Jason Laboy was getting ready for his next shot, in the alleyway he had specifically chosen for this occasion. He had his subjects—an impressive looking Batman, Nightwing, and Spider-Man, to name a few. Just then, a passerby walked into the shot, undid his pants, and started taking a piss on the alley wall.
Laboy was trying to finish his shots efficiently, before the nearby restaurant owners lost their patience with him. He watched the urine trickle down the sidewalk toward the ground where he was sitting. There was nothing he could do but let the man finish, zip up his pants, and leave. The night was far from over, and this was just the latest of many obstacles.
Photography in a studio can be difficult. Photography on location can be very difficult.
Even in a studio, the photographer must adjust his lights, account for angles, and frame the subject properly. A studio photographer has to create something out of nothing—he or she must visually compose in one’s head, since one lacks the guidelines and markers that a physical location provides. And regardless of where the photo was shot, the hoped-for end result—a photograph that captures a singular moment—remains the same.
By contrast, location shoots are plagued by potential inconveniences. There might be permits to secure. The landlord could kick the photographer off the property anyway. The shoot is largely at the mercy of the surrounding crowd, which may prevent the photographer from doing his work effectively. And aside from the face-to-face interactions, there are the x-factors to being outside and exposed to the elements. Will the rain hold off? Will the wind die down? Is the sun in the right position? Is the sun even in the sky? It takes a lot of luck and persistence to mimic the very conditions that, ironically, one would find in a studio begin with.
Given all this, why would anyone shoot on location? First and foremost is the financial factor—photography is a hard-scrabble profession, and the majority of photographers are not well-off enough to book a studio, let alone have their own. There is also an organic, DIY quality to going on location that cannot be duplicated in a studio. It’s the same criticism that is often lobbed at CGI films—that the lack of real surroundings robs both photographer and the subjects of meaningful context.
Jason Laboy is fairly new to this line of work. He got started in it by shooting footage of local video game fighting tournaments. After that he began taking classes, reading books, and watching videos to hone his craft. He hopes to one day make enough money to do this full-time and support his family. For now, Laboy, who is trained as a paralegal, is pursuing his passion on the weekends and in the late evenings. This particular shoot in downtown Manhattan was a run-up to New York Comic Con, and Laboy hoped that the resulting images would increase his visibility and notoriety prior to the convention.
Laboy doesn’t get any money ‘up front’ for this type of work. Instead, he takes the best images from each shoot and uploads them to his online gallery. Magazines and websites then contact him, and pay him for whichever photos they want. Laboy envisioned this shoot as something that he could market to publications as a magazine exclusive. Success was crucial—the price of failure was paying for the entire shoot out of pocket, with nothing to show for it.
Laboy began planning months in advance. He would scout locations during his lunch break—he had timed the nearby subway line, and knew he could go to lower Manhattan, walk around a bit, and make it back to his desk for his lunch break was over. This alleyway was covered in snow at the time, and Laboy would revisit it in coming months, to get a better idea of what he could do with the location. He’s protective of the exact location, in case he plans to use it in the future.
On the evening of the shoot, Laboy was suffering from a bad case of pinkeye. It was affecting his ability to see clearly, and his dominant eye—the one he used to peer through his lens—was bloodshot and watering profusely. He wasn’t going to cancel the shoot. It had been difficult enough to get everybody there—two of the cosplayers from Long Island had traveled for more than two hours, and a couple others had flown in from Baltimore.
Everyone arrived at the shoot location, and Laboy immediately ran into his first practical problem of the evening. As he started setting up his equipment (a very barebones setup — only one light, to be precise), the manager of the restaurant confronted him and told him to move away from the location. Laboy had to stop everything he was doing and persuade the man to let them remain. He promised they wouldn’t cause any trouble, and that they weren’t going to do anything to disrupt the business.
After about 15 minutes of pleading and convincing, Laboy was successful. The manager agreed, however hesitantly, to let them continue shooting, so long as they moved closer to the street and didn’t bother the customers coming in and out.
They began shooting, and things quickly got even more complicated. Originally, the plan had been to have heroes fighting villains in live comic book sequences. Unfortunately, the cosplayers were mostly heroes, and the one villain, Scarecrow, had to leave the shoot early. Laboy decided that the best option was to shoot single portraits of each cosplayer.
When you’re shooting in public, curious passersby will start gathering around. And Laboy and his subjects still had to deal with these people, sometimes unbalanced people (the Bowery mission was around the corner), disrupting the shoot. Laboy gave money to a homeless man to get him out of the camera’s frame. Drunk people walked through the shot, muttered and yelled at the participants, and, yep, pissed in the alleyway. The first guy to do so wasn’t the last, and Laboy had to stop and wait each time.
“I guess it added to the feel of it, because now you smell urine in the alleyway,” Laboy noted dryly.
‘Dynamite’ Webber, who played the role of Nightwing during shoot, recalled a separate, alarming incident.
“I think one of the most concerning moments was when we had a very intoxicated man who was sitting on a stoop on the other side of the alley,” Webber told me over email. “At first, he was yelling at us. And then after awhile, he stumbled over to the group of us while Jason was shooting with another cosplayer in the alley. He first turned his attention to my girlfriend, ‘Queen’ Helene, who was dressed as Catwoman. Deathstroke (Rich Lopez) and I basically stepped between her and him, and Al Vasquez, being the true Batman he is, got the guy’s attention by talking to him and being friendly.
“The guy did end up throwing a light punch to Al’s stomach (presumably to test his armor). After that, we all told the guy he needed to move on and leave us be. He eventually listened with no further incidents, but it was very tense for several minutes.”
Bystanders from the bar, including an entire bachelorette party, also wanted to take photos with the cosplayers. At times, this can be a negative experience, especially if the shoot features women cosplayers wearing flattering clothes, which Laboy notes can lead to catcalls and crude remarks, or bystanders taking photos without asking permission.
If the vibe is positive, Laboy actually encourages and enjoys interaction with bystanders, within limits.
For him, Laboy says, it’s part of the excitement that these shoots can generate, and it’s wish fulfilment for a lot of bystanders, who have never seen their childhood heroes portrayed so accurately.
Trevor Ray, the man who played Spider-Man in Laboy’s photoshoot, agrees. He lives on Long Island, and didn’t get home from the shoot until the following morning at 6AM.
“I cosplay because it is one of those experiences that brings people together,” Ray told me in an email. “Cosplayers, from what I have experienced so far, all share the same passion for becoming characters that they love. Also, it’s true that when you cosplay, you feel like a celebrity for the day. No one judges you. I love to cosplay because of how kids’ faces light up when they see their favorite characters walking past them.”
The group finished at the alleyway location, then went to a second location in Brooklyn, where things went much more smoothly. They were backed by the city skyline, and all the cosplayers were excited to pose, especially after the previous, difficult several hours. They finally wrapped things up at around 3AM.
The full shoot took close to seven hours to complete, from the time that they started setting up the lights in the Bowery to the time that Laboy arrived home. They were never sold as a magazine exclusive, due to timing issues. Instead, LaBoy uploaded them directly to his website to promote his upcoming NY Comic-Con gig. (His photos were also featured in a gallery on this very website.)
LaBoy did manage to get a paid gig thanks to his work that night—a different cosplayer liked what he saw and wanted something similar.
Pursuing a dream can be hell, but Laboy’s end goal—to make a living as a photographer—pushes him to soldier on. He’ll keep taking photos of people dressed like superheroes, streams of urine, street harassment, and suspicious managers be damned.
Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. His focus is on video games, American pop culture, and Asian American issues. Kevin has also been published in VIBE, Complex, Joystiq, Salon, PopMatters, WhatCulture, and Racialicious. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.