‘The most celebratory, accessible, diverse array of people’: the photographer’s new book illuminates the subjects beneath the costumes
Thurstan Redding is a double Virgo. Meticulous, efficient, and focused, he likes to get things done. That’s why fashion photography is a perfect career choice for him: you prepare everything obsessively, you click, you work on post, then you deliver. It feeds the part of the Virgo which needs to see results. And for five years this is how Thurstan has worked.
That’s not to say it’s uncreative. His planning stage for any shoot — which I have seen up close, since we’ve been best friends for a decade — consists of countless storyboards, endless referencing and research, large scale drawings that he sketches when an idea comes, late night phone-calls, and inspiration drawn from everywhere. He works with Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton. He’s shot for numerous magazines. And yet, after a while working like clockwork with the fashion seasons, three years ago Redding decided to give himself a different challenge.
“I guess (I wanted to do) something that didn't feel ephemeral,” he explains of the moment his double Virgo self embarked on his first ever large scale personal project. Three years on, and his first book, published by Thames & Hudson, as well as an accompanying exhibition of 50 images, has landed in Paris. Kids of Cosplay is here.
Redding set his sights on cosplay when he began thinking about communities that had, until this point, remained largely uncaptured. “At first, I was drawn to the incredible visuals that come out of the cosplay community,” he tells me. He’d spotted cosplayers on the street in LA, and when he came back to London, he kept seeing them on the DLR. He was drawn to such commitment to dressing up. “I Googled – ComicCon of course – and booked myself to go to the next one. It was incredible.”
Thurstan is always shooting people who are dressed up, though, so I ask him why this was different. “I think something I noticed amongst all cosplayers is that through the act of impersonating someone else, I actually found out way more about them as people,” he says. “I shoot so many people who dress up, or are dressed up by others. On set I watch people embody characters all the time. Cosplay felt like that process with the dial turned up. Here are people who dress up and become others. They spend their time, their money, so much mental energy, thousands of hours on these costumes and really in embodying these characters that they adore, Cosplayers are also nourishing themselves.”
Indeed, the artifice might say one thing — C3PO, a Storm Trooper, The Little Mermaid — but what it reveals, and the part Thurstan became most drawn to, were the subjects beneath the costumes.
“Cosplay speaks to why we all dress up. To signify who we are now, to communicate our taste and our history, to become someone with a story” – Thurstan Redding
This is something Thurstan wasn’t expecting. On his first shoot, he’d imagined amazing visuals — incredible characters, brought to life by skilled artists, lit cinematically in suburban settings. But the way he felt after he took the first shot (of Bo Peep from Toy Story) was the moment he realised this could be a book. “I met people along the way who used cosplay to give them confidence, even if they hadn’t told their families about it,” he says.
Thurstan met people who dressed up in certain outfits to remember their past — their fathers for example — with whom they no longer spoke. He shot baby masseuses, teaching assistants, university lecturers with full lives outside of this craft. “Cosplay speaks to why we all dress up. To signify who we are now, to communicate our taste and our history, to become someone with a story.”
Many Cosplayers were initially standoffish when Thurstan approached them. This is a community, while linked closely to capitalist structures like movie studios and computer game empires, that is dedicated to the play part of Cosplay. “So many people do this not for money, but for the love. It is play. And I had to really remember that when shooting,” he says. “It took a lot of time to gain the trust of so many cosplayers. This is a guarded community that really protects itself.”
Beyond the individuals involved, Thurstan found the social fabric of cosplay inspiring. “People form communities, which forms a wider community. And while it needs a protective shell to prevent a subculture from becoming mass culture, inside cosplay — when I went to ComicCon for example — it was the most celebratory, accessible, diverse array of people I’d ever seen. And there was no fanfare about that. Truly, anyone can be a cosplayer. You just have to respect people’s time, effort, and passion. Also credit here to Finlay MacAulay and Anita Bitton at Establishment — they helped me cast so many incredible people.”
And really — while this book is about the Cosplayers, and this community Thurstan was eventually welcomed into — he tells me that it is also an autobiographical project. We all need to dress up. Sometimes we need to escape. Sometimes we need to use what we put on to communicate our most honest desires to the world. Redding has seen this nowhere better executed than in the cosplay community.
“I felt so fearless while I was shooting this project. That’s why I think about what I wear, that’s why I am careful and thoughtful and have feelings about the ways I dress each day. We all are. And after a long and amazing time in fashion, it was thrilling to re-remember why it is we all dress up: to tell a story, to escape into somewhere magical… to become a hero for the day.”
Kids of Cosplay: Thurstan Redding is available to buy from Thames & Hudson here, with a proportion of the proceeds going towards the British Red Cross to support the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.