Interview by Ejen Chuang / Written by Zippy
Project Bazooka is a West Coast photographer based in Los Angeles. His cosplay photography journey started at a time when cosplayers and photographers, including Bazooka’s himself, were truly leveling up alongside in the convention scene. In 2014, he kickstarted and self-released a cosplay photography book Project: Bazooka, where he took some of the most incredible cosplayers and captured them in their full glory in stunning locations. Now nine years after his book’s successful release Ejen caught up with Bazooka to talk about his photography, his book, and to learn how his journey into cosplay photography and conventions first began.
Bazooka remarked, “I have been going to conventions since I was like ten or twelve years old. I remember we went to Comic-Con one year. We were traveling to San Diego, and my dad goes ‘Hey that looks like it’s a comic convention. You guys want to go?’, and we walk right up and we paid for our tickets and we went right in. That’s how old I am”, Bazooka says laughing. “At some point, we could walk up and buy tickets for Comic-Con.”
Bazooka’s cosplay photography journey almost never took off as he almost retired from convention life; however, an invite from a friend changed his entire trajectory on cosplay photography and conventions as well.
“In 2007 or 2008, that was the year I was [thinking] I’m going to stop going to cons because I’m growing up and thinking I don’t need to go anymore. I remember I was at a con with a bunch of friends and everyone sort of bored thinking I’ve seen what I need to see. I watch anime and I enjoy it, and I enjoy the artwork, but that’s cool and all my friends are out. [Then] I met someone from school and he was into photography and shooting with cosplayers, and he said ‘Hey, do you want to just join me for a photo shoot?’ And I was like, ‘Really? People do photo shoots? Yeah that seems exciting. I like taking pictures.’ So he brought me with him to a photo shoot, and we were walking around and he’s talking about posing and getting the angles and he’s just like, ‘Do you want to try?’ And oh man that was fun! It was very, very exciting. It was literally the day I was about to leave [thinking] I don’t need to do this anymore. And that unlocked it and here I am ten or fifteen years later.”
When I asked about his inspiration for choosing to make a cosplay photobook, he replied, “I’ve always been impressed by books, and I’ve always liked books. I have a huge collection of art books myself and when I grew up my dad would collect books and you would see them around the house. Picture books and writing books and all sorts of stuff. I used to love going to Barnes & Noble as a kid. It was like, ‘Oh man, I want to see these books’.”
He continued, “Right now in a digital age [there are] certain times books work and certain times books don’t. I think in countries like Japan books are much more welcome still than in America. Some people still buy books, but not everyone does though. But I think that there’s a lot of art books in Japan. The print media there is so strong. And I always appreciate that a book is a story that you’re telling. It’s not like a website that keeps growing, but it’s like a concise volume.”
After deciding to make a photo book, Bazooka then had to decide how he was going to present his photos and which photos would go into the book.
He remembered, “When I was picking my stuff, I remember I was looking through and [thinking] do I just get pretty pictures? If you throw pretty pictures in there, is it good enough? And then I saw your book [Cosplay in America] and I’m like damn it. He got a mission. There’s a focus in there. I think it’s important to tell a story.”
Bazooka received some helpful critiques from friends that helped him figure out ultimately what he was wanting to do with his photo book and how to layout the images.
Bazooka recalled, “I remember I put it all together and I showed it to a friend of mine and he’s like this is not good. And not because he was judging the artwork. The tough thing about doing a book is that if you just throw stuff together, it [maybe] can work, right? It could have a certain style to it, and I think that sort of functions. I think that by going to galleries and looking at art books I always remember that there is a little bit of a story with a rhythm. For my book, especially because each page is a different story, and each [cosplay] is from a different series, I figured I have to put them into chapters. I grouped them into video games versus anime, so there is a little bit of separation in terms of the chapters for it. It wasn’t the tightest, but I figured that having some sort of structure would help. And a friend of mine told me that “Hey, your book’s not working. The layouts are not jelling.’ And he explains to me [the book] is like a song. When you listen to a song sometimes you have a melody, sometimes you have peaks and valleys, and if you’re setting up your book sometimes you need to let people chill out a little bit for a couple of pages. Then you hit them with something hard.”
Though the book was an incredible challenge, as it is for most authors, Bazooka remembers it as an incredibly rewarding experience that really helped him grow as well.
He remembered thinking at the time ‘This is difficult, but it’s satisfying’. I don’t know how great I did it [in hindsight]. That was the first try, but I learned so much. And one of the reasons I went through the book process and the Kickstarter at the time was [that I was] curious about learning stuff. I had to learn so much random crap. When I was doing that book, [I had to] figure out how to use Adobe After Effects to make some video reels. I figured out some basic graphic design to lay out this book. I think I learned InDesign. For some of that stuff and even promotions and things like that it is its own job, And I think that when I dive into something that I get curious about I want to be as professional as possible about it. I want people to take it seriously even though it’s a fun project and to adhere to it well.”
Bazooka’s also had a background working alongside professional artists during school, and this also inspired him to try to achieve a certain level of quality when developing his book.
Bazooka said, “I went to school with a lot of professional artists and one of my instructors had a publishing company. I interned for them one summer and [was] around all that. I thought if I do my own thing I would not like to embarrass them. I know that my peers are going to look. That’s not the only thing that drives me, but [I still thought] let’s keep the level high enough. Not extremely high. Just high enough so that I don’t shame myself.”
He knew he also had the fortunate opportunity to talk to not only his peers but also to seek out advice from his own friend group.
Bazooka noted, “My friends are all very talented and I’m very fortunate for that. So sometimes [I’d ask friends] ‘Hey, give me an extra look like. What do you think? This is why I’m laying after this. This is what it is. What do you think?’ Because you know when going through art school, we get critiques and if I know someone is better than me my ego is out the door if you tell me my stuff is ugly. I remember we were sitting in K-Town eating some Korean food and my friend [says] ‘This layout is really gross, man’. ‘I’m like, that’s cool. Keep eating up man. Just tell me.’ I’m just like taking notes [and saying] ‘Tell me how bad it is’. I marked it up and then I sent it back to him, and he helped me out a lot.”
Bazooka’s goal for the Kickstarter was to hit $7,500 to publish the book, and in fact thanks to nearly five hundred backers he reached $20,725 nearly three times the initial goal.
“I think the reason why the book worked so well at the time was that everything aligned. A part of it was I think when did I put it together to start…2011, 2012, or 2013? I don’t even remember it’s like a blur, but in that range, I think cosplay and costume photography was moving at a really good pace. There’s a lot of people that are enjoying it, and the online social media portion of it was pretty good. Now it’s a little bit tougher. It’s hard to keep up with it consistently. But at that point in time I think that I set myself up in the right positions. I was able to get hired for cosplay related photo work, and I was working for different companies and different gigs. I just had enough visibility so that when I [started] this project I got all my friends into it and they were all very supportive so that they were sharing my stuff too. So you know it was like perfect timing for that peak. [I was] very, very, very, very lucky.”
When I asked whether he would do another photo book, Bazooka responded “As you know Ejen, there’s a high to it. There’s an excitement to it. I would love to do a book, but at least for me, what if I spend all that effort and time to build another book, but I won’t be able to sell the book? I mean, it’s really, really tough, right? Because can you imagine if you made your book and like no one would buy it? So that’s rough. So I think right now, for me, I’m just making the art, but in order to sell a book there has to be the need for it. I think in that sort of business sense you have to tap into something somewhere. I think it would be harder for me.”
To get some insight into how others might find their own success in cosplay photography, I asked Bazooka what’s the most important factor to actually being a well-performing cosplay photographer machine?
Bazooka laughed, “I don’t know. I’m not a well-performing machine anymore. It’s tough. One of the things I know [is] I’m not as consistent in output as I used to be. Yeah. I used to shoot from nine to five or from nine to six and then go home and edit until two a.m. every day. I did that for five to six years. At some point, I was outputting two photos a day. When the algorithm was working well two photos a day was what I needed. I could churn them out. But I also went to school where I was pulling all-nighters two to three times a week. So in the earlier days it’s cool, and I’m having fun and it’s working out. Now I think the priority is a little bit different. It’s tough because for me I’m always searching to create that new piece of art, and I don’t want to just let out something that I’m not proud of just to let it out.”
He continued, “So I end up sitting on photos a lot longer than I used to. It’s like if someone does it for business, then do it for business. If you do it for play, do it for play. I hope people understand that. For most of the stuff that I shoot, I usually don’t shoot for pay for me personally, unless it’s for business or if someone’s selling prints or if I’m shooting for a brand then I’ll charge. But if not, then I’m shooting for fun. And it’s tough because sometimes the photos don’t come out exactly the way [you want]. Sometimes they don’t get delivered exactly the way [you hope for]. I hope I’m fortunate enough for my friends to understand. Some people do and some people don’t. At that point, if I put out something that doesn’t look good that I’m not happy with and you’re not going to look good in what’s the point? And it’s tough but you know I think the storytelling aspect is good. Staying with that is always fun. Telling a story with a character and knowing why you’re shooting those photos that kept me going for a while.”
Bazooka’s seen the cosplay world change a lot over the years, and though many of the changes are positive it has been an evolution he has had to adjust to as well.
“I think the tough thing is the mainstream aspect of cosplay has been really good because a lot of people cosplay, but a lot less people are crafting the way they used to. And there are high, high level crafters out there, which is exciting, but I feel like not as many people are trying stuff out and making that art. I fell in love with that when I first started shooting cosplay, because my friends were in their basements [working away]. If it was a little funky, whatever. I can adjust something in Photoshop where you can clean that up. But they were like 95% there, right? And it’s like everything had this really fun finish and look to it, and I really appreciated that art and craft side. There is nothing wrong with people getting their own costumes now, because it’s great, right? They can play. But at Fanime my friends were making these crazy, crazy costumes, and when the lights hit them, it glistens, it’s showing all the little buckles, and I was just wowed.”
This year’s shoot at Fanime with his friends really helped Bazooka find the joy and magic of cosplay and photography once more.
“I’ve been locked inside for a couple of years, right? I’ve been in my own focus. And we did an outdoor shoot, and I realized that I’m in my element when it’s nighttime, and I get to control my lighting and I get something shiny to shoot. So we’re shooting photos in San Jose and we walked a couple blocks away to one of their City Halls, and I remember just hitting those shots and my light felt good, and I started giggling. Everything worked. My composition was good. And I haven’t been that free creating like that in a long time. So I hope now that I felt that a little bit I want to search for it more. We ended up going with those guys to sand dunes on the way back from Fanime, and we climbed into the sand dune and we’re rolling around in the sand. It was pretty badass. Just to be in those locations that are not normal.”
I was curious since this was the first time Bazooka had felt this way in awhile, so passionate about a shoot, when was the last time he really felt this level of passion while shooting?
“It’s been a while. I shot a little bit here and there during the pandemic. One of our friends Amy had a motorcycle, so she was really into motorcycles and she brought out her costumes. So Tim and I were shooting outside of his car. I was hanging outside the car shooting some gimbal footage of her motorcycle like running by us. I don’t know if I should be risking death for it, but maybe that was the rush?”
Bazooka laughs, and then continues “You know I really like location shoots. I think that makes it fun for me. I can make a convention center wall work, but there’s only so much I can do. So a little bit of the process for me is if I shoot at a convention, and I shoot in front of one wall, then I can’t shoot in front of that wall again for the rest of the con. That’s my rule. So that holds me back, I know, because sometimes I just can’t shoot as much. [Also] when I’m looking at a cosplayer and I’m checking out what they do and I like the costume, but there’s no location around the area I can shoot at, [then] I end up not shooting. And that’s something that I think keeps me back, but I need everything to connect so that I can unlock that happiness in the final shot.”
When I remarked that sometimes I get bored going to the same venue time after time, Bazooka concurred saying, “Whenever I would go to a new convention and convention center I was like ‘Oh this is fun!’. I like that challenge. After shooting at the Los Angeles Convention Center for ten or fifteen years it bores the hell out of me. What can you do? There’s a patch of grass. There’s a little bit of dog poop over there. There’s another patch of grass and a little bit of dog poop. You could sort of make stuff happen, but very rarely. It’s hard.”
Even when he had been going to cons with some regularity pre-pandemic, Bazooka and his friends would just find a park for fun hangouts and shoots outside of cons to find new spaces for creativity.
“As my friends started to go to less conventions, we would just plan photoshoots. So we’d [say] hey here’s a theme. The guys I know are super fast, so if you give them 6 months it will not happen, [so I]d say] ‘In three weeks you guys want to go play?’ So we would pick a park or we would pick a forest or something and just go shoot. A bunch of photographers and cosplayers would come together and just hang out for that week or hang out for a day or two.”
When asked what plans Bazooka had for future conventions, he remarked, “I just went to Fanime. I might stop by Anime Expo. I’m not sure. I’m still very skeptical about being around a lot of humans, but if it’s outdoors and I’d love to see some of my friends. A friend of mine invited me to a panel for Comic-Con, so I don’t know if that’s still running. So if I have a panel then I’ll go, [and] if I don’t have a panel then I’m just going to stay at home and draw robots. Bazooka laughs, “I have a very simple life. Very nerdy, simple life.”
One convention he recently went to took him not only out of his comfort zone but also far away from home.
Bazooka shared, “I went to NicoNicoCon a couple of months back in Japan and it’s different. The culture is different, and of course there’s a language barrier, but I think the fun thing for me is can you describe how to shoot without speaking? You can’t do specific shoots. Well maybe you can and I just don’t know, but for the shoots in the areas they get into lines and then people wait in line to take a photo and that’s the very much Japanese way. I go in there not so much to take the best photo ever, but I think just the high of shooting and to interact is really fun for me. To try. Some of the shots look really bad, but once again, they don’t know who I am and I don’t know who they are but we tried. We played.”
I was curious if they have sets or backdrops, and Bazooka clarifies, “No, it’s out on the street. It’s like the convention center, every person has a corner. It’s whatever part of the wall you get, and they stay there for like a good twenty to thirty minutes. When they get tired they walk away.”
Lastly I reminisced about our time together in SoCal in the cosplay community, and his remembrances of that time he put quite succinctly.
“I feel like it was very pure in terms of the fun. Right? Because not only were we growing as photographers, but we were growing with the whole brand of cosplay. Like we were growing with the whole culture of cosplay. And this is the only time where I think the last few years we don’t really know where the culture is going.”
Project Bazooka (2014) available here