Tomoko Sawada’s School Days

The first impression you get from picking up and open Tomoko Sawada’s School Days is that while it is a standard, small sized photo book and specified as a paperback, the pages are thick cardboard pages like a children’s book. This gives the book a chunky feel, but also means that the number of pages and therefore the number of plates included are limited; only 10 images are on display here. However, this should not be of any concern since once you look at the material it becomes clear that these are essentially ten very similar images and adequately communicate the intent.

As many other now well-known photographers, especially the recent wave of female photo artists, Sawada’s career breakthrough came via the annual Canon New Cosmos of Photography contest and exhibition. She has won the prestigious Kimura Ihei Award in 2004 and is now one of the well-known names in Japanese photography. The majority of – if not all – her work are portraits or perhaps better images of herself. Since a portrait is – or perhaps is supposed to be amongst many other possible things – an image, usually of a person, that reveals something about that person, it would be appropriate to say that Sawada’s images do not reveal anything about her person except her obvious desire to assume different persona and appearances. For this reason she is often compared to the work of Cindy Sherman. This comparison seems only superficially valid, however, as the primary commonalities are that both of them are female artists that take pictures of themselves in different situations and with differing appearances. This again leads to the obvious thought that the images are about identity and the role of a woman in society.

The Japanese group photograph has a long, great tradition and is socially significant. In a culture where the molecular social fabric consists of groups of people it seems only reasonable to document the group photographically as if to reassure the viewer of its existence or the subject’s actual integration with the network. Formal group photographs are taken in a wide variety of occasions: in schools, at weddings, travelling tour groups and employees at company outings to just name a few. School Days chooses the convention of the class photograph with the typical backdrop, ideally a blossoming cherry tree, or simply the standard boxy Japanese school building. Since all the subjects in the photographs are girls in their identical high school uniforms with the exception of the teacher, it takes a few moments to realise that everyone including the teacher is actually one and the same person, or rather, have the same face with differing hairstyles and facial expressions.

This introduces another angle to the series, which is that of homogeneity and conformism in Japanese society. I see this interpretation with some scepticism and an overly Western view, which presupposes that all Japanese look similar and are brought up to be similar. While there is an element of truth in this, such an interpretation appears to be exaggerated. If the artist had indeed intended to examine this aspect of society, then the choice of a group of people in uniform is not a very subtle approach. Quite the opposite, since at first glance the girls all look different it would suggest that individuality in a literally uniform environment is possible, which is not always obvious to the untrained Western eye.

Tomoko Sawada School Days

School Days is not and does not have to be a book of beautiful photographs. The images are clearly digitally composited, including the dropped in background. The printing quality reminds of inexpensive digital output, but this is not of great importance here and perhaps even appropriate as this is what you usually end up with as group member whose photo was taken.

Neither in my view is in this series the angle of femininity of great significance, although it is not surprising if this aspect would be emphasised by Western viewers as it is conveniently presented for such interpretation. Replace these high school girls with uniformed boys and the result would be the same. Consequently Sawada’s work appears to want us to think primarily about aspects of our identity, that every person is unique and probably can be unique in an infinitely number of ways (some of her early passport booth work consists of hundreds of photos of herself). That a single person can appear different on the outside in a myriad of ways but will always be the same person internally. Ultimately she seems to ask over and over again what is the connection between personality and the appearance of a person and whether there is such a connection at the first place. Sawada’s work not only examines social aspects of identity but also photography’s ability to represent reality – a classic question, but in my view the work presents only few new answers and one is left desiring more profound insight than currently the case.

School Days is available for purchase from the Japan Exposures bookstore.

Elsewhere on the web

More of Sawada’s images can be seen at Zabriskie Gallery

Tomoko Sawada’s home page