Kyoko Hamada

I Used To Be You

Kyoko Hamada

An elderly Japanese lady was walking through New York City the other day, holding a sign saying “I Used To Be You”. Her name is Kikuchiyo-san, and she is the protagonist of photographer Kyoko Hamada’s series of images called “I Used To Be You”. She may be considered Kyoko’s idea of her future self, a study of the concept of ageing, an alter-ego, or perhaps a combination of all of these.

The series is comprised of over 90 photographs and is already critically acclaimed: it recently received the grand prize from the Lens Culture International Exposure Awards, and was also included in the Critical Mass Top 50.



The images use humour, metaphors and storytelling to represent the process of living and ageing, confronting us with the fact that everything is in a constant state of evolution and to remind us that life is a temporal experience.

In collaboration with Pocko, Hamada has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the publication of this beautiful work in a limited edition book.  

What has been the response or reaction of people when they meet Kikuchiyo-san?

Often I could not tell if people knew if she was in disguise or not. When I was in subway as Kikuchiyo-san, just going home from photographing her, a few people actually helped me (her) with my (her) bags. No weird stares or anything, they really sincerely seemed to be helping out this elderly lady with a camera bag. People don’t normally think that anyone next them will be in disguise, especially as an elderly person, though I’m often self-conscious wondering if they are going to find out that I’m in disguise. I normally get into acting her role as well when I’m dressed up as her: I walk slowly, I walk with a bit of a hunch, and I am quiet, since I think she is rather quiet. Kikuchiyo-san sort of blends into those busy subways and streets of NYC. New York City is a great place to be when you want to be unnoticed.

How do you think you will view this project when you yourself are an elderly woman?

I think I will look back and think how young I was to actually want to look like an elderly lady, and to make so much effort on a project like this. And I may think I had no idea what it is like to be 80-something years old, because right now I don’t – not in the way the actual 80-something-year-old me would. The actual 80-something-year-old me might have an objection towards the kind of shoes Kikuchiyo-san is wearing, since elderly me might say “sorry hon, but those shoes are really not that cool”.

How much or in what way has giving birth and becoming a mother has affected the project “I Used To Be You”?

It gave a whole new layer of meaning to the project. My life with a baby has forced me to change my priorities a bit so that I can function as a mother as well. I think we all say goodbye to certain phases of our lives a few times throughout our life span, and having a child was one of them for me. The project “I Used To Be You” has another meaning to me: moving on to another phase in my life.

What does your mother and/or grandmother think about the project?

When the project was up on the CNN blog, I shared it with my mother who was visiting from Japan at the time because of my son’s birth. And you know what, I really don’t know what she thought of it. She just had this disturbed look (or was that just me thinking that in my paranoid head?). In the past, some of my projects weren’t received positively by my mother and I think this might be one of them unfortunately. Maybe it was disturbing for her to see her daughter dressed up as an even an older woman than her?

Does Kikuchiyo-san experience any sympathy from strangers in NYC? Have these responses changed the way you see New Yorkers?

There were a few times when a complete stranger would give Kikuchiyo-san a hand carrying a heavy bag, or hold a door for her. Those experiences were very sweet, and I have to admit that it was nice to recieve that kind of sympathy, though I didn’t deserve it.

When Kikuchiyo-san went to the cherry blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, there was a gentleman in his late 50’s who actually bowed to her in the traditional way that Japanese people show respect to elders. He made room for her to get through the narrow area and bowed, making it easier for her to get through. I wanted to let him know that I don’t deserve his respect either but I went along with it since it would have been rather difficult to let him know that I was not who he thought I was.

Have there been any unusual moments during her days out, or experiences that stand out as particularly memorable?

The first time I met my boyfriend (now husband) as Kikuchiyo-san was memorable because I was a little nervous, even though he has seen the pictures of Kikuchiyo-san before. I asked him if he could come out and help me photograph her in Central Park so we decided to meet at a cafe. When he arrived, Kikuchiyo-san said “Hello” formally with a slight bow. And my husband also said “Hello” in the quite formal, polite voice. She said “nice to meet you”, and he said the same. It was a memorable, funny, awkward meeting. My husband carried on talking to her in the polite way. After a while, we got used to each other and ended up having a nice day at a park.

Another memorable moment was on hot summer day, wearing latex make-up, body stuffing and layers of clothes, walking around under the blazing sun, and my make-up was running down. When I got into a subway, a few people looked in my direction in horror. I quickly looked at myself and realized that my wig had also come up and that it was about to fall off. People don’t mind if I’m in complete disguise, but when I’m in between, thats when there’s certainly this awkward atmosphere that lingers in the air.

And the recent memorable moment was when I dressed up as Kikuchiyo-san and I introduced her to my two-year-old son for the first time – he really didn’t recognise me. When Kikuchiyo-san started talking to him, he seemed even more confused since my voice was still the same as usual but I looked completely different. Later that night, he saw Kikuchiyo-san’s shoes laying around by the door and started pointing and going, “grandma’s shoes! grandma’s shoes!”.

I feel as if I become an observer of everything. It feels like I’m an outsider who is not a part of the society but at the same time very much a part of the world

What would you like Kikuchiyo-san to teach us about ourselves?

I’d like her to teach us to enjoy, and have fun with your life no matter how old you are.

When I look at Kikuchiyo-san I feel a mix of emotions: playfulness, happiness, but also melancholy. How do your feelings shift and change when you become her?

It’s strange, but I feel as if I become an observer of everything. It feels like I’m an outsider who is not a part of the society but at the same time very much a part of the world.

Would you ever consider giving Kikuchiyo-san a different coloured wig?

Haha, thats a funny question. I’ve seen a few seniors in Japan wearing their hair a lavender colour and they were rocking it. One elderly woman I remember was wearing kimono with lavender hair, and she looked so elegant and graceful. I haven’t thought of giving Kikuchiyo-san different coloured wigs though, her grey wig seems so strongly connected to who she is.

I’d like Kikichiyo-san to teach us to enjoy, and have fun with your life no matter how old you are

What does Kikuchiyo-san think about how we treat the elderly?

What does Kikuchiyo-san think about how we treat the elderly… I’m more finding out the word “elderly” is a somewhat tricky word. When do we get called elderly? I don’t think it’s about the age because some 80-year-olds are really not acting like our notion of “elderly”. What is our notion of elderly…? Then there are some 70-year-olds who are act much older than the 85-year-olds. I know that some older people might get offended if we offered them seats on the train, but some seem thankful. I don’t think Kikuchiyo-san wants to necessarily be “looked after”, since she is still able to enjoy her walk in the park even though she may walk a lot slower than those of us who are younger. Kikuchiyo-San may have less life left in this world than Kyoko (me), who is 40 years younger than her, but she might be much funnier than me. She may think that it’ll be a shame if the difference in “age” gets in the way of getting to know one another.

To view the whole series “I Used To Be You” go here

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