Twins in photography
30 August 2023
by Jasmina Trifoni
Diane Arbus – Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967
At first glance, it’s simply a photograph of identical twins posing innocently with their eyes turned to the camera. But, if you stop to look at it – and it cannot happen otherwise, because it has something hypnotic – the image creeps into the mind of the spectator, of every spectator. Ask questions. Restless. It baffles. And to do so are the subtle differences of Cathleen and Colleen (these are the names of the two seven-year-old girls) portrayed by Diane Arbus during a Christmas party in a small New Jersey town. Try to find them: they wear the same corduroy dress, they have dark hair cut in the same way held by an identical white headband, but the stockings have different embroidery and, above all, one is smiling and the other is not. In a nutshell, the twins show the diversity of their being identical.
“There are, have been and always will be an infinite number of things on Earth: all different individuals, who want different things, know different things, love different things, all look different… This is what I love: differences”. So wrote Diane Arbus, whose centenary of birth this year marks, in what is her statement, the fire that led her to tell, with a style as crude as it is perfect, the eccentricity of our world, portraying from time to time “strange” individuals and characters who live on the margins of society.
Not surprisingly, this of the identical twins is the photograph that Arbus considered the most successful of all, the one that defined her entire work. Because identical twins are a metaphor for the relationship between art and reality. They represent the moment of transition between harmony and innocence and disproportion and the dark. And, not surprisingly again, the uncanny nature of Arbus’ identical twins has inspired many other creative minds. One of all, that of director Stanley Kubrick: his equally iconic twins in the film The Shining are the image that, even after many years, remains the one most impressed in the memory, even more than the evil grin of Jack Nicholson who holds a bloody knife.
After all, twins and the theme of the double have always exercised a dark and irresistible charm, since ancient times. Think of classical mythology, with the Dioscuri, Castor and Pulluce, or with Romulus and Remus, or with the Asvin twins who appear at dawn and dusk, mentioned hundreds of times in the Vedas, the collection of sacred texts of Hinduism. Or, still with the concept of the döppelganger (double, in German), a terrifying esoteric omen of death and misfortune or, moving on to literature, with the strange case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And there are myths, legends and beliefs related to twins in literally every culture, on every continent.
There are those who claim that there are seven doubles of each of us scattered around the planet. And recently David Aldous, an illustrious scholar of probability theory at the University of Berkeley, calculated that, given the approximately 8 billion human beings on the planet, there is a 0.11% probability of meeting one’s “unknown twin”. Furthermore, it is an incontrovertible fact – and science is trying to identify the causes – that from 1980 to today the number of twin births has increased by a third on a global scale, going from 9.1 to 12 per thousand, for a total of 1.6 million twins born each year.
The most famous twins in the world of entertainment are, so to speak, a product of modern times: the Californians Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, first in the ranking of the richest women in the American entertainment industry. Born on June 13, 1986, they began their career on TV, then moved on to the cinema and then again, with the Dualstar brand, they successfully launched into the world of fashion. And even fashion has been attracted by the uniqueness/diversity of twins. Alessandro Michele called Twinsburg – from the small town in the US state of Ohio where the national gathering of twins has been held every year since 1976 – his spring/summer 2023 collection (the one that marked his farewell to Gucci) and showed on the catwalk 68 pairs of monozygotic twins, 50 women and 18 men, holding hands, in an event that was described as disturbing and exciting.
Returning to photography, the twins have some very interesting projects as their theme. Ketaki Sheth (1957), the most important and celebrated Indian photographer, made Twinspotting which she herself defined as “a subtle study of individuality”. He has photographed hundreds of pairs of twins, in India and in the diaspora (East Africa and the United Kingdom), all with the surname Patel, belonging to a large and industrious community originating from the State of Gujarat which has the particularity of having within it a surprisingly high percentage tall than twins. Even in Nigeria, and precisely in the city of Igbo-Ora, an incredible number of twins are born every year and Stephen Tayo (1994), an extraordinary photographer from Lagos, has spent months portraying them, celebrating the beauty of the “double” for his project called IBEJI (literally “the arrival of two”), from the name of the divinity of the Orisha who represent the culture of the Yoruba people, in West Africa and in the Latin American diaspora. In Nigeria, twins are revered as a symbol of good luck, and Tayo’s work explores the psychological impact of having to share one’s identity. And, with reference to the beliefs of the Yoruba, of how here the value of twinning can be translated into social pressure.
Instead, the project by Gao Rongguo (1984), one of the most acclaimed contemporary Chinese photographers, starts from the desire to reveal how life affects the uniqueness/diversity of twins. Gao adopted Confucius’ maxim “Fifty to know your destiny” and photographed dozens of pairs of monozygotic twins at the age of fifty. He portrayed them face to face, in what is a poetic, emotional and revealing representation of fate. “In front of a mirror, everyone sees their own successes and defeats reflected,” said the artist.
The same urgency is what animates the project (still unpublished, and we present a preview image of it) Be Twins by the Italian photographer Roselena Ramistella. Since 2015, he has photographed identical twins once a year to try to understand if and how their differences will become more acute over time. “Now they are preteens, and they are still symbiotic and indistinguishable,” says Ramistella, for whom the theme of the uniqueness and diversity of twins is a magnificent obsession. After all, she too has an (almost) identical twin.