Culture | The art of the selfie

Tomoko Sawada takes a passport photo

Even with over 1,600 photos of herself on the walls of Montreal, Arts Interculturels (MAI), Tomoko Sawada manages to get away with this repetitive self-portrayal without looking terribly narcissistic. In her exhibit, she takes a universal practice and turns it into art. Sawada fuses the ancient practice of portraiture and the new phenomenon of the #selfie, replicating the fusion 400 times.

The exhibit features Sawada’s iconic piece, ID400 (referring to the 400 different sets of photos), which were taken during Sawada’s university days. She starts fresh and bare in an overblown passport photo titled “Skinhead,” then begins to take on 400 different identities. Her artistic process, transforming her into a different character each time, legitimizes these 1,600 photos of herself.

“How does she do that?”

“It’s her face shape for sure.”

Two admirers measured their faces against Sawada’s to see if they could echo the illusion. With only her face and neck to work with, Sawada transfers the exaggeratedly cute Japanese ‘kawaii’ style onto film. Despite the dignified black and white photos of the exhibit, there is a distinct lack of seriousness to the collection. Sawada’s characters are near cartoonish and clearly branded. Here is the goth. Here is the cat lady. Here is the cheerleader – it’s almost a Japanese cosplay version of The Breakfast Club. Each character tries her best to be taken seriously – after all, these are passport photos, and no smiling is allowed – but comes off as awkward and funny.

Like a member of any clique, each two-dimensional misfit is isolated and sticks to their own photo square without relating to any of the others. It’s hard to take anything away from any individual character; these are all stereotypes you have seen before. However, although viewers may not remember any single character in the exhibit, they are sure to remember Sawada’s face as reflected by her entire collection. The cheeky aspect of ID400 is that Sawada subtly infuses you with her work, so that only the amalgamation of forgettable faces stays in your memory.

Perhaps that is Sawada’s message: it is not about a single representation of an individual, but the entirety of their person. Everyone has endured the discomforting session of the passport photo. Frozen in one expression, there is little leeway left in communicating one’s individuality. Each photo may feature a different character, but they must all retain the same expression. Similarly, all 400 of Sawada’s personalities struggle to express themselves in the photos.

And what of Tomoko Sawada herself? While her 400 identities may individually fail to stand out, the artist proves to be quite good at her work. Just by changing the direction of her bangs, Sawada can embody a whole new person. Still, out of the 400 different identities, there remains only one name. Sawada the artist is present in each of her photos. The two admirers did not wonder about the characters, but about how Tomoko Sawada portrayed these characters.

Yet, out of all the characters the artist has created, we cannot pinpoint a specific photo to portray the one true Sawada. In reality, these 400 different identities are not individual characters, but really facets of Sawada. ID400 is a physical manifestation of the artist’s journey to self-discovery. Therefore, she combines the aim of portraiture – a realistic exploration of the self – with the aim of the selfie – a realistic exploration of the best personal angle.

ID400 seems to reflect the unspoken rule of carpe diem; we should not be confined within the square of a single photo. After all, no single image can give a complete portrayal of an individual. By repeatedly constraining herself to each of the characters she embodies, Sawada is recommending that we free ourselves from a limited photographic representation, because even a camera lens cannot sift through every part of who we are. After all, when asked what her inspiration was, Sawada herself replied, “I don’t know, really.”