To counterbalance the overwhelming drive to impersonate your favorite character, you need a photographer. Not only that; you need someone like Kira Winter. This comes with a certain degree of stoicism combined with an understanding of your character or of any character you might have to become. Big cameras & expensive gear are not the main thing; just consider such unlikely ‘normal’ light sources as a mobile phone, glowing stick, a torch or the passing cars. Ever wondered if you should move away from the beauty-contest limelight into building up aesthetic cosplaying environments?
Cosplay GEN: In your opinion, what does it take to be a cosplay photographer?
Kira Winter: First and foremost, you need to love cosplay. Because, although you are an awesome portrait photographer, in the end you might find out that your photos are not as good as you wanted. Each time you must have the will to bring characters to life. Place, time, weather – anything could help (and you can be the one to plan it). Also, I think that it would be much better if you watched the anime or read the manga and really knew the character. Cosplayers’ job is to impersonate the character with their look, but the photographer must create an entire world! If the place isn’t suitable, if you know nothing about the character’s personality, people will perceive it through your photography. And if you want to take photos just to make some money or for the chance to meet cute girls – you won’t be able to put your heart in. Who would like a work that doesn’t have any love in it?
Cosplay GEN: What sort of gear do you use? Do you think that gear is an important element in delivering quality shots?
Kira Winter: I use a Canon EOS 450D, a tripod and a few simple lights. I think creativity is much more important than any gear. Last year I took a lot of night shoots, using only two small hand torches. Of course, it was really complicated to take photos, but now I can create a lot of lighting with very cheap things. I always say that I hate flash light and never use it, but people don’t believe me. So I don’t even dare to tell that I am using only torch lights… Of course, now, when I use bigger lights, it looks too easy for me. By the way, one time I took a night shoot only with the light from my friend’s mobile phone; and another one only with lights from the cars passing by in the street. If you think hard, you can do much better than any guy with super expensive equipment.
Cosplay GEN: Before you were a cosplay photographer, you were a cosplayer. What can you tell us about your time as a cosplayer and what made you want to become a cosplay photographer?
I stopped doing regular cosplay 2 years ago, and it was really difficult to quit, unreal even. My friends and I were doing cosplay for so many years together; it was already a life-style, not a hobby. But I asked myself: is this something good? Am I really doing something nice and love cosplay as art, or I simply want attention and want to hear and read how people praise me? You know, people don’t talk about this stuff, but it’s a very serious question, I think (at least for me). I started thinking: is it something that I am trying to convey through it, or everything is just about wearing cool clothes and looking all nice and pretty? And I’ve realized that to me cosplay was an art indeed, but I had lost that fun between competitions. It all became a sport where you must be pretty, thin, cool… And it wasn’t fun at all anymore. It was just a strong tension, and the feeling that you can’t do this or that, because all the time you need to hear someone’s opinion on how you look. It sucked. I wasn’t a model. I didn’t want to make a big-sport of it. It was about fun… but it had become an illness. I know it was not only about me. People have changed, and cosplay has become some kind of beauty contest. It seems wrong to me. So I’ve decided to stop and try to show that cosplay is an art, not a beauty competition. I thought that cosplay was my favorite thing in the world and I could still do it as an art, just from the other side of lens. It was a chance to show that good cosplay consisted not only of expensive costumes; we also have to try and show the character’s feelings, and its story… I was lucky enough that my friends believed in me and helped me. They let me take photos when I had no experience, and when I saw what we can do together, it was like a small miracle. It was something that I always felt it was lacking.
So, what is the end of this story? Well, sometimes I want to cosplay, but I don’t really want to be an active cosplayer anymore. I am already not so young to cosplay school students, and I am not a fan of sewing-machines. I’m not saying that I will never cosplay again, but I like being a cosplay photographer. I know from the inside what cosplay is, I know the cosplayers very well, because I was one of them for many years… I think some photographers are very good with photography, but don’t understand cosplayers at all. You need to know some things from the inside if you want to be better… And the main point always remains that I was very happy back there, I will never regret it and it was the best time of my life.
Cosplay GEN: Do you consider that the experience as a cosplayer represents an added value for a cosplay photographer? And if yes, in what way?
Kira Winter: Of course, every cosplay photographer must deal with many professional questions (and for me almost each new photoshoot is a new lesson), but cosplay is not only about photography. As a former cosplayer, now I know that when you are wearing a complex dress, wig and make-up, it’s almost impossible to control the situation. So when I see that the cosplayer is lost or confused, I always help by telling him/her what to do.
Cosplay GEN: You have the advantage of knowing first-hand two very different cultures. Cosplay-wise, what do you think is the most striking difference between European and Asian cosplayers? How does it feel to be a European cosplay photographer in an Asian country?
I think Chinese cosplayers tend to form much bigger collectives… When I saw the Chinese cosplay groups for the first time, I was shocked: 20-40 people in one group?! And it is a common thing here. They don’t have any time limit on stage, and if 60 groups want to take part, they will take part for sure. Also, everyone is hardworking, patient and nice. I took photos in winter, in the rain, in extremely hot weather, and the cosplayers were doing their best each time, never complaining.
The Chinese cosplay community is at a very high level. There are a few very famous professional cosplayers, such as Huang Shan, Xiao Meng, Xiao Bai, who take part in conventions and sell photo-books. I think selling photos is a nice idea, but, somehow, inside the European community people think that it’s ridiculous. The most difficult thing for me was to make the Chinese cosplayers regard me as a photographer, not as a foreigner. My appearance is too different, and they got used to me only after a few months… The only irritating factor was when we took photos outside, and random Chinese people stopped and took photos of me, because I am European. Sometimes it made me really angry, but they intend no harm, so I am learning to control my temper.
Cosplay GEN: Can you describe a usual cosplay photoshoot with Kira Winter?
Kira Winter: If decided, the photoshoot takes place regardless of the circumstances (weather, time of day, mood, etc). It is always a challenge, but I like challenges. And the picture would be incomplete without my brave assistants, who always come and help me. I like to use some strange things like flour, branches, glowing sticks, Christmas lights – experiments can be fun! Of course, I like the celebration afterwards, when the photographer, cosplayers and assistants gather in some quiet place to eat and chat.
Cosplay GEN: You seem much attached to Pili cosplays and your photoshoots make one immediately think of a Pili show in its own right. Where does this passion come from and what’s behind a Pili cosplay photoshoot?
When I saw Chinese cosplay for the first time, it was Pili. I didn’t know what it was, and I thought that it portrayed some clothes designed by cosplayers. I was charmed by their beauty. It sounds strange, but by watching anime one starts to get used to Japanese clothes; but Pili was absolutely exotic, unreal and unearthly. So I was searching for more information, more photos… And now I can finally take photos of Pili cosplayers.
I can’t say that a Pili photoshoot is too different from a usual one. Well, except getting more nervous. I am greatly honored that I – without being Asian – am trusted to take photos of Pili cosplay, even if my cultural background is absolutely unsuitable, but it also triggers a lot of stress. Still, I want to do my best.
Cosplay GEN: Your photos are highly aesthetical, highlighting cosplay’s quality as art. For the less experienced, what piece of advice would you give in order to achieve this?
Kira Winter: Thank you. Of course, I don’t think that there is such a thing as a universal formula for good photos. And everyone who wants to be a good cosplayer or cosplay photographer must be ready to work hard and learn everyday. But I can give a small piece of advice – if you are a model, then trust your photographer; and if you are a photographer, then check everything, from light to posing. And you’ll make it. Good luck!
Cosplay GEN: Where does your inspiration come from?
Kira Winter: I was influenced mostly by Asian cosplay. Many years ago, when I was a cosplayer, I fell in love with it. I searched for more and more photos online, and I tried to borrow some ideas from them. I started to learn Chinese, and ended up in China. Now I’m a photographer and do my own work, trying as best as I can to connect European and Asian cosplay traditions.
Cosplay GEN: You’ve been shooting for two years now; where do you think you lack the most in cosplay photography and want to improve?
Kira Winter: The main thing I’m lacking now is time. I’m spending a very big amount of my personal time photographing, but it is never enough. Sometimes I do not sleep at all, because it’s the only way to make everything that I want on time. Of course, I believe that in the future my technique will improve, and everything will be ok.
Interview by Cristian Botea and Ruxandra Târcă // Photos by Kira Winter