top of page



‘Many photographs point with oppressive wonder to the fact that two people form a couple’


Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)



There have been comprehensive studies of mono-zygotic (identical) twins who have been reared both apart and together, which have shown that our genes account for approximately half of the development of most psychological traits, with non-shared environment contributing to the rest. (1)

(1) Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)


While science today is much clearer as to the physical make-up of identical twins, the mystique of an identical double does not diminish. Photographing two non-twins as ‘twins’, or duplicating the same person in an image has a basis in European and African culture dating back to early photography. Victorian women were photographed in this way. It was considered acceptable to like-dress in Victorian society, and ‘representations of sisterhood in 19th century British culture were undoubtedly a pervasive force for female collaborative identity.’ (Furthermore, in 20th century West African photography, in paired-figure portraits, studio clients want to be seen with their alter ego, their "second self,' in a twin-like relationship. (2)


(2) Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (Eds.), Questions of Cultural Identity (1996)


Julia Kristeva suggests, as does Freud before her, that while the uncanny is linked to the return of the familiar, it needs an ‘outside element’ such as a double. She tells us also that uncanniness occurs ‘when the boundaries between imagination and reality are erased’, when conflict occurs between the self and the other – an ‘uncanny strangeness’. (3)

(3) Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves 1991


The Doppelganger originated in German romanticist literature. Kenneth Gross wrote that


‘constructed as it usually is around the consciousness of one person, the romance of doubling makes the twin the repository of all the strange or redemptive or menacing forces that operate on the self.’

Gross suggests that twins ‘stand among the archetypal examples of the uncanny, that paradoxical doubling of the strange and the familiar that is an inescapable subject of modern writing.’

Kenneth Gross, ‘Ordinary Twinship’ 2003


Susan Sontag, in discussing the images of Diane Arbus, states that ‘resembling or having something in common with someone else is a recurrent source of the ominous’. (4) This, Sontag suggests is exemplified in Arbus’ ‘Identical Twins’. Graham Clarke states that this image is both simple and complex, in that it is about identity, but also about difference and the act of looking. (5). We have on the surface the uniformity of the identical double, which is then questioned, and uncanniness is itself surrounded with uncertainty. Twins engender uncertainty through such slight differences. The uncanny is never something clear and obvious.

(4) Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)


(5) Graham Clarke The Photograph (1997)


Physical doubling dissipates feelings of insecurity in our own subjectivity. It would be fair to consider that the double, in the form of twins, while uncanny, is something so familiar that we do not see them as a possible rival or threat in terms of Otherness, as we might perhaps with an individual. We can connect with twins. This view is based on the theoretical base set out by Freud and Lacan in relation to the formation of the self, the ego, the conscience as a double, and the need for the other in our subjectivity. The double is integral to our very being throughout our lives.


The viewer is encouraged to ‘read’ an image where two people are presented, to take meaning from it, and to take a subject position in respect of one or both people in the image. The double portrait, it is put, does not present a unique view of subjectivity and Otherness, but does appear to stimulate the viewer to consider more clearly the issues relating to multiple identity, proximity, difference and acceptance of the Other.


Some of my more recent work explores movement through dance, and tries to capture the narratives as expressed by the performers. This is an ongoing project.


Hywel Harris

bottom of page