Have you ever noticed how often people comment on the visual likenesses between family members — especially when they’re looking at photographs?
Apart from capturing cherished bonds and memories, such pictures seem to enrich our sense of belonging by giving us a window into people who share our bloodline and their stories.
Photographs of relatives serve as concrete and palpable reminders that our world was, and still is, populated with others who embody aspects of who we are.
Crucially, they hint at shared trajectories, untapped potential and cues for what we might want to sidestep. They suggest lives marked by ups and downs not unlike our own, as well as futures with vast potential.
In Psychology Today, Judith Fein recently wrote about the vital importance of emotional genealogy, citing old photographs as a key mechanism for tracing it: “Finding out where we come from can give roots, solidity, and meaning to our lives. It can also help us to solve the mystery of who we really are.”
(MORE: Why You Shouldn’t Get Rid of Old Photos)
A Personal Angle on Lineage and Legacy
I recently took note of the fact that my older son’s black rectangular glasses look a lot like the ones my dad wore in the late 50s, based on old snapshots of my late father. These images clarify my sense of family legacy and I derive comfort from the obvious connection between past and present.
And a few months ago, my brother-in-law took a picture of my identical twin sister and me hiking near Santa Fe. I loved the snapshot because it showed how much we look alike these days, and posted the photo on Facebook. In doing so I was proudly proclaiming my sense of connection to my sister.
(MORE: Is This What Aging Really Looks Like?)
A Unique View of Family Resemblance
Canada-based photographer Ulric Collette has been exploring the issue of family member resemblance through a riveting multi-year photo project entitled “Portraits Genetiques,” which juxtaposes facial parts of one person with those of a relative. Sometimes the relatives are similar in age, but some of the most gripping photos show half of a young person’s face alongside a much older relative.
The images may make some viewers cringe, but they're undeniably fascinating. In all cases, they elicit the kind of scrutiny we tend apply to images of our own family. We can’t help but probe the differences and similarities between the relatives and wonder if the younger person will end up looking more like the older one when reaching the same age.
That’s the kind of thought process that got Collette going on the project back in 2008: “I came up with the idea by accident while I was doing “an image a day” type of project,” he says. “My first genetic-related image was one of me and my son who looked very much like me when I was a kid.”
Collette has continued to probe genetically-based similarities ever since. Below are images from the series that reflect the broadest age spread. Most of them incorporate the faces of a parent and adult child.
Father/Son — Laval, 56, and Vincent, 29 (2009)
Mother/Daughter — Francine, 56, and Catherine, 23 (2010)
Daughter/Father — Amelie, 33, and Daniel, 60 (2011)
Daughter/Father — Ariane, 13, and Andre, 55 (2011)
Daughter/Mother — Pascale and Ghislaine (2013)
Father/Son — Claude, 54, and Benoit, 23 (2013)
Daughter/Mother — Marilene, 35, and Rejeanne, 64 (2013)
Daughter/Mother — Marie-Andree, 55, and Claudette, 81 (2013)
Grandmother/Granddaughter — Ginette, 61, and Ismaelle, 12
The last portrait depicts the photographer’s mother on the left and his daughter on the right. "My daughter grew to look a lot like my mom, and this portrait really shows it," Collette told My Modern Met. "On a personal level, this photograph represents the two most important women in my life. On a more technical level, they look so much alike that it's incredible. It's because of results like that I continue to do this series."
Famed photographer Dorothea Lange once said: “While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.”
I think it’s worth giving your eyes and heart a chance to see more deeply. So why not pull out those old family shots and consider what they might be telling you?