The force was strong in Van Cortlandt Park on Friday as Siths, Jedis and Baby Yoda battled it out with glowing lightsabers that brilliantly contrasted against an ominous pink and blue sky.
Fans, cosplayers and local politicos alike gathered at the park’s grassy parade grounds for a screening of George Lucas’ highly regarded 1977 masterpiece, “Star Wars” (later retitled, “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.”) Unfortunately, the movie was canceled due to gusty conditions, but that didn’t take the wind out the sails of attendees. The screening was also scheduled in conjunction with what was supposed to be a closing party for a recent art exhibit in the park. Instead, it was a celebration of the exhibit’s extension through Dec. 1.
Photoville’s “Fandom Unbound” by photographer and curator Rhynna Santos is a documentary photo series of “Star Wars” cosplayers intended to spotlight the growing diversity of the body types and backgrounds of fans while “redrawing the boundaries of inclusion.”
“I like to tell people that a long time ago on an island far far away, I saw ‘Star Wars’,” Santos told the Bronx Times while dressed as Princess Leia in the character’s famous white gown, sinched with a silver belt and complete with the iconic two-bun hairstyle.
Santos was a young child in Puerto Rico when her father took her to watch the film at a theater she still visits when she returns to her hometown. And although Santos did not speak English and admits to not understanding the movie at the time, she was captivated by its visuals and felt a “bodily response.”
Bullied as a child and navigating the separation of her parents, Santos used “Star Wars” as an escape from her emotional woes by diving into a universe of imagination and science-fiction. But as she became entrenched, she found there weren’t people who looked like her. She was a plus-sized brown girl in a white male space and her search for inclusion left her further ostracized.
“I never saw myself in the movies or in fandom,” she said.
In 2005, Santos attended her first Comic Con — a comic book and fan convention that originated in New York City in 1964 and has since spread to several states across the U.S. That year she flew to Indiana alone, a place she had never been. She checked into her hotel and had to wait in the lobby as her room was being prepared. She looked around and was immediately overcome with anxiety and regret.
Then a jedi walked by — Santos began to laugh.
“This is really happening,” she thought, and her worries quickly melted away.
The event was eye-opening and life-affirming for Santos — she had finally belonged. There were others who looked like her and shared her interests so she was excited to create community.
A decade later, Santos took up photography and went on a search for that community. She set out to Comic Con in Anaheim, California, in 2015 where she documented the experience of plus-sized women and people of color. She continued her project at the Comic Con in Orlando, Florida, in 2017 and then went back to Anaheim in 2022.
What resulted were powerful portraits filled with quiet confidence. The prim and elaborate costumes coupled with their strong postures and direct outward gaze exude regalness and fearlessness. Their faces wearing an assured sense in their uniqueness.
“It’s important to make beautiful things about people that are often made fun of, especially in spaces with people of color,” said Liv Adechi, who learned about the event at Van Cortlandt Park as a follower of Photoville – a NYC-based non-profit founded in 2011 that displays the work of diversified visual storytellers in public spaces. No ticket. No bag check. “You don’t [even] have to be interested to come upon it,” Adechi added.
It was heart-warming to see a nearly 50-year-old movie bring generations together as toddlers ran screaming across the park while their grandparents sat nearby wearing their “Star Wars” t-shirts, basking in the nostalgia.
When interviewing several cosplayers and fans about “Star Wars,” it was clear that what spoke to them was the lore and its representation of the human condition.
“It’s about hope,” said City Councilmember Eric Dinowitz who was in attendance with his parents and his eight-year-old twins, who were both donning Darth Vader masks and lightsabers.
The characters in the “Star Wars” series battle with notions of good and evil externally and internally. From young Anakin Skywalker, who grew from a sweet child to become a Sith Lord to when Luke Skywalker discovered that Vader is in fact, his father. Good people are capable of doing bad things and vice versa.
The relationships in the movie are complex and compelling, dealing with betrayal, love, lust, confusion, anger and forgiveness. And the diversity of species — from humans to Wookies to Rodians — allows viewers who feel like outsiders to find solace. This is the success of “Star Wars.”
“Having these characters gave me connection when I was probably at my loneliest as a child. ‘Star Wars’ always gave me comfort,” read the caption under Ana’s photo — one of Santos portrait subjects.
And the numbers don’t lie. To date, the “Star Wars” movies alone have grossed more than $10 billion worldwide. This does not include money from licensing, which includes costumes, action figures, lunchboxes, backpacks, etc.
“Fandom Unbound” are large format photos printed on vinyl and can be found tied to the gates of the Van Cortlandt basketball courts, south of the 242nd Street train station.
This year’s New York Comic Con, NYC is scheduled for Oct. 12-15 at the Jacob Javitz Center and Santos will be there on a different project — photographing Black and brown cosplayers of the anime, “Akatsuki.” She is also available for commissions and can be reached on Instagram @rhynnasantos.
“I hope (‘Fandom Unbound’) encourages people to live their passions, unabashed and freely,” she said.
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