A few years ago, I got a message in my cosplay inbox. It was something along the lines of "I am a professional artist. I'm a fan of your costumes and I would like to hire you to model for a series of paintings."
It was paid work being offered — long before cosplayers getting paid to do promo work was commonplace. It was an exciting offer and a much needed financial boost for a broke student. All I had to do was pose in a costume over Skype. Easy, right? Once the Skype call was set up, something started to feel really wrong. The artist claimed 'she' needed to see my body 'for reference'. No, even gym clothes hid too much. It had to be underwear. Or less.
Photographer image from Shutterstock
In a moment of panic I slammed my laptop closed. When I finally got the nerve to open it again, I was in for an unpleasant surprise. I had been locked out of my Hotmail account, with a warning on both my PayPal and Skype accounts. "I can get your PayPal permanently frozen, unless you fulfil your side of the deal," came the threatening message from the 'artist'. He had gotten me into an incredibly compromising position, all because of my naivety and my excitement to take my cosplay to the next level.
Unfortunately, my story is not at all uncommon within the cosplay community.
Photographer image from Shutterstock
Recently, cosplayer Dani Phantom went public with allegations that a well-known American cosplay photographer, Richard T. Bui, solicited her for nudes in much the same way as I had experienced back in 2011. Thanks to her admission, more and more cosplayers have come out of the woodwork with similar stories and damning screenshots — some of whom were underage at the time.
Both Bui's personal profile and his photography page, Bui Photos, have disappeared from Facebook. I had a look before they were deactivated. Nothing about his page seemed out of the ordinary. His portfolio was mainly wedding photgraphy alongside a smattering of classy lingerie shots. There was even a photo of him with his young daughter. I had ten friends in common with him when I first checked — mostly cosplayers I had met in California — but the next time I checked that number was reduced to four.
One victim estimates that Bui has been carrying on like this for over five years, but the controversy only came to light recently when cosplayer Dani Phantom published screenshots of her conversations with Bui in a public Facebook post. Previously, some of his victims had shared their stories in private Facebook groups, but none had ever opened up about it. Dani heard alarm bells from the start and deflected Bui's requests before it escalated, but the incident still stayed with her.
"I was worried because he worked with so many younger friends of mine," she said, "and I was wondering if he had dared to ask my underage friends for nudes — which ended up being the case."
She wanted to protect other cosplayers from predators within the community, and decided to be the one to speak out.
Dani paid the price for this — since publishing her post calling out the photographer, she has been attacked for speaking out. Her post has over 2500 shares at the time of writing.
"I haven't slept well from the whole controversy," she tells me. She's been "too tired and scared" to read any of the threads discussing the issue.
Dani had never even met Bui in real life. They were friends on Facebook, where he slipped under the radar as a random cosplay photographer until he appeared out of the blue to offer her a photoshoot. He didn't do cosplay photoshoots outside of conventions, he claimed. He would rather do something sexy.
While he was careful to explain that his shoots were strictly non-pornographic, he did ask for "a series of selfies with nothing on". Dani thought it was a joke at first. The conversation continued — with Bui even supplying a cartoon illustration of what he wanted from her 'selfies'. Dani decided to cut off communication with him but she was not the only cosplayer he targeted.
This was the message Bui sent to cosplayer Vickie Alfafara, before asking for a series of nude selfies from several different angles. "That way we know you're committed."
Bui was just a convention friend to Vickie. They had met at California's Animecon in 2012 when she was just 15, but he was like any other cosplay acquaintance to her at the time. "We just saw each other at conventions and we would laugh and joke around and have some conversations." The request for nude photos came out of nowhere. It wasn't just on Facebook either; Vickie mentions that Bui also asked for quick shots of her private parts at the end of cosplay photoshoots, even after she told him that she was only 17.
Vickie blocked him on Facebook, but that wasn’t the end of it. "The day after he messaged me all those things, I had school and I just felt so ashamed. I was disgusted and I knew something was wrong, it’s just my mind was too confused to process it."
Some of the screenshots suggest that the girls were willing and consensual participants in Bui's nude selfies and photoshoots — but such an assumption would be ignoring the manipulative tactics that Bui used multiple times. "I'll delete [the photos] after", he promised while trying to convince one of the girls to comply. Minutes later he offered to show photos of two other "well known" cosplayers who had sent him selfies.
In these cases, it can be too easy for the community to shift blame onto the victims. "They should have known better" is an easy call to make while standing on the sidelines of an event, but the reality is not as well defined. Cosplay is an interesting beast — having grown from a hobby to a community to a legitimate career for a select few, there is obviously a complete lack of regulation. Cosplayers have no union, no guidelines, nothing but a sewing machine and their wits to guide them through trials that are not prepared for.
While a select few cosplayers are, or have been, professional models, most have never even touched a DSLR, let alone posed in front of one. "When this happened, I hadn't done very many shoots before," says Sarah, another cosplayer targeted by Bui. "Since photography was his livelihood, I tried to write it off in my mind that this is what pro photographers do." Bui fed into these assumptions as well, imbuing his requests for nude photos with a pseudo-professionalism that had many of his victims second guessing themselves.
Another cosplayer I talked to, who asked to remain anonymous, was among those who didn't have much experience with professional photographers when Bui reached out to her. "I should have known that things weren't right when he asked for nude photos. He was a professional photographer and I didn't really know anything about it, so I trusted him and thought it was something that everyone does," she told me — although her experience with Bui did not end once she sent her photos across.
This cosplayer didn't tell anyone about her experience until other cosplayers started coming out with their stories. The first few women to do so were met with scepticism and disbelief. This cosplayer decided to add her voice and her evidence to the others in solidarity.
Soliciting nude images is not illegal in itself — unless of course the target is underage, which some of Bui's were. One cosplayer is currently involved in an investigation against him. She hopes her act of speaking out against Bui will lead to more of his victims coming out and sharing their stories, and assist in speeding up the investigation.
Photographer image from Shutterstock
Despite having a much smaller cosplay community, Australia is not free from this sort of behaviour. One high profile case emerged late last year when Adelaide photographer Timothy Scott Marshall pleaded guilty to one aggravated count of indecent assault and one count of unlawful sexual intercourse — considered 'aggravated' because the victim was 12 years old at the time.
As a result of the story, the cosplay community in Adelaide suffered a massive upheaval, not least because of the negative media attention now directed towards the hobby. It led to an inventive response by one Adelaide convention organiser, in the form of the anti-harassment Cosplay Sentinels.
Surprisingly, Timothy Marshall still remains active — or as active as he is able — within the cosplay community, but his sentencing means that all conventions in South Australia have banned him from attending. He is also required to stay within SA as a condition of his parole, but allegedly applied (unsuccessfully) for an exemption to attend PAX in Melbourne this year — despite the convention contacting him and making it clear that he would not be allowed to attend.
Unfortunately other photographers have not been outed as thoroughly as Marshall was, and many slip under the radar. A large number of cosplayers have dealt with this kind of harrassment. One Australian cosplayer told me how a simple request for a photoshoot from an unnamed photographer quickly degraded into demands for pictures in lingerie and fetishised maid outfits, with offers of payment and promises that it would just be "him and his friends". Another cosplayer caught a photographer taking photos of her when she was changing.
This kind of manipulation and abuse of power is not exclusive to the cosplay community, of course. Last year a number of young models spoke out of abuse at the hands of high profile fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who has worked with big magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.
Closer to home, a Sydney fashion designer was arrested earlier this year for indecently assaulting his models. The former has particular parallels to the Bui case: a man using a position of power as leverage to take advantage of young women. Unlike models however, cosplayers have no union, no agents, no managers and no one to tell them when a photographer's request is normal and when it is out of line.
All we have is the community. For a well-connected cosplayer this can be enough — having a large pool of experienced people to ask questions of and offer advice. Dani was one person who was able to reach out to her friends when she received Bui's request, sending out a call over Facebook to ask whether it was normal or not.
It's worth noting here that nude shoots or sexy photoshoots are not inherently wrong. Cosplayers and photographers have created some beautiful collaborations on consensually nude photoshoots. The issue lies with cosplayers being pushed to do something they are uncomfortable with. Cosplayers being manipulated to believe that sort of behaviour is acceptable practice.
While there is no easy fix for such ingrained issues, there are things we can do as a community to help.
Communication is of key importance in keeping everyone safe — whether it's between cosplayers and photographers, between two cosplayers or even between two photographers. I've no doubt photographers could misstep even with no malicious intent, simply because of their inexperience with the unique world of cosplay.
If one thing was consistent among the many cosplayers affected by Bui's manipulation, it's that none of them are letting this one bad experience ruin their enjoyment of cosplay.
"I want girls and guys to know about this and not be ashamed if something has happened to them," said Sarah. "They aren't to blame. Luckily I know a few amazing photographers who always make me feel comfortable and never cross any lines, and I love shooting with them. I have made some of the most important and amazing friends, and I will not let this keep me away from enjoying conventions and cosplaying."
If you want to make your local cosplay community a safer place, check out the Cosplay =/= CONsent movement for more information.