Tomoko Sawada: The One and the Many

© Tomoko Sawada ‘School Days/A’ [detail] from the series ‘School Days’ 2004

I am interested in the relationship between what is seen on the outside and what is inside, exterior and interior.


There are many reasons why a photographer might choose to make themselves the subject of their artmaking. To document oneself, as with Lee Friedlander. To explore the possibility of who one might become, as with Andy Warhol. To perform a role, as with Fred Holland Day, who starved himself to re-enact the crucifixion of Christ. But the artist can also use their body as a site of social and cultural critique, as with the uncompromising images of Jo Spence. Nor does critique require the roles adopted to refer to previously established characters. When Cindy Sherman created her ‘Untitled Film Stills’, she did not replicate the promotional imagery of specific movies but channelled the cinematic clichés of mid-twentieth century female roles. Yet she was so accurate in her depictions that one could almost name the director of the movie that never was, so ingrained are those clichés in the collective imagination.

The Japanese artist Tomoko Sawada has taken the practice of self-photography in yet another direction. One that maps a fascinating circularity in which we find ourselves complicit. Her images draw on conventions familiar not through the fantasy worlds of the silver screen but embedded in the rituals of the everyday. The photo-booth, the class portrait, the high-street studio, the job-applicant’s mugshot. Each emphasises this embeddedness through repetition. Not one example but many. And in every iteration the artist is the sole subject, present yet absent. A kind of cipher – both a puzzle and a zero. The sheer diversity she achieves makes it hard to believe that each is performed by the same person. The characteristics of the fictive figures are so persuasive one feels one can imagine a backstory for each. They constitute a double typology: of the social conventions of photography and the way in which, amid the throng of urban living, we tend to categorise others through a kind of shorthand.

Societies are complex, multivalent, multidimensional human constructs. Where we find stability is in the balance between those things we share and those things that make us each unique. It is a rapprochement achieved though conventions and rituals that tacitly affirm our membership of the group, of belonging, while remaining flexible enough for each of us to retain our sense of individual identity. In the work of Tomoko Sawada, this paradox of the one and the many is made explicit in the tension between what we know about the genesis of each image – its singularity – and the way that, as socialised creatures, we seek to weave anonymous faces into the familiar fabric of contemporary urban life. It is an uncanny but salutary visual conceit.

Alasdair Foster

© Tomoko Sawada ‘Okami’ from the ‘Costume’ series 2003


How did you begin as an artist?

I was inspired by Mr. Noboru Tsubaki. He was my art teacher in junior high school – a great artist and great educator. I was such a fan! I knew then that I wanted to be an artist like him. On his recommendation, after school, I enrolled in a two-year college course in media design. When I completed the college course, I transferred to the third year of a four-year university course in photography. I learned a lot there and after graduating I stayed on as a researcher for a further year.

What was the best piece of advice you received from your teachers?

Always be ready for everything. Always have a new idea. Always have your portfolio up-to-date and ready to send immediately it is requested. Keep your website current. Promote your artistic work via email and social media. If someone calls me, I can appear on stage anytime!

© Tomoko Sawada from the series ‘Early Days’ 1996

How did you begin making photographs of yourself?

The first year I was in college the teacher showed us a movie about Cindy Sherman and set us the task of each making a self-portrait. As soon as I saw the results, I felt something special. I don’t quite know how to say it… something just clicked inside me. It was instinctual. Ever since then I have been making self-portraits.

What in particular draws you to self-portraiture?

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.

© Tomoko Sawada from the series ‘ID 400’ 1998

The earliest series I was aware before this interview was ‘ID400’. How did that begin?

I made that series when I was at still at university. It was my graduation project and, in a sense, my public debut. I was thinking about the way one supposedly has an unchanging inner self and yet how easy it is to change one’s outer appearance. Then, one day, the idea for ‘ID400’ came to me out of the blue. I made the work using an automated photo booth which was in the parking lot. It was conveniently located beside the toilets. I transform myself in the washroom and then took my picture in the photo booth. In all, I took on four hundred different appearances.

How did viewers respond to this body of work?

For the final image in the series, I shaved my head and photographed myself without any makeup. Sitting in the gallery with my shaved head, only about twenty per cent of the visitors realised that all four hundred photos were of me. That experience made me all the more interested in the relationship between outer appearance and inner self. And, the more time that passes, the more I feel that the skinhead is an important piece; one that connects to all of my other work. My fundamental theme has not changed much since this then. I continue to examine the relationship between outer appearance and inner self through the use of different conceptual strategies.

© Tomoko Sawada from the series ‘OMIAI♡’ 2001

Tell me about ‘OMIAI♡’. First what does omiai mean?

Traditionally, when a young woman reaches marriageable age, she goes to have her pictures taken at a professional portrait studio, dressed in formal attire. She then compiles a dossier of information about herself, including descriptions of her family background, education, hobbies, accomplishments, and interests. The parents subsequently exchange and distribute these folders to other families and relatives in hope of finding a suitable husband for their daughter. (Men provide similar folders.) Then, if both parties are interested, they will have a meeting arranged by a go-between. At the meeting, the go-between is present, usually accompanied by representatives from both families. If the young couple feel inclined, they will begin dating to get to know each other. The young man and woman make the final decision about their marriage, though they seek the advice and approval of their parents and the go-between.

How did you go about making these images?

I went to a photo studio in the city where people go for formal family pictures: when a baby is born, when a son or daughter reaches twenty years of age, when a couple get married… My friend introduced me to the studio photographer, and I explained about my artmaking and the underlying concept. The photographer aspired to be an artist himself, so he immediately understood what I was trying to do. I would come to his studio each weekend and he was to treat each visit as if I was a different girl come to him for her omiai pictures.

© Tomoko Sawada from the series ‘OMIAI♡’ 2001

Each Saturday morning, I arrived wearing a kimono and he photographed me. Then I would change into a dress, and he would take one more picture. Two portraits per session. The series took half year to make because, before I began, I put on five kilograms and, over that six-month period, I lost twenty kilograms. I found that quite hard to do, but the photographer’s wife gave me some useful tips on weight loss.

What was it that you wanted to explore in this work?

I had been surprised by the response to ‘ID400’, in the way that most of the audience hadn’t realised that these were self-portraits. I became very interested in the influential power of the outward appearance. I realised that the omiai system, with all that it entails, was very useful way to think about the relationship between outside and inside.

© Tomoko Sawada ‘School Days/E’ from the series ‘School Days’ 2004

‘School Days’ was the first series of your work that I saw. I found it absolutely engrossing, studying the characteristics of each schoolgirl, which appear so distinct and fully formed. When you are making a series like this do you take on the character of each individual, like a method actor identifying with and experiencing each character’s inner motivation and emotions?

No, I don’t. In creating my work, I never try to become someone else or make reference to a particular individual. I simply try to make myself look different. And in order to do that, I change my appearance. But I never empathise with, or act as, someone else in my photos.

Do you see these different ways of presenting your outward appearance as a kind of mask?

In Japanese, the words kamen and omen would both translate into English as ‘mask’, but they imply different things. Wearing a kamen conceals one’s true form, and there is no need to act. But when you wear an omen, the assumption is that you play the associated role. My work deals with kamen, but many people who see my photographs seem to think I’m performing, which I am not.

© Tomoko Sawada ‘Recruit/Black’ from the series ‘Recruit’ 2006

‘Recruit’ is similarly engrossing given the variety you achieve in such a constrained photographic format.

When I was a teenager, I began to notice that many people around town were wearing ‘new recruit’ suits. It felt strange. Then, when I reached job-hunting age, I saw my friends dye their hair black, take off their heels, and put on long skirts, which felt even stranger. I turned that sense of incongruity into art via the formal headshots we attach to our resumes in Japan.

© Tomoko Sawada from the series ‘This is who I am’ 2010

Your series ‘This is who I am’ poses and interesting question. The pictures are very formal, suggesting a potential tension between one’s outer presentation and the inner experience of self. What do you conclude about the relationship between outer appearance and what lies within us?

I made this series for a picture book, ‘Kore, watashi’ (This is who I am) published by Fukuinkan Shoten in ‘Takusan no fushigi’ (a world of wonders). Creating this picture book was as hard as creating three new series, but I think of it as touching on the essence of ‘ID400’ in investigating the relationship between outer appearance and inner self in an extremely stripped-down way.

As to your question… I think there is no answer about the relationship between outer appearance and our interior. It is a very complicated relationship, but it is also very simple. There is nothing in the picture that is untrue. It is this paradoxical theme that I keep exploring in my artworks.

In your work, how much is achieved physically, and how much is created in post-production?

The changes in my appearance are all achieved using wigs, make-up, and facial expression. That’s all.

© Tomoko Sawada from the series ‘FACIAL SIGNATURE’ 2015

How did ‘Facial Signature’ begin? What ideas were you exploring in this series?

I think a portrait is like a hanko [stamp] or signature, a visual ID that proves a person’s identity. Even if their figures resemble one another, it is always possible to tell two people apart by their faces. It is the same whether or not they are of the same nationality or ethnicity. Humans around the world share 99.99999% of the same genes, so any differences in nationality, ethnicity, and so on are merely added value on top of being human. When I was living in New York, there were all sorts of problems between Japan and other East Asian countries, but I personally had many friends from those countries. And I was mistaken for all different types of Asian: Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Mongolian… I wanted to know what we look at to recognise an individual, so I tried disguising myself as various Asian ethnicities.

Is your work received or interpreted differently overseas?

I think the response depends on the individual rather than their nationality. For example: those interested in feminism see my work as feminist. Those with an interest in identity politics think my work is about identity. Some people think I am trying to present Japanese culture to an overseas audience… In the end, I think my photographs often act as a kind of a mirror reflecting a viewer’s inner feelings back to them.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making your photographs?

My artmaking always leads me to new thinking, a new point of view. But, that said, I still find it a challenge to fully understand my own work, especially a new series.

© Tomoko Sawada ‘SKIN HEAD’ from the series ‘ID400’ 1998

Biographical Notes

Tomoko Sawada was born in Kobe, Japan, in 1977. She studied media design at Seian College of Art and Design, and photography at Seian University of Art and Design, Ōtsu, graduating in 2001. She has widely exhibited in forty-three solo and more than one hundred and fifty group shows in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania. Her photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, and Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in Japan; Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, France; and, in the USA, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, The Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography in New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

She is the recipient of a number of awards including the Kimura Ihei award (2003), an ICP Infinity Award (2004), photo-eye’s Best Books of 2006, and the Higashikawa Prize (2008). Her images have been published in a dozen monographs: ‘Masquerade’ [Akaaka Art Publishing Inc. 2006]; ‘This is who I am’ [Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, Inc. 2011]; ‘Sign’ [Super Labo 2013]; ‘Recruit’ [Rvb Books 2015]; ‘Face’ [Nazraeli Press 2017]; and the following, all published by Seigensha Art Publishing, Inc: ‘ID400’ [2004], ‘OMIAI♡’ [2005], ‘School Days’ [2006], ‘Facial Signature’ [2015], ‘Cute’ [2015], and ‘To Be Bewitched by a Fox’ [2021 – two editions]. Tomoko Sawada lives and works in Kobe.

Photo: Tomoko Sawada

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.