Seeing Double: Photographing twins Born in Bradford

Born in Bradford began recruitment to its cohort study in 2007, recruiting 13,500 babies over 3 years. In the cohort there are 170 sets of twins and 3 sets of triplets.

Twins are of particular interest to researchers, by comparing pairs of identical and non-identical twins it is possible to tease out the influences of genes and environment.

Twins, particularly identical ones, have always fascinated artists, writers and photographers ; it is not just the similarities, and the subtle differences that fascinate artists, but also the challenge to the notion of individual identity.

Twins have often been portrayed in popular fiction/culture as not only looking the same, but also acting the same, and so are thought of as interchangeable with each sibling regarded as something less than a full individual in their own right.

In literature this fascination with twins goes right back to Beowulf which is often cited as the earliest evil twin story. Shakespeare fathered twins and put them at the heart of a number of his plays, such as Twelfth Night, quoted in the introduction. Twins fascinated Dickens and many appear in his novels, from the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby to the Flintwichs in Little Dorrit.

There is also the concept of the evil twin who is the exact of opposite of the moral/good twin. Films such as the Man in the Iron mask and Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator are good examples, interestingly in both these cases the identical twins have been separated at birth, one brought up by good moral people and the other by evil-minded people, so it’s not the genes but the environment that mould their characters.

Every year in the Born in Bradford project we run a series of free photographic portrait studios for participants in the project, by far the most popular is the twins’ portrait studio sessions, in the early, and less well organised days, it was not uncommon for at least 40 sets of twins to turn up for a session. From a cohort of 170 twins we have a response/involvement rate approaching 50%, which for a photographic project is exceptionally high, from experience 10-15% response is the normal. I don’t know what conclusion to draw from this other than the observation that twins like to meet other twins, parents of twins like to meet the parents of other twins, and in fact this social interaction appears to be as important as the portrait. Many parents have expressed how much they look forward to the sessions and meeting up with other mums and dads who they probably won’t have seen since the previous year.

It is interesting to see the number of parents who dress their twins in identical dress, thus reinforcing their similarity and reducing individuality. It must be the parents’ decision with children of a young age, but as the children are getting older, there are signs of dissent from them. The portrait sessions are conducted in the same way every year. Two chairs are set against a plain white background and then lit with a soft single studio flash set at the same height as the twins, the camera is tripod mounted and the lens height corresponds directly to the eye line of the twins. The parents or parent are asked to stand directly behind me to bring the twins’ attention towards the camera.

There is no direction to the twins as to who should sit where, but most sit in the same position as in previous sittings. Interestingly, the best, most attentive images are normally produced in the first 5-6 frames, after which one or both twins start to lose interest and begin to fidget.

On close inspection of a number of the images it is touching to observe that one of the twins is often extending a protective hand or arm to their sibling, and this was found to be the older twin who was offering protection or reassurance to their younger sibling. It is interesting to see this behaviour exhibited in such young children, actions that appear to occur quite naturally without any instruction from the parents.

Whilst we may analyse the body language of the twins and the similarities in features and styles of dress, to me the most interesting comparisons come when there is a chronological sequence of the twins growing up. The changes in appearance, confidence and displays of personality exhibited over a period of 6 years is quite astounding, but as with any photograph, which is a very thin slice of time taken in a very particular context within very narrow parameters, we must be careful that we don’t over analyse the image and attribute meaning outside of the context in which these photographs were taken.

Ian Beesley

Artist in residence

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