Surrounded by seagulls on a desolate street, a small gray-haired woman with a prominent hunch awkwardly peers toward the sky, watching the shadows set in over an empty Coney Island.
Her feet: covered by strap-on clogs; her face: wearing as many wrinkles as years she has lived. But the clothes are borrowed and her age is as well.
Her wrinkles are carefully constructed latex; her arthritic back a staged subterfuge. The woman beneath is 40-year-old Japanese photographer Kyoko Hamada, the present day version of “Kikuchiyo-san,” the subject of her futuristic self-portraits.
"I just wanted to meet this person who doesn't actually exist yet," a very pregnant Hamada said, a statement that could be a double entendre referring to her projected elderly self and the new life growing inside her.
Not dissimilar to young girls playing dress up in their mothers’ clothes, wearing heels six sizes too big and applying red lipstick as liberally as they would to a coloring book, the Kikuchiyo-san project evolved from a desire to dress the part of her older self, decades into the future.
Most girls grow out of that curious phase, or rather grow into those adult heels so well that there is no desire to play a pretend senior citizen – knowing what they know now about how time taxes the body. But not for Hamada.
“The subject of change and decay has always fascinated me and been a part of my work, but finding my first gray hair really brought those issues up in my own life,” she said.
Unafraid to trade in the high heels for some oversized grandma gowns, Hamada began photographing her time-machine self in May 2011 with the help of makeup artists, self-timer shutters and supportive friends.
Taken throughout New York, her self-portraits depict where she envisions her older self would like to go, places like Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
She poses as she imagines her fragile arthritic body would conform to subway seats, afternoon naps and slow strolls past New York’s finest. Her series, “I used to be you,” won the 2012 Lens Culture International Exposure Award.
A jolting consequence of acting 40+ years her senior is that she was also treated by others as such, which to her was lonely but also liberating.
“At the botanical gardens, an older gentlemen around the age of 50 quietly stepped aside and made a way for Kikuchiyo-san to walk by. I felt guilty for fooling him.”
There is a reverence but then there’s also a sense of ignorance toward the elderly, she felt. “I could sense that elders may tend to be left alone. … Often I sense an otherworldly air from them as though they are still living in a different era.”
Looking the part is only one facet of her self-referential photography style, but acting the part is critical to making everyday staged scenes appear natural.
On adopting the role of an elderly person, she said the clothes allowed her body naturally to bend over slightly, which lends itself nicely to her ability to authenticate a fabricated person. She said it doesn't feel unnatural.
“I do feel I am more myself, in a way, when I’m dressing up as Kikuchiyo-san. I feel like I am outside of the time and the social grid we live in. She just freely goes to places whenever she pleases."
Hamada describes the series as a time machine, as it deals with her own mortality, aging and transition, though luckily, she said, “I get to come back and appreciate my current life after working on her photographs.”
Because she is acting as both the vessel for her future self as well as the vessel for her unborn child, the series has added a few more layers of meaning as she is about to leave a certain phase of her life behind and step into an uncharted one with new experiences and responsibilities.
“In a way, I feel like I am looking back and saying goodbye to this version of myself,” she said.
When she reaches age 80 and stumbles upon these pictures emulating her true age, she said, “I will find a person who was actually young enough to want to pretend to be an elder person.”
Being Kikuchiyo-san is both future and past for her – as it makes her wonder about her silver years, but also about how her older self will look back at this series and remind her of her life now.
“And thinking about that always brings me back to the present – where I am now and who I am now.”
- Michelle Cohan, CNN