Over the past 6 years, photographer Tan Ching Yee visited and photographed more than 20 cosplayers in their homes. Cosplay, short for costume play, consists of participants dressing up as characters from popular manga, anime, video games, etc. Offstage is Ching Yee’s solo exhibition currently running at Objectifs and it features portraits of the cosplayers that reveal hints of their private lives. We speak to her about her inspiration behind this project and what she has discovered about this mysterious subculture.

Objectifs: Tell us about this photo series.

Ching Yee: This series is about showing another side of the cosplayers, a side people can relate to more easily. We usually have a one-dimensional impression of cosplayers, which is of them in their elaborate costumes. Through photographing them in their actual living spaces, I am trying to identify similarities and differences between them and ourselves.

Objectifs: How did you come up with this idea to shoot cosplayers in their homes?

Ching Yee: This project started off with as a documentary series of a small group of cosplayers making costumes, dressing up, performing at events, etc, basically the preparation and participation. After some feedback from mentors, I decided to change the direction of presentation into formal portraits of the cosplayers, of different races and ages, shot in their own homes while keeping to my original message.

Objectifs: Why did it take you a few years to complete this project?

Ching Yee: For me, the first year was like an introduction to cosplay, like I was doing a research shoot on it. After changing the direction of my presentation, I attended more cosplay events and got more contacts of cosplayers, some of whom later had to reject me as their families disapproved of me photographing in their homes. So I had to continue to go to events and get more contacts to have a larger body of work. I also had two children during this period, which affected my physical ability to shoot. I was also working at the same time, so planning a shoot took some time.

Objectifs: Which one of your subjects left the deepest impression on you? Can you share an interesting story with us about him or her?

Ching Yee: There are a few, but I would like to talk about Yukiko, who dressed up as The Maid. We spent a lot of time laying those figurines on the table and floor. She is a very simple person and easy to talk to. She told me that she used to have a very low self-esteem, walking with her head down all the time. She became even more depressed after a traumatic incident. Her friend then introduced her to cosplay, which distracted her and also helped her to gain confidence and move along in life. I realised then that cosplay can also change someone else’s life in such an important manner. I still keep in touch with Yukiko and meet up when we can. 

Objectifs: What was your initial impression of cosplaying and cosplayers, and how has it changed after doing this project?

Ching Yee: I did not know much about cosplaying before doing this project. I even thought that they were strange-looking dressing up in elaborate costumes. And this was precisely what drew me to want to know who they were outside of the costumes. After this project, I learnt that there are so many different personalities and reasons behind cosplaying, and that makes me think twice when I see a cosplayer now.

Offstage © Tan Ching Yee

Offstage © Tan Ching Yee

Objectifs: What do you hope for people to learn and understand from this exhibition?

Ching Yee: That we can look beyond the dramatic costumes of cosplayers and realise that they have another side of them. They have a normal yet unique life outside of their costumes, just like everyone else.

Objectifs: Any plans for this series after this?

Ching Yee: I am already grateful for having a chance to show this work, which I have spent so much time and effort doing, in a solo exhibition and have it tied up with an actual cosplay event which I have hoped for. I might show this work in another relevant venue, if there’s an opportunity. 

When: 28 Nov – 21 Dec 2013
Where: Objectifs Gallery (Open Mon – Fri 11am – 7pm and Sat 12pm – 6pm)

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About Tan Ching Yee

Tan Ching Yee is a Singaporean photographer and educator. Trained as a Chinese teacher, she pursued her growing passion in photography only in recent years. Besides shooting events and editorial, she also enjoys teaching photography and assisting photographers. Her personal works veer towards documentary and conceptual portraiture with a social message.

She has previously exhibited at Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF) 2008 at the National Museum of Singapore. She has also participated in group shows at 2902 Gallery, The Arts House and Objectifs in Singapore. In 2012, she presented a public talk on Shooting Our People at the National Museum of Singapore, as part of the 10-year anniversary of Shooting Home workshop organised by Objectifs.