Inside the elaborate fantasy world of live-action role playing

Boris Leist top
CNN  — 

When working in the field, photographers often try to assimilate with their surroundings, allowing subjects to be captured in their natural state. And that’s precisely what led Boris Leist to dress up as a monk, complete with fictional backstory, in a fantasy world in rural Germany.

For the past three years, the portrait photographer has been documenting the elaborate world of live-action role playing, or LARP. In order to attend invite-only events – where the most extravagant costumes and mock weapons are on display – Leist was obligated to assume a character. (He was also required to conceal his camera, because 21st-century technology is considered a threat to the all-important sense of suspended disbelief.)

Evolving from cosplay and table-top games like Dungeons & Dragons, LARP events see fantasy enthusiasts acting and improvising in fictional scenarios, with themes ranging from dystopian futures to zombie apocalypses. Participants, known as LARPers, sometimes stay in character for days at a time.

“The games aren’t just about fighting,” Leist explained during a video call. “They really try to make the world complete.

“For example, at this ‘Mad Max’-themed (event), they had postal workers and a whole town with an Irish pub. You don’t only have armies and mutants fighting each other – they really try to have everything.”

Orcs, warriors and zombie Jesus

The scene’s diversity is reflected in Leist’s striking portraits, which capture orcs, goblins and steampunk warriors alongside more unusual characters, including a zombie Jesus, a blood-spattered Ronald McDonald and a mutilated teddy bear. Almost 200 of his images, which were taken all around Germany, appear in the new book, “LARP.”

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Leist first came contact with the phenomenon after a chance encounter with a man dressed as a dwarf at a Renaissance fair. He was intrigued by the contrast – and, at times, similarities – between the fantasy characters and their everyday selves.

“You can’t divide a human being into two parts – it’s one person,” he said. “So it’s really interesting to see somebody living out parts of their real character, their real fantasies.

“Most people keep (their fantasies) in their minds, or express them it in different ways – just watching movies or letting others be the actors. But these people really live it out for a few days.”

Kimana, of the Lunkindar people, a shaman in training.

Taking characters out of their games to be photographed, Leist was initially worried that LARPers would prove difficult subjects.

“I thought a big problem would be that they over-act and become total clichés, when I wanted it to look like a real portrait of a real character,” said Leist, who was relieved to find that assuming a fantasy role often helped the LARPers feel at ease in front of the camera.

“If you’re not relaxed, you’re scared to show yourself. But if they’re feeling the character and they know who they are in this place, they don’t show any fear.”

Form of escapism

If camera-shyness wasn’t an obstacle, a suspicion of the media was. Some LARPers didn’t wish to be photographed, with the scene having previously been ridiculed in the press, Leist said. Others worried that being identified could be problematic in their professional lives.

Yet, Leist takes a compassionate approach to a hobby that is, perhaps, no different from any other form of escapism. The photographer has even published brief biographies of his subjects’ characters in his book.

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“I was pleased to have these characters in front of my camera, but besides that, a big part of the project was meeting and talking to the people behind them,” he said.

“They’re everybody and anybody,” he added. “You’ve got lawyers, car mechanics, bar keepers, company owners, teachers: Every background you can imagine, you can find in LARP.”

LARP,” published by Kehrer Verlag, is available now.