Alexandra Villarreal
May 08, 2015 6:00 am

It must be strange to look into a mirror and see only wisps of your younger self. As wrinkles line your cheeks and your hair grays from experience, the world likely seems more fleeting and urgent than it did in your youth, when never-ending days bled into never-ending nights and you thought you would live forever. Now, you hobble across Broadway, struggling down steps and onto the subway platform. Your ankles swell, but no one offers you a seat on the 1 train because they have lost their sense of dignity. You look at the pretty young woman listening to music through headphones and whisper, “I used to be you.” No response.

“Kikuchiyo-san represents those [who] are often left behind and neglected in the race to live, those who have to find ways to navigate through the obstacles and struggles within the modern world, and those brave enough to face its challenges,” photographer Kyoko Hamada wrote on her Kickstarter page.

So who is Kikuchiyo-san? She’s the one gazing in the mirror, hobbling across Broadway, struggling onto the subway. She’s an elderly woman who lives alone in New York City, searching for survival in a concrete jungle that can only sustain the young and robust. And most importantly, she’s the subject of Kyoko Hamada’s photo series, “I Used to Be You.” No, Kikuchiyo-san doesn’t exist, but she is real. She shares her lifestyle with thousands from forgotten generations.

42-year-old Hamada is an artist from Japan who moved to West Virginia with her family when she was 15 and moved to Manhattan for college. She conceived of Kikuchiyo-san as a fictional character while volunteering at an agency that worked with elderly New Yorkers. While there, she quickly realized that most older citizens didn’t want to be photographed; they aspired to invisibility. Still, based on her surroundings, Hamada couldn’t stop thinking about mortality, and when she stumbled upon a gray bob of a wig, she felt an odd impulse to try it on. Immediately, she became Kikuchiyo-san, a reflection of herself in decades to come.

Hamada, who has photographed for some of the most acclaimed publications in the world, felt she needed to capture her alter-ego through images. And so she turned her camera around, forcing herself into the role of object as well as agent. As she shot herself in the guise of Kikuchiyo-san, she morphed into a vulnerable version of herself, what she might become in the autumn of her life.

I Used to Be You” has now transformed into a long-term project for Hamada, who has dressed as Kikuchiyo-san for 99 portraits. Now, Hamada hopes to make her work into a book, a collection of visuals that tell the narrative of a woman confronted by the physical obstacles of New York City and the psychological adversities of age. Hamada has started a Kickstarter to fund the project, and is well on her way to making this dynamic idea into a reality. 

This is not Hamada’s first foray into storytelling. Her photographs are celebrated for capturing the depth beneath a snapshot and harboring meaning beyond aesthetics. Her New Yorker photo essay on the Fukushima nuclear disaster is an especially poignant example of the skill she has for grappling with emotional topics, and how she’s able to take the simplest most quotidian images and imbue them with meaning.

“I Used to Be You” is particularly eye-opening because it benefits from universality. If we are lucky to live so long, we all wither away on the wings of ephemerality. But our flight doesn’t have to be fearful. It can be riddled with beauty and grace, or so it seems from Kikuchiyo-san.

Photos via Kyoko Hamada/Facebook.

Check out her Kickstarter as well.

Advertisement