Before I get into the main topic of this post, I wanted to thank the cosplayers who I shot with around the SMASH! period, Ray, my partner in crime for the cosplay photography panel at SMASH!, and the many people who came to attend the panel itself. Your support, patience, and your generosity with your time have really kept me going.
SMASH! 2013 was a great convention, but this post is perhaps a bit more introspective, because the convention has come to signify many different things for me over the years. It is the one event that attracts the most number of cosplayers from interstate to Sydney, and the time surrounding SMASH! is one of fond welcomes and then in the days after, goodbyes.
Fitting and somehow ironic, then, that the day the “SMASH! period” ended for me was the date of the Qixi festival (Tanabata for the Japanese). This is a day known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, but for me, the mythical basis of the festival, which is the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd (or Orihime and Hikoboshi), means it has always represented bittersweet meetings and goodbyes.
Even more so for this year, as it was literally the end of a long “holiday” and a cluster of SMASH!-related photo shoots.
A number of people have told me that I have been pushing the schedule a bit too hard, and to get some rest. And to these people I express my greatest thanks for their concerns and worries, because it is true: I was pushing myself and my capabilities.
I wanted to know the degree to which I could sustain a heavy shoot schedule, and whether I would still be able to develop distinguishable concepts and styles for each shoot.
I also wanted to know how fatigue would affect my performance at shoots, and whether it would translate to the final results.
The good thing is, I found out that the strain did not affect my endeavour for good results. Yes, I became more careful, and if anything, more attentive to each and every shot to make sure that no time was wasted. The process of getting to the final result became more evident for me, and I think I became much more directorial in terms of posing.
And at one particular shoot, all of the issues came together and I came close to my breaking point. Those who were at that shoot know how it was, and we’ll let the results speak for themselves.
In exploring my limitations, I have re-learned some valuable lessons – things which I knew all along, but whose significance did not really dawn on me until I experienced it for myself.
In truth, this post might have been written far earlier, but I am glad I procrastinated on it until today, because a conversation I had today with a cosplayer that I greatly respect, and a few days to settle in to my new life and to think about things, has really helped put everything into perspective.
Constructive criticism is one of the biggest issues for creatives and photographers. The first problem is actually getting it: it is incredibly easy to get caught up in a positive feedback loop. On the flip side, there are always people out there willing to throw out tear-down barbs in the guise of criticism.
If our artistic endeavours are such an integral part of ourselves, it can be easy to take things personally, especially when all the egos are out on display. But at the same time, knowing valid points when you see them, and acting on them, is one way to quickly accelerate improvements past roadblocks you might not have seen yourself.
In my conversation with the cosplayer, she brought up a very interesting point: shoots should be a collaborative process between cosplayer and photographer, and one where both artists challenge each other.
This, too, is an obvious point when you read it.
According to the cosplayer, she has a perception of the characters she cosplays, and a fairly clear vision of what the shoot should be like. But at the same time, the photographer needs to be more than a tripod, and more than a technician, in order for the shoot to be truly great in her books.
For her, and the photographers she works with, feedback, negotiation and disagreements are not just “a hard lesson”. It is a vital and indispensible key to shoots of unbelievable narrative power and emotion.
Nothing is more boring for her than a shoot where the photographer sets up everything, and then leaves her to pose with only minimal directions. The reverse is true for photographers: cosplayers who stand around and wait for the photographer to micro-direct them can make for a truly tedious shoot.
Truly outstanding photographs only emerge when both cosplayer and photographer come to the shoot with clear visions and goals, and challenge each other throughout the shoot to find a point of resonance.
What is the motivation for your artistic endeavours?
Motivation is the gigantic part of the iceberg hidden underwater. Technique and gear and all that splashy stuff is visible above the water line, but motivation remains hidden deep within the self.
It’s easy to get caught up in hype and fame. It’s easy to splash thousands on equipment to “prove” how serious you are about your hobby. It’s even relatively easy to learn the technical stuff.
But motivation is the deciding factor when the crunch time comes. It might decide how much time and effort you continue to invest in developing your skills. It might be the voice that allows you to relax because the praise of others has convinced you that your work is “good enough”. It might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when the going gets tough. It might be what prevents you from planning for contingencies, leading to the abandonment of a shoot due to unforeseen circumstances. It might even kill off that particular artistic endeavour if the goals you had in taking it up have been fulfilled.
It took a pretty frank conversation to convince me of this.
While I had been feeling some strain in recent weeks, the number of shoots crammed into these few days really made it evident to me: I was working harder to get shots I am happy with. I also perceived myself as working slower.
I asked the cosplayer for her feedback, and she told me most male photographers she has worked with take even longer to set up shots. Which is a bit of a comfort.
(Female photographers apparently always have helpers around to hold things, or they just wing it, and still get better results than anyone else).
But then I was reminded of a quote I saw on some ad for a gym: “It never gets easier. You just get better.”
And it reminded me of that vague sense of discontent that I feel during those frequent periods of weeks when it seemed like I was just doing shoots on auto. Slap the light stand down and the lighting is perfect. No struggling against the current. No sense of unease and paranoia during and after a shoot regarding the results. And no passion.
To get better, you have to struggle for your vision, to fight the inane and the average and the “good enough”. To find that core of emotion, sometimes, you need to be right on the edge of oblivion.
It has been a pretty intense and thought-provoking time for me, and that’s even before I’ve started processing photos! Suffice to say, it has been both hard work and enjoyment for every single moment I spent shooting, and I look forward to showing you the results in the days and weeks coming up!