The photography section of my children's school library has quite a surprising good collection of photo books! When I stumbled upon Mary Ellen Mark's Twins (2003), it immediately caught my attention. I have an identical twin sister and am a mother of identical twins and I was very interested to see in which way Mark was going to portray the unique bond that I'm experiencing myself and see in my own girls.
The book consists of images of sets of twins that were taken on a twins' festival 'Twins Days' in Twinsburg, Ohio. The photos were taken on a Polaroid 20 by 24 camera and are supposed to be of exquisite quality. Mark flew in a crew of 20 people and set up a tent during the festival to take the images. Quite a production, I'd say! In the second part of the book you can read snippets of interviews that Mark had with the twins and their caretakers after the photos were taken.
The front page announces that 'In Twins, Mark turns her acute eye and her heart to the extraordinary bond that exists between these very special siblings.' I think it is this sentence that annoys me most about the book. The images are all very stereotypical, not only of what you expect of twins, but also of teenagers, women, kids, Afro Americans, overweight kids, etc. I don't think Mark put the twins these costumes on, but the fact that she chose to photograph her subject matter in Twinsburg, on Twinsday, already shows that her approach was to get all the stereotypes on paper.
Most twins have tautological names, like Kelsie and Kiara, Jim and Jeff, Melanie and Michelle and Kayley and Kaitlyn. In the interviews we can read that most of the twins either live very close together or live in the same house. The questions in the interview are closed and Mark asks all the stereotypical questions I have been asked about being a twin. It's just all very stereotypical.
I found it all very unsettling and I wondered why. I mean it's not the classification in itself, or showing the weird side of people that makes me feel like this. I really like the way August Sander made classifications of people and their profession, or Arbus' approach in showing people's rarities. But in this case, I get the idea that Mark's approach to twins is very shallow and even though she says she is looking for the special bond they have, she just wants to freak her viewers a bit with the fact that twins are a bit freaky.
I miss respect for the individual and it sort of triggers a frustration that I have felt all my life about being compared all the time, the assumptions that my life was sort of dependent on the other and the struggle to find myself. I have to say everything is fine now and I love being a twin, but when I look at my own daughters, I would never want them to be portrayed like Mark does. It's denigrating and lacks respect. Or maybe from a less frustrated response, it's very shallow.
Mark, M. E. (2003) Twins. First Edition edn. New York: Aperture Foundation.