Multiple Personalities; Photographer Tomoko Sawada Has Chosen to Confront Her Identity Crisis by Taking Pictures-Lots of Pictures-Of Herself. Even Her Mother Might Not Recognize Her

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Byline: Kay Itoi

Tomoko Sawada is the Robert De Niro of Japanese photography. Just as the actor gained weight to prepare for his role in "Raging Bull," Sawada put on five kilograms before starting her 2001 self-portrait series based on omiai photos, formal shots used in traditional Japanese matchmaking. Then each week she visited a photo studio dressed as a different woman, sporting a new outfit, hairdo--and body. Adopting a low-calorie diet, Sawada gradually dropped the weight over the course of the project, which lasted 20 weeks or so; by the end, she was 15 kilograms lighter. "The easiest way to change other people's impressions of you is to change your body type," says Sawada. "It wasn't hard, because it was for my photography."

The result is "OMIAI?," a delightfully startling series in which Sawada, 26, appears as 30 different people, from a pigtailed, docile girl in a green kimono to a svelte, stylish modern woman in a black pantsuit. "Even though you are the same person, others' opinion of you changes based solely on how you look, and I wanted to ask why," she says. That question has become a signature theme of her work, and one deeply relevant to Japanese society, where appearance is paramount--and can be deceptive. Sawada's ability to objectify herself, coupled with a deadpan sense of humor, have helped her to emerge as the country's hottest young photographer. Last month she won the Kimura Ihei Memorial Photography Award, one of Japan's top prizes. A major solo exhibition to celebrate this feat will open April 20 at the Konica Minolta Plaza gallery in Tokyo, and her first book is due out later this month.

She credits youthful insecurity with igniting her creative energy. A chubby girl, she had long felt unattractive and inferior to her thinner friends. She hit a turning point when she started masquerading as different women for an art-school assignment to make self-portraits. "I saw myself in disguise in the mirror and liked the way I looked," she says. Sawada was hooked--and the self-portraitist with multiple personalities was born.

Over three months in 1998 and 1999, she went back 400 times to a photo booth outside a subway station in Kobe, where she lives, and took passport photos of herself dressed and made up as 400 different people. In the series "ID400," a grim-faced Sawada stares defiantly back at the camera. "I may have been trying to prove that what's on the surface doesn't matter and what's inside counts," says Sawada. She also did a series in which she imitated girls known as kogyaru, who dress up in short skirts and platform shoes, with dark, cakey makeup and blond hair. "Everybody criticized them as a group for looking strange but ignored what each of them might be thinking under the surface," she says.

As is often the case with young Japanese artists, "her reputation has grown more quickly overseas than domestically," says Osaka art dealer Tomoka Aya. While her home country lacks a market and support for up-and-coming artists, she has been invited to numerous exhibitions in the United States and Europe. …