Photographer Mariya Kozhanova lives in Kaliningrad, the main city in a Russian province that lies on the Baltic Coast, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. It's a place with a complicated identity—a curious mixture of German and Prussian traditions alongside its Soviet heritage, which Kozhanova had been exploring in her work for years. Then she discovered a uniquely Kaliningrad youth subculture that didn't fit into any of those categories: the local cosplay scene, and its Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Final Fantasy obsessives. It marked the beginning of her four-year photographic project, Declared Detachment.
"It started when one of my friends started to spend almost all her free time creating anime costumes to participate in anime festivals," Kozhanova says. "Back then, I had no idea about cosplay culture. I was mainly working with the topic of lost traditions of my hometown Kaliningrad, and it was already complicated enough… Cosplay culture is suited to this land even less, and I wished to understand why those people in their mid-20s and early 30s seek escape from their daily life into such a different culture, through playing virtual characters."
Though most cosplayers started out with an interest in Japanese anime and manga, characters from computer games, Disney cartoons, Marvel comics, and even Russian fairy tales have also gained in popularity. The Russian millennials in Declared Detachment are familiar with the idea of identity crisis—not just on a personal level, but a nationwide one. During their childhood and adolescence in the 90s, they saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and its values, leaving behind nothing but a huge—and still largely unfilled—cultural void. Cosplay has become a much-needed sanctuary that provides a sense of community, along with shared goals and passions.
"The cosplayers are organized in small groups and practice in sport clubs, theatres, private homes, open air places, and stadiums," Kozhanova says. "When I met them for the first time, they were practicing in one of the former Soviet Youth clubs. In the beginning I travelled with them to cosplay festivals and was coming to their local events. I took part in cosplay photoshoots and moments of sewing costumes… I wanted to get deeper into the world of those few people I've chosen for the project."
Most of Kozhanova's characters are young women captured in the middle of their transformation into their chosen cosplay character. "For them it is a chance to be free and perfect," Kozhanova says. "Who wouldn't like to be the most interesting, attractive, beautiful woman you are dreaming of, even just for one day or one moment on stage?
"It is a perfect way to bury your shyness and insecurity under a mask that you borrow from your favourite hero, who is created to be as perfect as real humans never could be. You are not yourself anymore. You could be free and act as you want. They could wear the most open costumes with the shortest skirts, but it works in the opposite way from a regular short skirt. It becomes an armour, which is protecting much more than exposing."
You can spot all the superficial cosplay tropes in Kozhanova's photos, like wigs and pointy elf ears, but their significance goes far beyond the surface. Their real meaning lies somewhere in how you can escape the burden of reality through acquired identities. It's something we all practice, one way or another.
"I'm focusing not just only on the characters in their final stage of performance or costume dressing. I'm fascinating by the moment of transformation from an ordinary person into a hero," Kozhanova explains. "This is what I show in my work. I show them not just in any domestic setting or randomly chosen place in the city. I'm capturing the world from where they want to escape from, and I show a final stage where they want to be, because I believe that reality lies somewhere in between."