Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen cosplays as 33 different characters

Her new book, 'HELLO My name is', all started with a name badge.

by Belle Hutton
|
15 December 2021, 8:00am

Scouring flea markets and rummaging through charity shops for hidden gems is something Nadia Lee Cohen gets a real thrill out of. The British-born, LA-based photographer remembers days out with her mum – who she describes as "100% to blame" for this obsession – taking real pride in finding bargains. 

Nadia began amassing discarded name badges from the various secondhand stores. "The more unusual and specific, the better" was her only criteria. "Each time I found a new one, I naturally imagined who it had belonged to and what they might have looked like. Until one day, I thought, wouldn't it be nice to actually see these people?" 

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For her new photo book, HELLO My name is, Nadia has done just that, transforming herself into these imagined people using a name alone. Wearing meticulously detailed prosthetics, wigs, makeup and costumes, she is unrecognisable as Diane, Big Kat, Micheal, Terry, Paula, Jeff, and many more. Alongside each photograph is a "still-life portrait" of the character: a selection of disparate objects that sum up their life and personality. "I am a lover of everyday objects and would maybe be classed as a borderline hoarder if I didn't have this book as an excuse to buy these things." Think cigarette packets, faded postcards, sports equipment, records and more. 

Nadia's last book, Women, took six years to complete and comprised of a hundred striking portraits -- including Alexa Demie and Charli XCX -- that used old Hollywood glamour to create a sprawling study of femininity and empowerment. Here, Nadia casts only herself, playing all 33 of the characters imagined following the name badge's discovery.

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"The characters were driven by objects and formed as though they were intended for non-existent TV soaps or short films," Nadia says. "I was very conscious of wanting them to look like actual people that exist and not like me in a wig." Photographed sat down, against the same plain background, the portraits are witty, camp and slightly uncanny: the clothes, accessories and 'possessions' are from decades past, their waxy 'owners' ranging in ages and eras themselves. 

Each persona even has their own quote, which Nadia would practise in their different accents while getting into character over the two-week shoot. "David from IDEA came up with some lines for the characters based on the initial reference photos. Brilliantly odd anecdotes, like this for Lilian Ressler: 'If I wrote a book it would be a bestseller. That's the title too – Best Seller. I always say the same thing. 'Buy your umbrella before it rains.'" 

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Towards the end of the book is a series of behind-the-scenes Polaroids that document the process of getting into character. There are wigs, gargantuan prosthetic heads, fake teeth and padded bodysuits – all offering a look behind the theatrics. "I like to see this sort of thing when looking at other artists' work as it gives me a connection to the project," Nadia says. "I genuinely enjoy embodying characters like this. There was a balance of wanting to be present in the photographs but absent enough to be physically unrecognisable, and I wanted the challenge to see if I could actually successfully execute that.”

“I grew up watching British TV sketch shows like Alistair McGowan's Big Impression, Harry Enfield or French & Saunders,” Nadia adds. “I was always fascinated with the impersonations, even though some of these people were complete caricatures." 

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Nadia also looked to pioneers in photography -- ones who make images entirely unlike her own -- for inspiration for this work. "I was quite fascinated at the way certain photographers could tell an entire story or share their perspective just from taking a photograph," she adds. "I am drawn towards documentary photography, which is the complete opposite of my own – I am meticulous when it comes to pre-planning and like to be able to visualise the photos before I take them," noting artists like Nick Waplington, Richard Billingham, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr -- and the way they can "tell an entire story or share their perspective just from taking a photograph". And as for the continued reference to different eras -- a stylistic choice found too in her work for Gucci, Valentino and Maison Margiela, and artists such as Tyler the Creator and A$AP Rocky -- Nadia explains simply: "I just tend to prefer architecture and design from any time that isn't now." 

HELLO My name is by Nadia Lee Cohen’ is published by IDEA.

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Credits


All images courtesy Nadia Lee Cohen and IDEA

Special Effects makeup Malina Stearns
Prop stylist Brittany Porter
Hair Direction Sami Knight
Hair Stylist Allie Alexandra Ellis
Styling Chloe and Chenelle
Nails Yoko Sakakura
Text David Owen

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Nadia Lee Cohen