These disarming portraits explore the vulnerable side of cosplay

At places like Fan Expo, Hayley Stewart takes photos that mix fantasy with reality. The Toronto artist shares why she's a regular at the cons.

At cons like Fan Expo, Toronto artist Hayley Stewart takes photos that mix fantasy with reality

Selections from Hayley Stewart's Dream Girls series. (Courtesy of the artist)

Wherever you find cosplayers, you'll find photographers, and while Hayley Stewart is often among them, the Toronto artist documents the scene with an affection completely unlike anything you'll see tagged under #fanexpo this weekend. 

According to Stewart, a lot of that's owed to the cosplayers themselves. All the Spider-Men and Wonder Women and gender-fluid Pokemon that you'll see on a con floor are some of the best models you could find. "Conventions are an interesting place because there are so many people shooting and so many people that want to take photos," Stewart tells CBC Arts. "I think everybody really wants to be photographed." And for most of the weekend, the 25-year-old artist will be hustling on the floor of Toronto's Metro Convention Centre, covering Fan Expo Canada as a freelance photographer. (She's documented the city's Lolita fashion scene, among other subcultures, for Vice in the past, and her most recent art series, Eyes, was part of the magazine's travelling photo exhibition last month.)

Stewart started shooting cons while studying photography at Sheridan College, she explains. She was already an anime fan and an avid gamer, so the world was familiar enough. But after discovering photographers like Nikki S. Lee, especially that artist's Projects series — where Lee would drop herself into cultural cliques (skaters, yuppies, drag queens), in addition to various ethnic groups — Stewart says she was inspired to explore the lives of cosplayers.

There's a lot of courage in cosplay.- Hayley Stewart, photographer

"I was interested in the idea of the multiple paths that you can take," she says. "I was very interested in the idea that if I'd been hanging out with certain people longer, maybe I would be an extremely diehard anime cosplayer myself," she says. "I can totally see the pull."

Beginning with a series called Twins — group shots of fans of all backgrounds and sizes performing the same character — Stewart's has been immersed in that particular scene, even if she doesn't cosplay along herself.

Her pictures aren't the sort of airbrushed stuff produced at a typical cosplayer's photo meetup. She's not out to capture glamour shots, and she's not coaching anyone to snap into the movie poster poses they've been practicing in their bedrooms for weeks. Her portraits exist somewhere between fantasy and reality. That applies to her Dream Girls series especially, an ongoing project depicting female characters that she's already shot at Con Bravo in Hamilton and Fan Expo in Toronto. The photos are shot against the same blank backdrop, and looking at them is a little like flipping through Jean Grey or Sailor Moon's old passport photos. They're relaxed — candidly vulnerable — despite being posed.

I'm trying to capture the middle ground — a balance between performance and reflection.- Hayley Stewart, photographer

"There's a lot of courage in cosplay," says Stewart. "It takes a certain amount of bravery and self-awareness to be able to dress up and go out and wear a skin that you wouldn't typically wear."

Most of the people she shoots are total strangers. She usually grabs anyone who catches her eye and asks to take their photo — gathering hundreds of shots on any given con day. In the few seconds she can grab before her subject's off to their next Q&A, she has to win their trust and capture the vulnerable side of a space goddess or superpowered heroine.

"I'm trying to capture the middle ground," Stewart says, "a balance between performance and reflection."

Check out some more of her work:

Hayley Stewart. Dream Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Dream Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Dream Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Dream Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Dream Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Dream Girls. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Eyes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Eyes. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Eyes. (Courtesy of the artist)
A Hatsune Miku squad from Hayley Stewart's Twins series. (Courtesy of the Artist)
Hayley Stewart. Twins. (Courtesy of the artist)
Hayley Stewart. Sailor Mercury from the Twins series. (Courtesy of the artist)

Find more of Hayley Stewart's work at her website, www.hayleystewart.ca.

Fan Expo Canada. To Sept. 3, Metro Toronto Convention Centre. www.fanexpocanada.com.

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.