Errands in the Snow. Photograph: Kyoko Hamada
Errands in the Snow. Photograph: Kyoko Hamada

Photographer Kyoko Hamada spent the last two years as an octogenarian trying to come to terms with getting old.

The 42-year-old Japanese-born artist regularly put on latex makeup and a grey wig, and took photographs of herself around New York as fictional character Kikuchiyo-san.

Photographs of Hamada’s exploits as an older woman are on show this month at Dalston’s Maybe a Vole gallery, with a book in the pipeline, pending the outcome of a Kickstarter campaign.

Hamada says she can’t remember when or how her interest in ageing began, though she cites little things like the discovery of her first grey hairs, as well as bigger losses such as the death of her father.

I Used To Be You dates back to when Hamada, who lives in New York, was doing voluntary work visiting older people who live alone in the city.

Photograph: Kyoko Hamada
Difficult Button. Photograph: Kyoko Hamada

She says: “I always wanted to photograph older people but it’s hard to meet them, so I thought it would be a really nice way to make friends and eventually they’d let me take photographs of them. But they kept saying ‘I’m too old to be photographed,’ or ‘What you want to do that for?’”

Then one day a friend told her about some ageing make-up; liquid latex that makes skin look wrinkly. Next she found what she calls the “perfect grey wig”. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Hamada saw someone else – a person she wanted to photograph.

“She didn’t have a name at first but when I had a good amount of pictures I thought she should have a name. I wanted her to have a unisex name and an old Japanese name. I then heard of this old Japanese comedian whose name was Kikuchiyo-san. I thought it was hard to pronounce perhaps but a good name.

The photographs show Kikuchiyo-san doing everyday things: taking an afternoon nap, doing up a button on her blouse, carrying shopping or walking through the park.

“I’d figure out a location and what she would be wearing, using a self-timer for indoor shots,” explains Hamada. “For outside I brought a friend along because I felt uneasy about leaving a camera in the middle of the street.”

Photograph: Kyoko Hamada
Spring Flowers. Photograph: Kyoko Hamada

Although Hamada wasn’t always wandering the streets of New York as an older woman (“I have rent to pay, you know,” she says) she would set aside a weekend every three weeks or so to be Kikuchiyo-san.

“It’d be from morning to night and I’d bring three different outfits. I’d be using the subway and public transport, hanging out at a restaurant, eating lunch…”

Being nonplussed when confronted by a public show of eccentricity is something big city dwellers do well. But wasn’t she worried about getting found out?

“Yeah I was always paranoid,” she says. “One time it was a hot summer’s day and I was wearing a wig and body suit with body stuffing, running around carrying a camera. Then I got on the subway and people started looking at me horrified. When I caught myself in the reflection I saw my makeup was running and my wig was almost falling off.

“But as long as the makeup is good you really can blend in to the city, no one will bother you. They will also maybe help you with bags, give you space and let you go through. It was so sweet though I did feel guilty. I kept thinking don’t treat me with respect, I am deceiving you!”

Hamada has mixed views about whether her experience of being 80-something has allayed any fears about getting older.

“Maybe in some way I’m relieved,” she says, “because I already feel I’ve met that person. It became a very close reality to me. But as long as we live this is where our vessel is going, it’s in one direction you know? It’s nature. We’re slowly deteriorating.”

I Used to Be You is at Maybe a Vole Gallery, 51a King Henry’s Walk, N1 4NH from 4 June

Photograph: Kyoko Hamada
Afternoon nap with watermelon. Photograph: Kyoko Hamada


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