Tomoko Sawada

Born in 1977 in Kobe, Japan, Tomoko Sawada is a photographer and performance artist whose work has left an indelible mark on the art world. Her unique approach to photography delves deep into the realms of identity, gender roles, and cultural stereotypes prevalent in Japanese society.

Sawada’s artistic career took flight in 1997 with her first solo exhibition at Japan’s Gallery Chat, solidifying her status as a remarkable artist in contemporary photography. In 2004, she received the prestigious Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award for Young Japanese Photographer, reaffirming the significance of her work. The following year, Sawada was honoured with the International Center of Photography Infinity Award in the Young Photographer category, further establishing her as a rising star in the field.

  Fotografia dalla serie "Signature",  Tomoko Sawada, 2015
Tomoko Sawada from the series Signature (2015)

Her work is an exploration of human identity, with a specific focus on gender roles and societal stereotypes. Sawada employs photography and performance art techniques to probe identity, status, culture, individualism, and conformity, blending traditional and contemporary portraiture methods seamlessly. Her photographs are organized into thematic series, each characterised by dramatic alterations in her appearance, achieved through makeup and costumes, effectively transforming herself into a diverse array of individuals – all portrayed by her alone.

Tomoko Sawada from the series OMIAI ♡ (2001)

Sawada’s art also confronts the complex issue of ethnic identity, particularly the assignment of an Asian identity based on physical characteristics. She has personally grappled with this intricate dilemma, having been frequently misperceived as Chinese, Korean, or Singaporean during her six-year residence in New York. Reflecting on this experience, she delves into the intuitive process by which people form assumptions about true or false archetypes. Her response to this issue led to the creation of a project in which she transformed herself 300 times to resemble a variety of East Asian women.

Tomoko Sawada from the series Early Days (1996)

Sawada employs a diverse array of tools in her artistic arsenal, including commercial photographers, photo booths, her studio environment, and digital retouching. Her use of disguise in self-portraits draws comparisons to the work of Cindy Sherman. Yet, she goes further, exploring how assumptions about personality are largely shaped by Japanese cultural responses to gender, occupation, and other sociocultural stereotypes.

Her first self-portrait series, Early Days, dating back to the mid-90s when she was still a student, reveals how self-portraits can unveil the relationship between our inner and outer worlds. Her embodiment of fantasy characters in her work allows her to document the lives and culture of Japanese women.

Tomoko Sawada from ID400 series (1998-2001)
Tomoko Sawada from ID400 series (1998-2001)

Tomoko Sawada left an indelible mark with her ID400 series, which commenced in 1998. Maintaining a prominent position in the world of conceptual photography and contemporary art, this series centred entirely on Sawada and her assumed personas. Her work is characterized by the repetition of images organized in grid formations, a structure that balances consistency in composition with flexibility in intricate details.

Over the course of four years, from 1998 to 2001, ID400 came to life through the use of a public photo booth located outside a train station in Kobe, Japan. Through this ingenious method, Sawada captured 400 unique passport-style black-and-white self-portraits. These images underwent meticulous transformations as Sawada altered her appearance through various disguises, hairstyles, makeup applications, and even weight fluctuations, offering an in-depth exploration of physiognomy and individuality.

Tomoko Sawada from the series OMIAI ♡ (2001)

Sawada’s subsequent series, OMIAI ♡, delves into the traditional photo book of a young woman used by her family for arranged marriage prospects. She underwent professional studio photography sessions, dressing as different types of women, with the intent of showcasing diverse identities for potential future partners and their families.

As Sawada stated in a recent interview for Talking Pictures:

“I am interested in the relationship between what is seen on the outside and what is inside, exterior and interior. That is the fundamental theme of my work and I still have many questions about it. That is what drew me to self-portraiture, but it is important to understand that these images are not an expression of myself personally but an exploration of the way we classify people – typologies.”
Fotografia dalla serie "Cover",  Tomoko Sawada, 2002
Tomoko Sawada from the series Cover (2002)

Other series – such as Cover, Costume, and School Days – see Sawada donning various outfits associated with different occupations, cultural trends, and school uniforms. These projects were born from her personal experiences, as she recognized how people’s attitudes toward one another change significantly based on their occupations.

Tomoko Sawada from the series School Days (2004)

Tomoko Sawada’s remarkable body of work continues to challenge stereotypes, question societal norms, and provoke meaningful discourse about identity and gender. Through her artistic lens, she offers a fresh perspective on the intricate interplay between self-perception and societal expectations. With a career marked by innovation and recognition, Sawada remains a pioneering force in feminist photography, breaking new ground and opening doors for a more inclusive and enlightened future in visual storytelling.

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