Tomoko Kikuchi, one of the most promising photographers in Japan, has witnessed the rapid changes in China’s society and social awareness while simultaneously exploring her own situation.
In her series, ‘I and I’ she focuses on the subject of transgender people in China. After graduating from art school in Japan she soon moved to Hong Kong, then in 1999 she moved her base to Beijing where she worked as a photographer, mainly for international magazines and also as a still photographer for movie with renowned film directors. She became friends with a transgender performer named Meimei, allowing her to enter into the private lives of the «Queens» and capture them on photography.
When they first met in 2005, China was not willing to accept transgender people. Many of them were scared of their families learning of their sexuality and had fled their homes in the country to travel to Beijing where they eked out an existence working in gay bars. A few years later, their position underwent a dramatic change, whereas they had once had to eke out a living, hiding in the fringes of society, the next generation were proud of their sexuality and strode boldly down the streets in women’s clothing. Tomoko Kikuchi had managed to enter into the underground society in Beijing, and in 2008 she travelled to Chongqing, following a «Queen» who had left Beijing and was now living there with the new generation of transgender.
Kikuchi’s work follows a traditional style of photography. Documentary photography can be divided into several categories, those that utilize the objectivity of the medium to strive for social improvement; photojournalism that has a high news content, and mainly appears in magazines; photo-documentaries that value the subjectivity of photography, such as those pioneered by Robert Frank; and private documentaries, that focus on the life of the photographer and were originally developed by Nan Goldin or Larry Clark. Kikuchi’s technique of tracing her subject over a period of several years, carrying out a multi-tiered survey of their situation and recording it in an objective fashion, places her work in the realm of the traditional documentary, but her closeness to her subjects, depicting them as her favorite people, brings it into the realm of the private documentary. The subjects of her work often invite her into their personal space, sometimes even living together, introducing their relatives and revealing their true selves, which are usually hidden behind a mask of thick makeup and gaudy dresses.
They are at the mercy of Chinese society, which is changing at an amazing rate, and their image, as they struggle to come to terms with their own sexuality, may be the same as that of Tomoko Kikuchi. The reason why they have accepted her, revealing their innermost thoughts is because her gaze is the opposite of those who treat them as something ‘from a different world’. She sympathizes with them and is bewildered and distressed by their loneliness, the conflict they have with their families, the problems they have in love and interpersonal relationships, the difficulties caused by poverty and the society’s luck of understanding, and the emptiness felt by the young people. For Kikuchi, who left Japan to try and become independent as an artist, as a woman and as a human being in a place where the language, values and customs are completely different from her own, the emotion she feels towards her subjects may well be a kind of camaraderie. She looks through them to see herself. Also, through them she is able to not only learn about China, but also to think about Japan and see the world.