can and just do it.
CP: What advice would you give for someone wanting to do their own photography book on cosplay?
EC: Do not do what I do and order thousands of copies of the book ! You’ll end up with boxes of books and the dread of paying off multiple credit cards hanging above your head. The idea of a book is far more glamorous than the reality behind it.
Instead, I suggest doing print-on-demand. yes, the book cost is higher per book but you won’t be roped into ordering hundreds or thousands of copies. The one thing that motivated me throughout the first book was the fear of the credit card debts over my head. That was why I was so gung-ho and hitting up 20 cons a year to promote the book. For every book that sits at home, I was losing money. Thankfully it took only three years to get out of debt and made a little money too!
I will admit however that in today’s climate, the internet may be a better medium to convey cosplay. It is relatively cheap to load photos up, you can get tens of thousands of eyes on it, and you have no inventory of books sitting at home collecting dust.
CP: Are there any more stories or angles of the cosplay community you feel still need to be told?
EC: I’m definitely interested in how transgender folks are using cosplay to experiment with gender roles. Within the cosplay community, it is a relatively safe place to test themselves. I don’t think I could do a book on it but I definitely would like to explore this in the future.
CP: Are there any projects/people in the cosplay photography community that you feel is doing the next big thing?
EC: Not one in particular but I enjoy how the standard of quality in the production of media – i.e photography and video have gotten better and better. Photography is easier to master than video and there’s a few video directors who put out consistent work. I also prefer to see more in-depth look at cosplay from people who are not necessarily in the community. Sometimes there is an echo-chamber effect going on which I like to see a more diverse point of view.
CP: For the gear nerds out there, what’s your typical camera and lighting setup that you bring with you to shoot the images for your book?
EC: Ah, I’m the worst to ask about gear. My first book was made on a Canon 5D bought in 2007. My lighting set-up was a Profoto pack with beauty dish and a Thunder Grey seamless paper backdrop. I used to find camera houses in each town I visited to rent c-stands, sandbags, carts and other equipment but for the second book, I learn to use PVC pipes to do the same thing – but be more compact and lighter ! The second book was shot on Canon 5D and 5DII camera – usually I would focus on one aspect of the book at the convention – it was either portraits or behind the scenes. For portraits, I carried my Canon 5D – loved the idea I’m shooting the second book on the same body as the first book. For behind the scenes, I am using 5DII for their higher ISO for different situations. I also carried a flash as well.
CP: But you don’t really take that setup to conventions anymore, do you? What’s your favorite convention coverage tool now?
EC: Honestly ? My Samsung phone. It has Instagram, Facebook, Twitter all on it plus my relationship to cosplay photography has shifted since 2008. In the beginning it was to photograph cosplayers. Over the years, I’ve turned more to just hanging out and chatting and less photography-driven.
CP: How do you feel the smartphone revolution is changing cosplay photography?
EC: Definitely the future of communication within the community. There are cosplay-related apps now that have no traditional web presence – instead it is all on the phone.
As for social media, Facebook is not as important as it used to be – at least in my feelings about it. Instagram and Twitter are much better tools at this point, though since most people still have a Facebook, you still can’t discount it.
CP: What advice would you give to cosplay photographers starting out now?
EC: Photography is pretty much like cosplay. You choose to do what you want to do. There’s no rule or law saying you have to approach it in a particular fashion.If you want to run around and take photos on your phone, then do it. Want to carry an entire set-up of lights and light stands, then do it. Want to shoot in black & white or do unusual techniques, do it. What to charge money for it ? Do it. Want to do it just for fun ? Do it.
Learn techniques first before you can break the rules. The internet is at your fingertips with tutorials, lighting diagrams, examples and so forth. Remember this though – everyone has an opinion online so take everything with a grain of salt.
There is no one way to do something. If you like doing a certain thing and your friends laugh at you, keep doing what you enjoy. The worst thing is following trends because trends are trends, and everyone is doing it and in the end, everyone’s work looks like everyone else.
CP: What’s your next project? Would you do another book? Or maybe something less stressful?
EC: I have a few things I’d like to explore – fandom and tattoos is one. Transgender and cosplay is another. Probably not for a book, I think I’m gonna stay away from self-producing my own books for a while. It’s a lot tougher than it seems. Making the book is simple enough. Marketing, distribution and getting people to buy the book is another ballgame.
CP: Is there anyone in particular that helped you a lot with the second book that you’d like to mention?
EC: Is there anyone in particular that helped me a lot with the second book? Got time ? I have 765 names ! By the time the second book seems like it was gonna happen, Kickstarter had been around long enough that people were familiar with it. I figured I would let the audience decide if they want a second book. If they funded the Kickstarter, I would devote the next few years to it. If the Kickstarter didn’t funded, I would go on my merry way. I was actually pretty surprised I made it to the end because for a few weeks it looked like I wasn’t gonna make it. True to my word, I spend 2013-2015 shooting the book and plan on spending another 18 months to promote it. Around 2017 I plan to stop traveling to promote the second book. So yes, I really have 765 people to thank for making Cosplay in America V2 a reality. Without them, this book wouldn’t have existed.
CP: We’re happy to be counted among the 765. Thanks so much for your time, Ejen! We wish you the best of luck on the upcoming launch of Cosplay in America V2!
If you found this article interesting, be sure to join our Facebook group, Cosplay Photography Discussion Group. It is a place for cosplay photographers of all levels to learn from each other. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook as well!
Notice a problem with this article? Let us know.