Ger Tysk’s life has taken her all over the world, as a writer, professional sailor, graphic designer, and photographer. Though she’s accomplished so many things, one particular achievement that first drew her to our attention was the release of her cosplay photography book ‘Breaking All the Rules: Cosplay and the Art of Self-Expression’ in 2013. In 2011-2013, Tysk visited 43 different states, including Hawaii and Alaska, and shot with around 120 cosplayers to showcase the diverse diaspora of the cosplay community at that time.
Now ten years later Ejen and Tysk catch up, to discuss the 10th anniversary of her book, her life since then, and her thoughts on cosplay today.
When asked if Tysk recalled what inspired her to create the book, she considered and said “I don’t think there was a moment [I can point to]. Your book Cosplay in America was out, and that was kind of the time everyone was trying to do cosplay magazines. There were a bunch of cosplay magazine startups and people were doing little photo booklets. It was like the wild west of cosplay photography because cosplay photography was just starting to become a thing. I think you were the first person that thought “Oh, cosplay photography. I can actually use this to make a book.” And then everyone else thought I want to do that. So maybe I hopped on the bandwagon, but I also wanted to travel around and meet different cosplayers.
Tysk continued, “I was really interested in what made people cosplay. Because I was in my late 20s, early 30s, so I was old, right? I was an “old” cosplayer at that point. I thought wouldn’t it be cool to talk to younger cosplayers.”
Tysk remembered the landscape was changing quickly in the cosplay community, and that made it especially fascinating to talk to cosplayers at that time.
Tysk said, “Pro cosplayers were just starting to become a thing. Cosplay was becoming mainstream and there were a lot of people who were angry about it and a lot of people who were trying to monetize it. So it was very interesting to talk to people and get their thoughts on it. So I wanted to combine that with photography because I was doing lots of cosplay photography, and I had this backlog of photos so I might as well do something with them. [Then I could] ask people about why they cosplay.”
When asked what her favorite part of the photo book was, Tysk definitely emphasized the interviews.
Tysk said, “[The stories] were the most interesting part to me. The photos were cool, but I really wanted to know the person behind the photo. I didn’t specifically go for well-known cosplayers because people knew their stories already. They were everywhere. So I wanted say a random person from Iowa, who wasn’t going to probably become a professional cosplayer, had a day job, and was just doing it. And I’d ask, “Why are you doing this?” It was really interesting.
Tysk’s goal to seek out underrepresented cosplayers across the country led her to really focus on travel as a key component of her book’s success.
Tysk noted, “I was trying to go to conventions in the middle of the country that [weren’t as popular or crowded]. Everyone goes to Anime Expo. Everyone on the east coast goes Anime Boston, Otakon, or KamiCon which have just become big. Everyone was like, “We have to go,” but I’d go to AnimeIowa.
Tysk relied on crowdfunding to help get the book published, and to cover expenses, and she learned a lot in the process that helped with future projects.
Tysk commented, “I did two [fundraising campaigns] on IndieGoGo. I learned a lot. The first one I asked for way too much money for not a lot of stuff. I didn’t articulate my vision well and what was going to happen and what people were going to get. So I didn’t meet my goal, but the good thing about IndieGoGo is that you don’t have to meet your goals to get the money. So I got that money and I did a second one where I pared down the amount, and laid out my concrete asks. I said ‘I need money to go to these particular conventions because I want to get cosplayers from these particular regions.’ That was much more successful. That led me to a second book that I did, which is nothing to do with cosplay, but was also a photo book, and I did a KickStarter for that. Because of what I had learned on these two crowdfunding campaigns for this first book, I was able to do a KickStarter that was successful.”
After her campaign’s success she began to travel to capture photos for the book. She met so many cosplayers in the community, with one meeting standing apart for her in her memory.
Tysk recalled, “Meeting Marty Gear was just like wow! It was just a passing [suggestion], ‘Hey maybe you should meet this guy. He’s one of the pioneers of cosplay.’ Then I met him, and he had this whole story about how it started and how he had been cosplaying for years, and he didn’t call it cosplaying. He was one of the older costumers who was okay with the term cosplaying being used, but I know a lot of people in his generation [thought] we can’t say that term because it’s for weebs or whatever. So it was very interesting to me how accepting he was and how excited he was about this whole younger generation of cosplayers that was coming up and taking costuming to the next level.”
Since her time working on the book, Tysk herself has stepped away from the life of cosplay more and more, as she’s taken up other pursuits.
Tysk said, “I don’t know if I consider myself a cosplayer these days. Some people you talk to they’re like ‘Once you are a cosplayer you can always just come back. It doesn’t matter’. I suppose that’s true. And I don’t have any desire to quit cosplaying forever. If one of my friends really convinces me to go to a convention for a day pass I’ll do something. I mostly quit cosplaying because I started sailing full time. So I was out on a boat for like 9 months out of the year and that really kind of puts a damper on your con going, so I just couldn’t do it.”
Tysk laughs, “I did think about it, but on a lot of the boats there’s no showers and no mirrors and you know it’s not really a great place to wear costumes.”
Though she hasn’t cosplayed in sometimes, she still thinks fondly of her times at cons and in cosplay.
Tysk remarked, “Every so often someone will tag me in a flashback Friday, and they post Ger took this photo. And I was like, ‘Oh, that was a really great costume!’ And then I remember all the fun we had at that con, and how stressed out I was because I was carrying all my light stands around the convention. And I used to cosplay and do photography at the same time, which was hilarious. There was a point that someone had a photo of me once when I was in my Sakura costume from Naruto and I was doing a photo shoot of this other cosplayer and I’m down in heels with my wig and I’m trying to take a photo. It was a little ridiculous. But because I was a cosplay photographer and I was a cosplayer I didn’t want to miss out on the con just because I had booked some photo shoots.”
We return to the topic of her book’s anniversary, and Tysk remarks about how she’s not alone in her separation from cosplay and the cosplay community, as she sees some friends in her generation and many people she interviewed have themselves stopped cosplaying.
Tysk remarked, “It’s funny because you go through the interviews in the book and one of my questions was ‘Do you think you’ll be cosplaying ten years from now?’ I would say 99% of them were like of course, and most of them don’t cosplay anymore.”
Tysk has not attended an anime convention since 2015, and she has wondered since if cosplay has changed so much that it’s harder to really become a part of the scene as it once was.
Tysk said, “When I made the book, I thought ‘I don’t see why cosplayers wouldn’t cosplay 10 years from now. It’s an accessible hobby.’ Then I think about it, and is it still an accessible hobby? Because the bar is so high now. You go on Instagram or TikTok or Facebook or OnlyFans and you see all these people in their amazing costumes with professional photography. And it’s like, do I have to look like this? Do I have to wear these costumes? Do I have to be on the latest trends of the latest shows? Do I have to have an OnlyFans? Do I have to be a professional? Is the goal to be a professional cosplayer? Do I have to win awards? Because that’s what social media has been telling these kids.”
Tysk then clarified though it’s perhaps more complex, “I’m not going to say it’s good or bad. It’s just evolved. Cosplay is an art form which I still firmly believe in. Art evolves and changes and who am I to say it’s not art or it’s art or whatever. There’s just a lot more options from back then. I think it’s great because a lot of people who are trying to get into cosplay have a bigger platform to get into it. There’s also a lot more shows and games to choose from. Back then everyone was cosplaying the same eight anime that you could find because you were getting [the same few] VHS tapes. I think it’s pretty incredible that you can make a career out of cosplay. That’s awesome! If people are doing this and they’re good at it and they’re making money and they can support themselves by cosplaying, no matter whether it’s companies hiring you, having an OnlyFans, or a million subscribers, good for you. I think the Internet has been really awesome for that.
When I expressed my own uncertainty at how fandom and cosplay has evolved, Tysk said, “I agree with you. I have mixed feelings about this whole change, but I always think about Marty when I interviewed him. He said ‘A lot of people in my generation hate it when people are like ‘Oh cosplay!’, and he’d say you know it is changing and I just think it’s really awesome that younger people are getting into it.’ So I try and remember his words of wisdom because he was a really smart man.’
Now with books, websites, blogs, and social media sites everywhere all about cosplay and fandom, I wondered what Tysk thought might be remembered in the years to come?
“The Internet is like word vomit. You know everyone has something to say and everyone has an opinion. What is actually important and what are people going to remember? I don’t want to say that people who wrote those fan zines from the 60s were the only important people because maybe they were just the people who had access to a publishing studio or a printer or whatever. But in ten years when people look back on cosplay what are they going to remember? And then ten years and then ten years [after that?]”