The photographic fascination with twins, by Martin Schoeller

Jan Ngm Cvr 2012 The January 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands now, features fascinating photos of twins by Martin Schoeller.

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Loretta (left); Lorraine (right)

When Loretta was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, Lorraine was in the doctor’s office with her. Loretta asked if Lorraine should be checked as well. The doctor discovered that Lorraine also had breast cancer. After receiving treatment, the sisters are both in good health.

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Marta (left); Emma (right)

The 15-year-old sisters want to go to the same university and become opera singers. They both like to draw as well but have a different approach to their art. Marta depicts finely detailed faces, while Emma prefers more expansive images: the sky, the rain, objects in motion.

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Jeff (left); Steve (right)

In grade school it didn’t matter that Jeff Nagel wasn’t good at spelling—Steve was. The twins dressed identically save for wristwatches, which could be secretly switched before a test. Now 44, they work different jobs in Ohio but still fool people sometimes. Jeff, a chef, once asked Steve to lend a hand at a catering gig. The guests became so alarmed at how quickly Jeff moved in and out of the kitchen that they told him to slow down, not realizing more than one man was on the job.

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Ramon (left); Eurides (right)

As infants, Ramon and Eurides looked so much alike that their mother gave them name bracelets so she wouldn’t get confused and feed the same child twice. Today at age 34, the twins are next-door neighbors in Florida, living in identical custom-built houses. A topic of family debate: Who has the fuller face? Ramon says it’s Eurides. Eurides (and the mother) say it’s Ramon. Mom thinks it’s because she mistakenly gave Eurides’s portion to the other twin.

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Emily (left); Kate (right)

The nine-year-olds get along well and also have a psychic shopping bond. Their mom sometimes takes them to the mall on separate occasions. Even when one twin doesn’t know what the other twin has selected, they typically want to buy the same clothes.

Photos ©Martin Schoeller/National Geographic


  1. As a twin, the fascination with twins really weirds me out.  I’m always amazed people pose for this sort of thing.

    1. As an identical twin myself, I agree.  It’s always so weird. I was the target age for that show “Sister, Sister” … and man did the questions get annoying.

      No, I don’t know when my sister is in pain, any more than when I know you’ve stubbed your toe.

      No, I can’t read her mind.

      No, we aren’t really that close.  I love her, of course, but we were never really that close.  For a long time, actually, I really, really didn’t like her.
      We have lived quite different lives since we hit our mid-teens. (It probably didn’t help that we lived in a very small town and went to a VERY small school and were always known as “the twins” and while our parents were great at encouraging our separate identities, others weren’t. Fucking irritating. Just because we are twins does not mean we are the same person.)

    2. My husband is a twin and is the same way as you. He really doesn’t like the attention he and his brother get for being twins if they’re out somewhere together. It makes him super uncomfortable. He doesn’t like to go to too many of the same places or do too many of the same things as his brother, and it bugs him if he usually goes someplace (like a coffee shop) and his brother starts going there too. He’s really protective of his individuality and not being just “one of the twins.”

      His brother isn’t very much like him in terms of personality. They’re not opposites or anything — they do have some common interests, a few TV shows they both like, that kind of thing — but they’re not particularly alike either. They have very different careers (brother-in-law’s a phlebotomist and husband’s a photographer).

      They’re about as close as most siblings — they see each other at family gatherings, exchange a few words on Facebook, play Words with Friends against each other, and call each other if they need help moving or something. But they aren’t best friends with any kind of mystical bond or anything.

      They’re basically just brothers who happen to look alike.

      Because my husband’s a photographer, I’m thinking about this in terms of what he’d do if he were shooting identical twins. I suspect he’d try to pose and light them differently, even shoot them in different settings, to highlight that they are different people even though they look alike. While it’s interesting to see twins posed and lit identically, because it makes you start looking for the small differences, it also highlights how identical they are — even if they’re really not.

    3. Ginger twins fascinate me.  I was one of only two gingers in my school system for a very long time (yes, our home town is that small) and people would confuse me for the other ginger and a regular basis.  Had we been twins the resulting chaos would have torn the town apart.

    4. Yep. But what always gets me is ‘what’s it like being a twin?’ I don’t know as I don’t know what it’s like not being a twin.
      Although I always point out that only monozygotic twins count – dizygotic twins are just brothers and sisters who share a birthday.

  2. Reminds me of an old, old joke.
    A woman has twins, and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt and is named “Amal.” The other goes to a family in Spain; they name him “Juan.” Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mom. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wishes she also had a picture of Amal. Her husband responds, “If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Amal.” 

    1. That took me a while…

      Explanation for non-Americans: in American English, the Spanish “j” isn’t pronounced clearly, if at all (most dialects lack the /x/ sound); in addition, the cluster “jua” becomes roughly “wo,” which means “Juan” sounds somewhat like “one.”

        1. A co-worker of mine, whose mother was hispanic, told me that she and her brother spent their whole childhood trying to figure out why mom would end her suggestions with ‘one-two’, as in, “Let’s go to the zoo. One-two?” Eventually, they figured out that she was just translating “¿quieres?”

      1. Most Americans have never heard a Spaniard speak; we hear Mexican Spanish most often, followed by Central American Spanish.

        My guess is that the joke was originally told by an American who assumed that Spanish people sound like Mexicans. After all, Australians sound like Canadians, eh?

  3. The last one made me chuckle. Because two girls of the same age, growing up in the same place, likely consuming the same media, going to the same school, and likely knowing a number of the same people or traveling in the same peer groups just NEVER want to buy the same things, right? I mean, what are the chances? Must be Psychics.

    1. It’s like when my sister and I finish each other’s sentences (we’re twins).  No, we’re not psychic, I do it with my old roommate, the one I lived with for four years, too.  It’s just a matter of knowing the other person well.

  4. Is it just me, or do many of these twin pairs seem to have one twin with larger/wider-open, more ‘friendly’ eyes? The difference is most prominent in Lorretta/Lorraine, with Lorraine having the larger-appearing eyes. To me, Marta, Jeff and Eurides also have larger-appearing eyes than their twins. With Emily and Kate, it’s subtle, but Kate’s eyes seem bigger than Emily’s.

    Wondering why this is, and if I’m alone in this jumping out at me.

    1. Yeah, I was surprised at how many differences there were between all the twins.  Is that just a part of aging? Do they look more alike when they’re younger?

    2. I think it’s just that even “identical” twins have tiny differences, and one of the clearest ways these manifest is in the eye region. Eyes are significant, indicative of a connection, a link between the physical body and the mind/identity of the person. So naturally, when presented side by side, differences in the eye region tend to jump out.

  5. Around the time Amanda Palmer and  Jason Webley did “Evelyn Evelyn” it dawned on me that the doomed twins from The Shining were copped from Diane Arbus’s famous photo. Browsing the net, I found this article about the kids in Arbus’s photos, especially Cathleen and Colleen Wade. Given Diane Arbus’s end, I was happy to learn that the kids turned out all right. Especially the Wades. And Anderson Cooper.

  6. I grew up with many sets of identical twins (hometown = Superfund site – just sayin’) and I find it weird when people can’t tell twins apart.  Of the ones in this post, only the bottom set look much alike.

    1. As an identical twin, I found that, growing up, some people had no problems telling us apart, while others had a really difficult time. I think it has at least a little to do with face recognition in general — some people are just better at it than others. I have a tendency to be able to memorize a face and will almost always recognize a face I’ve seen before, even if it’s been decades. I can also easily tell twins apart. Not everyone is so good at face recognition.

      1. we get that, too!  Some people say “Really? You’re twins? You don’t look that much alike to me,” and other people are all “OMG! I totally can’t tell you apart!”

        I kind of think it might be less how good you are at faces than how you process them but I’m just guessing.  It also helps if they meet us together or at least know there are two of us, hehe.

      2. I’m pretty bad at faces in general. I can sometimes tell identical twins apart and have sometimes messed it up. I can tell my husband and his brother apart very easily, but that’s because I obviously know my husband very well.

        Interestingly, I can’t tell them apart at all in their childhood photos. When I look at photo albums at his parents’ house, I have to sit with his mom and have her tell me which small redheaded child is which. Even after she tells me, I can’t see any differences. I don’t recognize differences in their faces until I hit photos from high school, at which point it becomes pretty obvious to me.

        My husband says that throughout his life, most of his friends have been able to tell him and his brother apart, but most of his brother’s friends haven’t been able to tell them apart. Maybe my husband’s friends have just been better at faces?

    2. Seeing them next to each other poses no problem to me, but I doubt that I could tell who’s who after 5 minutes if I encounter one alone.

      Then again, I can have a a reasonably long conversation with someone and am quite unable to recognise them the next day.

    3. Some people are naturally better than others at distinguishing/remembering faces. Right next to each other I can tell them apart easily, but if I met them a day apart? Maybe not.

      I have 2 cousins (sisters, not twins) who look a lot alike, and I only saw them a couple of times a year. Until I was about 16 I could never remember which one was which and had to ask my mom.

    4. This is a real-life conversation I heard:

      8-year-old:    …and she’s adopted, like so-and-so –
      12-year-old, interupting:    Wait, WHAT?  So-and-so is ADOPTED?
      8-year-old, rolling eyes:    tuh!
      12-year-old:    But she looks just like them!
      8-year-old:   Uhm, except she’s BLACK, you know?

  7. My ex-wife’s grandmother was an identical twin. She died of lung cancer about ten years ago, and I was in the room when she died. The next year at a family reunion, I met her sister for the first time. It was a close to seeing a ghost as I imagine is possible.

    1. Don’t worry, you might get picked up for a crime your twin committed, but DNA evidence would set you free.

      1. no it wouldn’t… there are very small unpredictable differences, but not something that would likely be identified by the region of DNA sequenced… as far as I’m aware anyway!

    2. I don’t know, but iPhoto works pretty well with my husband and brother-in-law. It took a little training — it mixed them up at first — but now it gets it right every time.

      I think even for most identical twins, their facial metrics are just different enough for software to measure them with some training.

  8. As a fraternal twin I take umbrage at the gratuitous attention “Identicals” get. First. there are 20 odd sorts of twins. Second, my twin and I had our own language as 2 year old’s and we still communicate on a level our siblings don’t share. Luckily, I married a twin and he shares the same ability to connect with another in a way singles seem to have a hard time getting without competitiveness and confrontation with their significant other.

    1. As a fraternal twin I take umbrage at the gratuitous attention “Identicals” get.

      And how many times have you been asked if you actually are identical twins? I’m a parent of fraternal twins (a boy and a girl) and have been asked a surprising number of times if they’re identical (even once by a midwife). Errr, no, obviously they’re not identical. Not even ‘apart from that’.

  9. I think people are predisposed to be fooled by twins – their brains surrender part of their discernment or something, perhaps because it’s too hard. An interesting story about my brother, who went by his given name, and sometimes by a nick-name, Ugly John. (The names have been changed to protect the innocent) A mutual friend,who’d known us for years, came up to me and my brother at a party, where no doubt brother had been addressed by both monickers, and said, “I have to ask you, how can you tell Ugly John and Frank apart?” I thought he wasn’t speaking clear English at first, then I realized all those years, he was convinced Frank was a twin.

  10. Is it an artifact of the photos, that the iris of the eyes  look like vertical slits?  In some of those pictures?

    1. There are two light boxes, one on either side, each one reducing the shadows caused by the other. Sometimes in movies you can see the entire lighting scheme from the actors’ eyes. Not that I’m obsessed or anything.

  11. A strange effect happened for me:  the first time I looked at these photos I couldn’t tell them apart and wondered if this was just a photoshop hoax.  Then I read the article and comments.  Now when I look at them it’s obvious that they are different.  I think it’s about calibration.

  12. I think society in general will always maintain their fascination with identical twins…I know I do!  Being a mother of identical twins boys, we never minded the bombardment of the same questions over and over again or the attention they drew. Even today as college students, wherever they go, they still generate a lot of attention. The twins bond can be extraordinary, but also is best  I believe when balanced with the understanding and encouragement of their individuality. When raising them, we found that we thoroughly enjoyed their “twin-ness” but at the same time, encouraged their own unique and individual strengths. Today they are extremely close and yet live in their own homes; they share many of the same friends but maintain relationships as individuals as well. As babies, it  helped that we didn’t give them rhyming names (which only confuses people further) and let them wear whatever they wanted. Raising twin boys has been so incredible rewarding.

  13. I grew up with twins in my peer group, and they were easy to tell apart – though apparently not for strangers. 

    I always felt for twins whose parents went too far – giving them rhyming or nearly identical names, dressing them exactly the same.  It seems just wierd to do that to your kids.

    1. I knew twins whose names were Charles and Chaz — and entirely different twins whose names were John and Jack.

      Apparently their parents couldn’t even come up with two different names. It’s like naming twins William and Bill or James and Jim.

    2. I’ll second the notion that dressing your twins in the same clothes is damned weird.  It’s really, really weird if you’re still doing it to them by junior high.  There was a pair I went to school with, with rhyming names no less, that were dressed in the same frigging clothes right up to high school. 

  14. OK, twins are weird.  Weirder than twins are twin parents.  The first five years of raising them are utter insanity.  It CHANGES you.  It does something irrevocable to your psyche.  You look like the same person, same clothes, same shoes, same vocabulary; but, inside, you are all turned to mush like a zombie.  And then, later on, when they’re older, your guts get put back together mixed up and you are in an alternate universe.  I would know.  My twins, love them so, drove me crazy years ago.

    1. One of my children was in preschool with twins.  The mother always looked frantic, like she hadn’t slept in a week and hadn’t sat down for longer than 2 minutes in months.

      Flash forward nearly 15 years, and she’s better, but not by much.  I get the feeling she will never stop feeling over-stressed.

      To counter that N=1, we have a family of triplets a few doors down.  Calmest, most serene mother on the block, by far.  So there you go.

  15. My sons are over 2 years apart in age and don’t look alike at all except for both having very light blond hair. A few times, though, I got a twins discount at baby stores, even once when the younger was in a chest carrier sack thing going “goo” and the older was hopping around all over asking questions.  Their younger half-brothers are fraternal twins and the whole world seems disappointed, as if they are a failed attempt or something. 

  16. I saw that NattyGeo in the grocery store. Alike but not alike? Dumbest headline ever. I like their old issues where they have pictures and articles about various places in the world.

  17. Wait, are Marta and Emma identical twins? They look way more different than any of the others, could they just be fraternal twins who happen to look similar, like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen?

  18. Is proposed infantile gemellicide not acceptable? There was a serious point. As an identical twin myself I used suggest it to people when they were bugging me about being a twin.’ We are still suffering from primitive superstition and the problem is in your head not mine.’ Exposure of new born infants has been practised at various times in different societies and that includes the exposure of twins because of the problem of evil.

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