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This week in our Images Shaping History blog, resident blogger Declan Murphy discusses a photo exhibit from the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography named I and I. Japanese photographer Tomoko Kikuchi spent many years photographing drag queens in China and his photos give us a perspective that is not often viewed in the popular culture arena. Let us take a look and peek into the life of drag queens in China through the medium of photography.

While reading Delcan’s blog keep in mind these questions:

What is the relationship between photography and history? 

What is the importance of documentary photographers?

Please comment below or discuss with us on .


Resident Blogger Declan Murphy

Resident Blogger Declan Murphy

Recently I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Usually around the start of the New Year there is a special exhibit featuring five contemporary Japanese photographers. This year I was able to see the work of five new up and coming Japanese photographers.  I was impressed by all their work. One photographer who stood out to me was Tomoko Kikuchi.

Her series titled I and I featured portraits of drag queens in China. The composition of her photographs, the unguarded moments she captured, and the fact that she had gained the trust of her subjects drew me to her work. She photographed drag queens in their natural environment—at work, at home, and with their loved ones.

Photographer Tomoko Kikuchi {Click on image for source information}

In the opening paragraph of her artist’s statement she states, “It was New Year’s Eve in Beijing, 2005 when I happened to meet with the drag queen, Meimei. Somehow we clicked instantly and she took me around to several gay bars in the city, leading me past the ‘no entry’ sign to the backstage area where other queens were preparing for their performances. Everything started from that moment.” [1] Her statement is very telling because she mentions “clicking” with the person who showed her this new world. Without that human connection she would have been unable to document this project. Her comment that she was “led past the no entry sign” is also fascinating because she needed the trust of someone on the inside to visit these places and take photos.  If she had merely shown up to the gay clubs unannounced and with a camera she probably would have been denied access. 

Henri Cartier Bresson, a renowned photojournalist who co-founded the photo agency Magunm Inc, felt there was always a decisive moment in time that needed to be captured.

Yangyang rehearsing in the dressing room at the bar Point Zero. Hebei Province 2007 {Click on image for source information}

Is there a perfect moment between people before the decisive moment that needs to be photographed? 

A communication and trust between the photographer and subject? 

Perhaps that’s why documentary photographers seem to tell deeper and more telling stories than newspaper photojournalists rushing from one site to another trying to quickly capture an image.  If a photographer has weeks or months, in Kikuchi’s case, years, to spend with people, a trust is built and unguarded moments can become easier to capture.

In Kikuchi’s artist statement , she mentions younger people are having an easier time being open about their sexuality, “…numerous young queens who are known as the Post-85’s (those born between 1985 and 1989) and the Post-90’s (those born after 1990) generation.  Compared to the older generation, these young queens found it easy to overcome gender and transcend preconceived ideas concerning sex.  They do not hesitate to go out in women’s clothing, they refuse to hide their sexuality from their parents and can be said to be the first generation to display their identity openly.” [2]

Dandan in the dressing room at the bar “Love Island”, Beijing 2007 {Michiko,K Somewhere Between Me and this World Japanese Contemporary Photography vol.11 Exhibition Catalogue 2012, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, Toppan Printing Inc. Koeisha}

How do you visually communicate that younger people are having an easier time?  In these photos we can see visibly younger people whose faces and body language convey serenity. A good example is a photograph captioned, “Ming Ming and his grandmother, Sichuan Province 2008.”  Ming Ming rests his head on his grandmother’s shoulder with a feminine appearance due to his long hair, makeup and jewelry.  Ming Ming is quite open about his sexuality and seems at ease with his family members.

Ming Ming and his grandmother, Sichuan Province 2008

Ming Ming and his grandmother, Sichuan Province 2008 {Michiko,K Somewhere Between Me and this World Japanese Contemporary Photography vol.11 Exhibition Catalogue 2012, Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, Toppan Printing Inc. Koeisha}

In comparison, Wanngjia seen sleeping backstage in Beijing may fall into the class Kikuchi calls ‘Beijing drifters’. Wangjia rests in a crowded locker room with clothes and miscellaneous objects spread around the floor. Shopping bags support his head.  Kikuchi describes Beijing drifters as people, “who had fled their hometowns in order to prevent their families from learning their gender identity disorder.” [3] Sleeping backstage on the ground does not convey openness or having an easy time expressing sexuality.

Wangjia sleeping backstage, Beijing 2007 {Click on image for source information}

Kikuchi goes on to elaborate that Beijing drifters competed for jobs at gay clubs and many became prostitutes.  “The competition was so fierce that the queens find it difficult to make close friends with each other and successful love affairs are rare; they are cut off from family, work, love, and friendship, numbing their unexpressed emotions through alcohol, sex, and drugs.” [4]

A photo that sums up the essence of this project is captioned, “Pandra and Lala putting on makeup at farmer’s house, Sichuan Province.” Here two men are seen applying makeup and looking at mirrors to monitor the progress. The intriguing part  is that two children are seen at the edges of the frame trying to secretly watch Pandra and Lala. For the two young children this is probably a novelty.

Pandra and Lala putting on makeup at farmer’s house, Sichan Province 2011 {Click on image for source information}

Is this a novelty for the audience at the museum?  

Is it the skill of the photographer and the details captured in this story?

By watching men put makeup on, will the children have a more open mind to sexuality later in life making it easier for other cross dressers to express themselves?  

Either way, the children have an interest in what’s going on and by looking at the photo so does the viewer.

Kikuchi’s photos span from 2006 to 2011.  Her dedication to her work and ability to relate to her subjects is seen by the proximity with which she photographs her subjects, both at work and at home.  In the end, Kikuchi was led past the no entry sign and because she had a camera so were we.

I ask you:

How does the style of photography impact the message of the photos?

What if instead of people in their natural environment, they were photographed with a white background? 

If they were photographed in front of a plain background, would the story would lack detail and lose its visual impact?

How important is the role of documentary photographers in history?

Until Next Time,


Read Declan’s other blogs:

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Homosexual Photos Hit the Public

War Photography Without Showing War: The Civilian Perspective

[1] Somewhere Between Me and this World. Curated by Kashara Michiko. Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture. Contemporary Photography Vol.11 Exhibition Catalogue 2012, Toppan Printing Inc. Koeisha

[2] Somewhere Between Me and this World, 2012

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


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