Tomoko Sawada

  • Works
  • Exhibitions
  • Press

Contemporary portraiture can communicate various attitudes towards identity, status, individualism, time, place, culture and other connected ideas of the self. For artists, it can be used as a platform for discussion or as an enlightening tool for personal discovery. The work of Tomoko Sawada explores many of these sometimes contradictory ideas through self-created characters, the use of costume and staged photography allows Sawada to evoke the essence of ‘real’ people within a controlled environment.
Sawada’s series OMIAI, ID400 and School Days are fitting examples of her ability as both a photographer, and to some degree, performance artist. Reincarnating herself as numerous different schoolgirls or multiples of potential wives, Sawada explores Japanese stereotypes with humorous and delightful effect. By turning the lens on herself, Sawada explores the finer details of portraiture utilizing costume, facial expression and differing environments for the perfect photograph – the accessible photo-booth, studio, or working environment. Her work has a sense of familiarity, comforting but also unsettling in its realism and closeness.
Sawada enlists the assistance of studio photographers to document her work. This separation from the ‘artist’s hand’ further places Sawada in the realm of performer rather than photographer. Her art is connected to her surroundings, her costume, hair and make-up; all of the rudimentary and mundane objects that are usually taken for granted. Once formulated, her photographs act as an exploration of social badges, the malleability of the self and our position and role in contemporary society. The experimentation and repetitive nature of her photography further highlights Sawada’s skill in costume and theatrical prowess. The digital manipulation of her work feels real and her characters, believable. All of these elements culminate in a photographic document of Japanese society and the individuals that encapsulate it.
This highly skilled photographer’s body of work continues to grow. She has exhibited in major national and international galleries and group exhibitions where many public and private collectors have purchased her work. She is also the winner of many notable photography awards and grants.

Tomoko Sawada Official Website




School Days





Video works

Early Days


Selected articles

Tomoko Sawada − The Photographer without a Camera
By Ayelet Zohar

Sawada Tomoko is probably the quintessential artist in the conceptual space I am attempting to outline, namely Joan Rivie`re’s concept of Womanliness as a Masquerade. Sawada’s work reveals a sleek female figure, that manages to appear each time, on each picture, and on each image as escaping, smooth, ever-changing, appearing and disappearing, fading and reappearing image. Sometimes she is a beauty, on other occasions she is just a little grey mousy face, in most cases predominantly challenging. Sawada Tomoko is the emblem of the escaping identity and unperceivable character of femininity. In each of the series that she has created so far (of which two series are represented in PostGender) a similar group of different identities appear to mutually complete each other into the continuous and infinite repetition called femininity. In contrast to other attempts to define her as someone portraying a variety of images of Japanese women, I would like to stress my own perception of her as the image of ever-changing Self rather than others’. Sawada is the feminine incarnation of Morimura. If Morimura is posing a model of power relations in intercultural contexts that is born out of the parallels he creates between his masculine identity, the feminine identity he performs and the cultural identity that stems from those, and the repeating but changing multiplication he performs through the creation of images of local and imported cultural icons, then Sawada returns to the basic questions and positions of the mundane, specifically directed to oneself and the creation of Self-image (”What is a Self portrait?”), all in relation to the fundamental questions regarding conventions of photography, commercial photography, norms of posing for the camera and the language of the photographic image

Sawada is a photographer without a camera. All her works are taken by photographic procedures and cameras that are subject to cultural mechanisms − from the photo-booth to the high-street photographer’s studio. Therefore, her images deal with conventions of the photographic image, but manipulate the given photographic devices for the sake of inversion and creation of her own identity. This experiment suggested by Sawada questions the nature of the photographic medium and its agency in contemporary life and society. Of the three series which make use of commercial or professional photography, two are presented in PostGender, and the third one, School Days, is a series of group portraits where groups of children dressed in school uniforms are posing for the photographer, as all school children around the world do. However, a closer look reveals, interesting enough, that all the girls sitting on the bench, standing behind them in their uniforms, and even the teachers on the side are actually Sawada herself.

In contrast to the School Days series, which is mainly concerned with questions of the place of the individual and the socialization process in Japanese society, the ID400 and OMIAI? series are concerned with questions of personal identity with specific feminine dilemmas. The ID400 series was created in photo-booths and it is a series of endless number of self-portraits. The tradition of self-portraiture is not, of course, something new in the history of art. This is probably one of the most important and fascinating subjects that many of the great masters have indulged in − from Rembrandt to Van Gogh. But the portraits of Sawada differ from these famous artists in their harsh self-scrutinizing attitude. We are not facing a series of portraits for the sake of self-documentation or self-expression. Neither is this a personal gaze, as are those of the great painters reflecting on the passage of time, ageing and personal history as embodied in the human face and expression. Quite the contrary: Sawada’s series is looking at the cruel aspect of documentation, by self-archiving and self-sorting. In this series, Sawada turns into a ‘manufacturer’ of portrait, presenting here a series of portraits from the production line, made by the rough mechanism of the photo-booth, which is lacking in nuances and sensitivity. Sawada is staging her own self-portraits like a collection of criminal pictures in the police archives. I am thinking of Andy Warhol’s Most Wanted Man (1964) as a close reference.

The principal difference between Sawada’s self-portraits and Warhol’s criminals portraits is, of course, the simple fact that Sawada is not a police investigator directing his camera towards a suspect in crime, but rather she is investigating her own presence and phenomenal ability to change. The term ‘murder photo’, commonly used in Hebrew slang as a nickname for photo-booth images, receives here a double meaning: a photo made to document murderers, which is mercilessly directed at catching the immediate characteristics of a person’s face. Generally, this sort of photography is straightforward and uses the simplest and most direct means of production, which creates the contrast and cold nature of these images. Here comes the second meaning of ‘murder photo’: in the sense that the lack of nuances and shades of colour results in a lifeless, identity-less, detail-less image, as if it was a picture of a corpse rather than a living human.

This concept of the picture, or photography as a ‘murderer’ reflects also on the murderer of subjective identity and of the individual, and the murder of the personalized portrait, as in the artistic and sensitive tradition of images in Van Gogh’s art, for example. Sawada is placing herself between the two types of portraits: on one hand, she is an artist and her images are presented in the context of art in museums and galleries, while on the other hand, she is using the techniques of ‘murder photo’ to be able to create her own personal self-portrait. Sawada is a young woman who is directing this murderous mechanism towards herself − a mechanism that becomes violent and severe in relation to the place of the individual in the general picture of the society we live in today. Here lies the most important value of this fascinating series, as I understand it − its potent power to shake fantasies of identity, subjectivity and individuality, and to view sharply and directly with a piercing Gaze the manipulation of self-production. The photographic manufacturing line turns here into a production line of infinite numbers of sleek and sneaking identities.

The feminine aspect receives here an extra dimension, since Sawada is creating a series of slippery identities by using manipulations of fashion, dressing, make-up and performance. She changes her hairstyle, paints her face, puts on jewellery and accessories, bracelets and earrings, hats, ribbons, brooches, scarves, jackets, dresses and gloves. The whole vocabulary of the fashion world and self-design is expressed here. This is a misleading cross between the anonymous image of the police album and the feminine image that creates itself using the sort of self-manipulations suggested by fashion magazines. Sawada’s masquerade becomes a crucial mechanism in the understanding of the (failing?) attempt to create an individual identity. Many of us living in contemporary cities invest time and money to be able to create these details of the individualized identity. However, Sawada shows us that all these efforts are destined as only a catalogue of possibilities that definitely do not resolve the problems around the more substantial questions of personal identity. The whole collection of these images are all repetitions, doublings, or even masks − staged to suggest the possibility of self-production of a unique identity.

I am tempted to refer here to the place of the mask in Noh theatre. The mask, generally speaking, creates a double − a mask over the face. The double aspect is also expressed by the fact that a mask always places itself as a copy, mimicry or a ‘shade’ of the female presence. It is important to emphasize here that the Japanese term for mask is Omote 面, is also identical with the term ‘face’ in general*1. In Japanese, these two terms are replaceable, interchangeable and strongly related. The expression or the representation of the mask is not defined in negative terms such as ‘pretension’, ‘disguise’, or ‘masquerade’ − as those terms are presented in Western languages. Actually, the term Omote is related to the term Utsushi 写し − which basically means reproduction or re-production. The term Utsushi can be written with another Kanji – 映し − also containing the meaning of a copy, doubling, transliteration. In contemporary Japanese, 写is used to indicate the photographic image, while映is used for the cinematic picture. In conjugation, it can also relate to photocopy, facsimile, cinematic frame, shadow or an image from a projector. As a verb, Utsushi-dasu 写し出す may contain these meanings: projection, shadow, to transfer, to reflect, to expose, to show. If we conjunct all these terms together, one may see Sawada’s work as a psychological texture, which relates to a projection of an image, the production of screening and, simultaneously, a complete avoidance of the possibility of separating screen and face, mask and face, as it is expressed through the term Omote 面.

In the OMIAI? series, Sawada is exposing and manipulating another particular local mechanism of cultural production of feminine identity − the high-street photography studio. Since many marriages in Japan are still arranged, it is very common that a young woman will hand a photo-book of her own images to the family of the interested man*2. This album is normally produced with meticulous care by professional studios and is supposed to represent her, embody her identity, and give the young man and his family a rough idea of who she is. There is much effort and money invested in the production of such an album − with the emphasis on production of identity, which is expressed through the collection of different dresses and poses presented as individual images in each picture: the young woman in traditional kimono, in simple daily dress, in evening outfit, in office garments, etc. The self-presentation and the production of these very conventional images of young women therefore exposes the inner mechanisms relating to the production of femininity in these images by the viewing man and his family. All these pictures comply with rigid rules of do’s and don’ts expected from young women in Japan and, by this very act, Sawada is putting the norms and conventions of this practice at the forefront of her critical position. In this sense, this series is like a dictionary or an archive of the contemporary meaning of performance of Onnarashisa. Sawada’s work brilliantly represents the chameleonesque virtues that may be applied to her identity − qualities that can be altered, shaped and re-shaped according to the Gaze and expectations of the viewing side. Female wisdom was always that part that knew so well how to manipulate the man’s gaze, or to re-shape those forms that would be most appealing to the man’s gaze. The model of the decent, well-organized, clean-cut, well-dressed young woman viewed in these pictures is a strong comment on the ways in which the male gaze and male expectations shape women’s identities in contemporary Japan. These images are being exposed and ‘ripped’ in a very clever way by their very presentation. Sawada’s repetition of this practice becomes the dismantling mechanism of this desire − by mocking and parodizing, using repetition and perfect reproduction in the name of questioning the validity of these norms. The fact that Sawada can ‘fake’ any stereotypical image, and can stage any anticipation from the man side shows how these images are actually the product of a highly sophisticated woman, who does not disclose anything about herself but is ready to play the game to its very bitter end by exposing Japanese men to the absurdity of their expectations that women occupy, perform and play specific roles.

*1 It is important to point out the linguistic differences: in Hebrew, the term Mask − Masecha, is a statement on the relation between the mask, and the screen, or as a screen (of the hidden identity?), which puts it as completely separate from the face or the Self.
*2 According to government research, arranged marriage covered 70% in total marriage before war period whereas after 1995 it became less than 10% of the total marriage rate today. http://www.ipss.go.jp/ps-doukou/j/doukou12/chapter2.html (see the line graph at the bottom)

Ayelet Zohar was the curator of PostGender: Gender, Sexulaity and Performativity in Contemporary Japanese Art, exhibitied at Tikotin Museum of japanese Art, Haifa Israel Sep. 2005 – Jan. 2006