According to Canadian photographer François Brunelle, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have a look-alike and those who long to find theirs. Since 2000, Brunelle has worked to facilitate these matches, creating black-and-white portraits of unrelated people who bear an uncanny similarity to each other. The project, I’m Not a Look-Alike! has amassed 250 images of subjects, and in working on it, Brunelle has developed a kind of thought catalogue on questions of likeness and identity.
“At first I wanted to find perfect look-alikes, bring them together and record on photographic media the emotion that they would feel by meeting each other for the first time,” Brunelle told Hyperallergic in an email. “But after a while, I was short of subjects,” he continued. “I had the idea to ask the media for help, which I eventually got. From then I received thousands of emails from all over the world (almost) of people either submitting themselves and another person to participate in the project or others that were just plainly asking me to find their look-alike.”
Brunelle’s work has brought him into contact with all kinds of people; not just as subjects, but as philosophers, politicians, and activists.
“I met a mathematician once who believed that there were not more than 200 types of faces possible,” the photographer said. He was also invited by the Colombian government to do a look-alike series to “promote peace in the country.” He was called to do other look-alike projects in Spain and the US, and Quebec City, where he was tasked with finding look-alikes of ancient sculptures. Through a web portal and a kiosk at the museum, an international coterie of 105,000 people participated in the sculpture-alike project.
For Brunelle, the work on sameness evokes philosophical questions about individuality and identity.
“In this day and age of technological performances, it would be possible to clone a human being,” he said. “Would the cloned human be the same really as the original? And if more than one clone was created from the same person, would they all be the same or just look the same?”
Brunelle notes that not all the subjects are entirely similar, but finds the differences as interesting as the points of commonality. He chooses to make the portraits in black and white, so as not to complicate matters of similarity by variations in skin color, bringing focus to the facial features.
Some of Brunelle’s subjects are longtime friends or acquaintances, while others meet for the very first time at the photo session. For most images, subjects pose in their own clothing, with their own hairstyle and no special make-up, and though they don’t always look identical, Brunelle’s subjects do seem consistently at peace with themselves and the person who stands by their side, often with arms around each other.
“That is comforting to the viewer,” he said.
Brunelle’s work has even been incorporated in scientific studies, including one about the similarities between the mental attitudes in certain areas of psychology between look-alikes. Another one is looking for similarities in the DNA of look-alikes. He intends to publish a book on the project next year.
After working with and around ideas of look-alikes for more than 20 years, Brunelle still finds something mysterious about them.
“Of course the look-alikes are not the same,” he said. “They look-alike, not much more. But then, that’s what fascinates me: that someone out in this world is looking at himself in the mirror and seeing more or less the same thing that I am seeing in my own mirror. Which brings us down to the question: Who am I exactly? Am I what I see in my reflection or something else that cannot be defined and is invisible to the eyes, even my own?”
Because of course, all art is ultimately as much a reflection of the artist as it is the subject.
“Are the portraits of the look-alikes portraits of various people,” he asks, “or is it always a self-portrait of the photographer, repeated over and over?”