Seeing Double: Born in Bradford

“One face, one voice, one habit and two persons” (Duke Orsin, Twelfth Night)

Born in Bradford, the longitudinal pregnancy/birth cohort study which began in 2007, and has now recruited over 13,000 babies. In the cohort there are 175 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.

“I think most people are born into an “I” world, and Lisa and I were born into a “We” world. (Mark, 2003:95)

Twins have often been portrayed in popular fiction/culture as not only looking the same but acting the same and so thought as interchangeable, therefore regarding each sibling 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. Twins fascinated Dickens and many appear in his novels the Cheerybles in Nicholas Nickleby to the Flintwichs in Little Dorrit.

Bruce Chatwins story, On the Black Hill, featured two identical twin brothers in the Welsh mountains.

There is also the concept of the evil twin 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 and one brought up by good moral people and the other by evil minded people, so its not the genes but the environment that mould their characters.

In the Born in Bradford project every year we run a series of free photographic portrait studios for participant’s in the project, by far the most popular is the twins portrait studio sessions, it is not uncommon for all least 40 sets of twins to turn up for a session. For a cohort of 175 twins we have a response/involvement rate of 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 other 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 on how much they look forward to the sessions and meeting up with other mums and dads who they probably wont have seen since the previous year.

It is interesting the number of parents who dress their twins in identical dress, thus re-enforcing the similarity and reducing individuality as the same time it must be the parents decision with children of this age, but now as the children are reaching school age, there are signs of dissent against being dressed the same as their sibling.

The portrait sessions are conducted in the same way every year two chairs are set against a plain white background and than 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 twin’s attention towards the camera. There is no direction to the twins as who to sit where, but most sit in the same positions left or right as previous sittings. Interestingly the best most attentive images are normally produced in the first 5-6 frames after which one or both twins at this age 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 after investigation this was found always 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 form 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 5 years is quite astounding, but as with any photograph, which is very thin slice of time taken in a very particular context within very narrow parameters, we must be careful that we don’t over analysis the image and attribute meaning outside of the context in which these photographs were taken.