Tomoko Sawada: Japanese Photographer

This is Who I Am (detail) © Tomoko Sawada. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and MEM, Tokyo

THE PHOTOGRAPHER Tomoko Sawada (b 1977 in Kobe, Japan) has been part of the international art world for almost 20 years, exploring the concepts of personality and identity. Relying on her own face and body, Tomoko Sawada has impersonated countless personalities from different walks of life and at various stages of their existence.

Her work has great impact as, in a subtle manner, we are drawn into her photographs which prompt memories of our own existence: schooldays, friendships, our first job, or marriage, are all major milestones in our lives where we can inevitably associate with one of the characters presented by Tomoko Sawada. In a creative manner, she intelligently plays with the duality between anonymity and intimacy. Based in Japan, Tomoko Sawada is pursuing her work with dedication, talent and precision. In the interview below, she discusses her practice with the Asian Art Newspaper.

Asian Art Newspaper: In painting these days, you rarely see close-up portraits anymore, whereas it is the opposite in photography. Why do you think that is?
Tomoko Sawada: It is hard to say. Sometimes with artists, it is simply related to a trend. At one point, many artists focus on portraits, and then suddenly everybody focuses on landscape scenes. In my opinion, it is related to what is happening in society, but maybe there is no specific reason. Perhaps painters will start drawing portraits again soon.

AAN: Why do you feel drawn to portraiture?
Tomoko Sawada: I choose self-portraits because through a series of portraits it is easy for me to express my theme. Upon graduation, my work already consisted of a set of portraits ID400. I studied self-portraits, because when I was at university my photography teacher gave the class an assignment on self-portraiture. Besides the more standard format of a self-portrait, some students transformed themselves, either by presenting themselves in the form of a doll, or by painting their nude body. The subject offers many possibilities.

AAN: Was your photography teacher very supportive?
Tomoko Sawada: Yes. Actually, I had two different photography teachers. One of them gave us that assignment of a self-portrait. He is also the one who taught me the photography technique. I wanted to become an artist since I was in junior high-school mainly because one of my art teachers was an artist. His class was extremely interesting and I was happy to learn everything I could from him. As a student, it seemed to me that he enjoyed both his life as an artist and his life as a teacher.

When I was fourteen, I said to myself that I also wanted to be an artist and enjoy the life. So that was the beginning of my desire to become an artist. However, once I knew I wanted to become an artist, I had no idea how to go about it and whether I should try painting, drawing, or photography. Consequently, I decided to go to university and attend a media-design class. For this class, I had to draw and learn Photoshop. In addition, there was also a film class, a sound class, as well as the photography class. I was fortunate enough to get a basic knowledge of all these very different disciplines. Ultimately, I chose photography, which I then wanted to explore further. This led me to go to Seian University of Art and Design in Otsu, Shiga prefecture, where I met a teacher who taught me how to become an artist.

AAN: In what sense?
Tomoko Sawada:  In relation to my thought process and how to make work based on my ideas. Of course, he also taught me the history of photography and contemporary photography techniques. I learned a great deal from him and he has been a very important teacher in my life.

AAN: It is extraordinary to see what a crucial impact one single teacher can have on the future development of an artist.
Tomoko Sawada: I think I have been extremely lucky with my teachers. Although there are two teachers I would single out – as they have been key in my trajectory as an artist – there have been other teachers who have always been there for me: to offer help, or to cheer me up. Basically since school, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by the right people for my artistic development. To this day, these same people still support me when I need help, or advice.

AAN: As you acknowledge the impact of your teachers, do you try to carry this principle on by teaching yourself?
Tomoko Sawada: Yes, I teach at a university. I used to teach photography, but now I am also trying to advise aspiring artists with regards to the art world and their contact with international institutions, galleries, and museums. In addition, I am trying to help them to create work based on their ideas. Sometimes, a student has a good idea, but does not know how to express it, how to make it come alive. Other students have an excellent technique, but they do not know how to focus. Sometimes, they have so many ideas that they can no longer identify their most promising theme.

AAN: In Japan, what type of structure do you rely on in regard to your work in the studio?
Tomoko Sawada: Most of the time, I am working alone. Sometimes, I may have a temporary assistant, who actually is one of my students at university.

AAN: With regards to the pictures you took in a photo booth for the series ID400, did you keep them as they came out, or did you retouch them or alter them in any way?
Tomoko Sawada: None of the images have been retouched. I use Photoshop to combine the images, but not to retouch or alter the makeup, or the hair. I simply wear different wigs and change my makeup. I also used Photoshop for my latest series based on ketchup bottles.

AAN: Some photographers consider it essential to use Photoshop. What is your opinion?
Tomoko Sawada: It depends on the artist – everybody’s approach is quite different. For example, in 2003, I received the Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award in Japan, one of the country’s highest awards for a photographer. In the various series I completed, I am not the one taking the pictures featuring my portrait, or my character.

The photographs have always been taken by my assistant. ID400 was taken in a photo booth where you just push the button and the machine automatically takes the picture. But still, I received the photography award. In Japan, the prize rewards an artist for taking pictures, which is not precisely what I am doing. My winning the prize triggered a discussion in the media as to whether Tomoko Sawada was actually a photographer, or not? Indeed, I am not taking pictures, but I still use photography as my medium. If the viewer thinks I am a photographer, then I am a photographer. If the viewer thinks I am not a photographer, then I am not. It depends entirely on each individual.

AAN: If you were to take the pictures yourself using a remote device, you would get the same results, but would probably have to take far more pictures to get to the perfect one.
Tomoko Sawada: Absolutely. It is so much easier if I ask an assistant to take my pictures! In Japan, however, they seem to care a great deal whether I took the picture myself, or whether somebody else did it. I guess it may have to do with Japanese culture. Abroad, nobody ever asked me this question. Whenever the issue comes up, I always give the same answer: I do not know whether I am a photographer or not, but either way I am an artist. It does not really matter to me whether people using Photoshop are considered artists or not. What counts is if they themselves think it is a photograph, then it is a photograph.

AAN: For most of your pictures, the background is white. Were these pictures all shot in your studio?
Tomoko Sawada: Yes, they were all shot in my studio. Sometimes, if the background is of a different colour, I rely on paper, or fabric. As the university keeps a studio with a white background, I sometimes use that for a shoot.

AAN: With all the series you completed so far, what part do you enjoy most?
Tomoko Sawada: Interestingly enough, I most enjoy creating the image. I enjoy transforming myself, taking pictures, and I am actually happy when I see the final result with the image. Still, the most interesting part happens in my mind when I am thinking about the project.

AAN: Have there been any major influences (artists, art forms, teachers) in your work that have made you the artist you are today?
Tomoko Sawada: I would tend to say that my teachers were very important to me. However, there were also influences from many people I have met, without having anyone specific in mind. I am influenced by people, but it has nothing to do with what they do, or what they say.

I see my life as a relationship between people, society, and me. All my work is based on my point of view, on the way I see the world. When I ask myself some questions about myself, society, or the world, I make my work in order to find an answer. I thought I could get an answer if I kept making my work, but I know now that none of the answers that I may find can be the definitive one. However, I am still interested in thinking about people, about relationships between people, society, and me. My thinking process is my creative process.

AAN: Would you tend to say that physical appearance is a representation of the essence of the person, or would you say that these are two complete different things?
Tomoko Sawada: I am not saying that the inside is always visible to the outside, but sometimes, it is. I cannot say the inside or the outside is more relevant. I think both are very important and are related to making the whole package. Inside, my personality always remains the same, even when I transform myself.

Sometimes, people think I am like an actress, changing the way I talk, or changing my behaviour. Basically, I never change. But I know that there are people who change personality when they wear different clothes –the feel more confident, for example. It is both, an interesting and a tricky relationship between the outside and the inside. Sometimes, you may think a person is kind and ultimately, then you find out how mean they are. On the other hand, some people look mean, but they are actually very sweet.

AAN: For you generally, it appears that for a number of pictures when you become another person, you have a neutral facial expression. Why this choice not to be expressive in your photographs?
Tomoko Sawada: If I have expression, the viewer will think the picture is about the expression, but my theme is not about that at all. For ID400, taken in a photo booth, people are generally not smiling for these type of photographs. If there is no expression, the viewer has a better way of seeing the difference between the individual pictures. By making no expression I can better present another person, who is truly different, by relying on wigs, and make up, etc.

AAN: You have completed various group pictures featuring a class at school. Is the physical body always yours?
Tomoko Sawada: I took the individual pictures in the studio, even the ones of the teachers. Then, I assemble the individual pictures. As you can see on some of the pictures, I changed the socks, or the way I arranged the shirt – having it inside, or outside the skirt. Each time, I made some changes. At the end, I combined and arranged all the individual pictures I took in the studio. The landscape you see as the background of the class photographs is the actual courtyard of the high school from which I graduated.

AAN: What about the clothes? Do you create them yourself, or do you rent them?
Tomoko Sawada: I get some of the clothes from a rental store. Sometimes, I borrow some clothes from film producers. I did this, for example, for the school uniforms, which are fake. It depends on the series. Usually, I tend to borrow, sometimes even within my own family as I did for the Kimono series. For the ID400 series, I did not have enough money for 400 different sets of clothes, so I asked my friends to lend me theirs. I have around 50 or 100 wigs in collection, as opposed to the clothes, which I mainly rent or borrow.

AAN: I know that on one occasion during an opening, you overheard what people were saying about the characters in your work. Are these the comments you expected while making your work?
Tomoko Sawada: At the beginning, I was always surprised by what they were saying, but after a few years, I now know what they are going to say. I enjoy their comments a lot and usually people laugh, smile, and joke in front of my work. When I showed the school series at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, I was standing behind a group of people that was looking at the photographs. Listening to them speak: ‘she must be my classmate’, ‘I want to date her’, ‘she must be very athletic’, it almost sounded as if they were part of that class. I enjoyed their conversations!

AAN: You have completed many series, including Costume, where you present people from various occupations (a supermarket employee, a police officer, etc.). What did you learn from this specific series?
Tomoko Sawada: This series is about my experience as an aspiring artist and how people look at you and see you.
I experienced it first hand as I had just graduated from school and had already had a little success in Japan.
I had already shown abroad, I had a gallery who represented me, but I did not have much income from my work as an artist.

Still, I kept very busy with my work. I needed money to make my new series, but I did not have time for a full-time job. Therefore, I started to work on a temporary basis to make some extra money. I held various jobs, one of them was in a factory, where I worked with a group of people in a similar situation for three to four days. I began to get to know them, having lunch with them.

Some of them were students, others were housewives, who like myself, needed the money. One day, I was asked what I did, and I answered I was an artist. They thought it was some kind of a hobby! They wanted to know what type of pictures I was taking, landscapes, or flowers? When I said that I was taking pictures of myself, they thought I was a little strange. However, once I said that my self-portraits were being shown in institutions abroad, their behaviour suddenly changed: by taking pictures of myself, I was strange, but by showing my work abroad, I was suddenly a more important person.

I will always remain Tomoko Sawada, simply because I am successful, people change their attitude towards me. People change their behaviour according to one’s perceived status. That is why I made this work.

AAN: In 2012, you took part in a residency in Pittsburgh. How did the Heinz series come about?
Tomoko Sawada: The residency is organised by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It is called ‘Factory Direct’ and 14 artists are invited to take part in the residency. It was for three weeks, although some of the other 14 artists who were invited to take part stayed longer. We have to choose from a list of over 50 local companies, so I selected Heinz.

Basically, the residency is a programme where a historical company is collaborating with a contemporary artist. Initially, I did not want to choose a famous brand because it already has a strong image. However, one day, I was walking in New York and in the café outside, they had bottles of ketchup and mustard on the table. To me, these bottles and their label looked like a face.

Then, suddenly I got an idea. Maybe I could work with Heinz and transform their label into a face? This series also made me realise something else: besides being a self-portrait artist, I was also a typology artist. Earlier, you asked my about influences in my work, I believe Japan is very good at assimilating everything from foreign countries. I think my work is ‘pop’ and ‘typology’, so my style has become ‘pop-typology’. Of course, my work is about self-portraits, but it does not always have to be about self-portraits, as my style right now is as a pop-typology artist.

AAN: Would you consider having another person (other than you) in the picture, or transforming your gender?
Tomoko Sawada: Actually, I have done a portrait as a male, but I have never shown it abroad. The reason why I completed these pieces is because one of the museums in Kyoto had a set theme, so I needed to transform myself into a male. The piece is a very small gelatin silver print. It is possible that in the future I will be a male again. Initially, I was scared to do a series that was not true self-portrait series, but now, I do not have any scary feelings.

AAN: What is your latest project?
Tomoko Sawada: I am showing 300 pictures of myself on a black background in my gallery in Japan. A black background requires me to put a lot of make up on my face. Normally, I transform myself in order to look Japanese, but here for the Facial Signature series, I transformed myself to look East-Asian (Korea, China, Singapore).


For more information visit Tomoko Sawada’s website