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"Alike but Not Alike" photographer Peter Zelewski

Interview with photographer Peter Zelewski

We discovered Peter Zelewski’s work through Instagram and were instantly drawn to it. Zelewski is not a twin himself but identical twins is his main subject for his recent photo project, "Alike But Not Alike". His regular work is stunning, but (perhaps with bias) this portrait series on twins is just spectacular. We wanted to learn more about his work flow and inspiration.

In this interview you will get the insights on Zelewski’s journey, his experience working with twins and his favorite twin portrait.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Peter Zelewski, a London based professional portrait and documentary photographer. 

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How did you get started?

I first got into photography at a very early age. I was born in Detroit, USA and grew up during the 1960s whilst the city was going through very turbulent political times. I have vivid memories of my father, a keen and talented amateur photographer making his way into the city to document the social unrest during these changing times.

My father’s photography influence rubbed off on me as I accompanied him on his photographic journeys into the city. He taught me that photographs had to be powerful to capture attention and also the importance of good lighting, interesting composition and most importantly showing respect to the people you were photographing. The essential principles of photography which I learned from my father were the foundations of my photographic education and are still relevant to my work today.

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By the time I reached my teens, I was becoming more and more interested in photography and carried a camera with me everywhere. In 1986, I made the decision to leave my hometown of Detroit and move to London, England. Following my creative passion, I ended up pursuing a career as a graphic designer. As my career as a designer developed I was spending a large amount of my professional working time in the studio art directing photo shoots for the company I was working for.

Inevitably, I started working with photographers more and more and I felt it was important to gain some knowledge of the technical aspects of photography so that I could communicate my ideas more effectively with the photographers I was working with. I eventually decided to re-acquaint myself with photography and bought myself an entry-level DSLR. 

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Because of my love for London and its inhabitants, I ended up taking street portraits and my passion for portraiture really started to grow from strength to strength. After working on several street portraiture personal projects and gaining much recognition, I was awarded third place in the Taylor Wessing Portraiture Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Shortly there after, I had my first book of street portraits published by Hoxton Mini Press entitled ‘People of London’. I am now very fortunate that I can divide my time between commercial photography assignments, personal ongoing photographic projects and street portraiture workshops. 

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Tell us more about "Alike but Not Alike".

Like many who grew up with no siblings or who experienced a sibling rivalry spawned by an age gap, I have always found something perplexing about identical twins. As a non-twin myself, I have always been drawn to the subject of twins and the strong bonds between them.

In my latest portraiture project ‘Alike But Not Alike’ I explore the similarities and differences between sets of identical twins with a series of hard hitting portraits taken over a two-year period encompassing twins of all ages, races and sexes.

The series includes the Eritrean born sisters Hermon and Heroda who both unexplainably lost their hearing at the exact same time when they were only 7 years old. Also included in the project are Sophie and Polly, a pair of monozygotic twins who are so identical they have matching fingerprints meaning their DNA is virtually indistinguishable. The telepathy and strong bond between the various sitters is further highlighted by sisters Chloe and Leah, who are so close they often find themselves finishing each other’s sentences and claim to even feel each other’s pain.

To give as little away as possible to the social status or backgrounds of the twins, all the portraits in the series were taken outdoors against neutral or very plain backdrops.

Although the twins are all dressed similar in the photographs the subtle yet obvious differences can be seen in their moods, their facial expressions and how they pose proving that no twins are truly identical.

What is special about taking photos of twins?

Like many portrait photographers such as Diane Arbus, Martin Schoeller and Albrech Tubke I suppose I have always been visually attracted to the subject of twins. My initial fascination was, in all honesty, purely from a creative perspective. I loved the symmetry, the balance, the strength and the overall harmony of the portraits I was making of twins and this probably has a lot to do with my own OCD tenancies.

Once I started getting into the project, what struck me as being special about these photographs was that unspoken bond and closeness of the twins I was photographing. Forging a connection with my subjects has always been the most important part of portraiture for me and doing so with two subjects brought a whole new set of challenges to my photography which was completely unexpected.

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In some of the earlier twins portraits from the project, I was fascinated with the telepathy between many of the twins which I have never experienced when photographing ordinary siblings in the past. As a non-twin myself, making these portraits has brought me closer to what it must be like to have a such a strong and special relationship with your sibling which is something many of us will never experience.

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What has your experience taught you about twins?

That the unique bond shared between identical twins is like no other relationship in the world. Before I entered into this project I was aware of the stories about the mythical bond between twins, but having met very few twins myself, it was something I hadn’t experienced first hand.

This special bond was never more apparent than with Sophie and Polly, a set of twins I photographed on one of my earlier photoshoots. Sophie and Polly were quite possibly the most identical twins I have come across as they are a rare breed of identical twins called monozygotic twins that were born when their mother’s single fertilised egg split in two.

They are so identical that they had matching fingerprints which meant they had virtually indistinguishable DNA, a forensic’s worst nightmare! Astonishingly, they showed me how they could get into each other’s iPhone using either of their fingerprints. The bond between the two was fascinating and undeniably one of the strongest I have come across in twin siblings. Meeting and photographing twins has taught me that the close and special bond between the siblings isn’t a myth or some sort of urban legend but factual and indeed very special.

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Would you consider being a twin a strength or weakness?

Oh, without a doubt an absolute strength!

While working on this project I have photographed and met over thirty sets of twins in over two years and I have never once heard any of the siblings say they regretted being born a twin.

In fact, the majority felt privileged and honored to have a twin brother or sister. The twins I photographed often referred to their twin as their lifelong soul-mate, their best friend, their partner in crime and the person they could always trust and rely on. How many of us can say that about our own non-twin sibling?

twin sisters with blonde braids

What is your favorite photo you have taken?

I think if you ask that question to most photographers they will say it was the last photograph they took! But, in relevance to my project and this feature, my favorite photograph would have to be my portrait of the wonderful Eritrean born twin sisters Hermon and Heroda. 

deaf her black twin sisters

I was first introduced to Hermon and Heroda via their fashion blog called ‘Being Here’ which I discovered through a random web search whilst researching twins.

Hermon and Heroda were striking and very unique in appearance and I knew straight away they would be perfect for my twins project. After an initial email, they kindly agreed to allow me to take their portrait and we arranged the photoshoot in Central London the following week. Our initial meeting and plans for the shoot got off to a great start until I noticed there was something unusual about the twins which I hadn’t planned for - they were both totally deaf.

As we made our introductions, Hermon and Heroda immediately explained to me that they were both deaf and that they would try their best to communicate with me using a combination of sign language and lip reading. This was completely unexpected and my heart went out to both of them just imagining how hard it must be to cope in a manic city like London with their disability.

They explained to me how they moved to London from Africa to seek medical help after they both unexpectedly lost their hearing, due to unknown causes, at the same time when they were only 7 years old. I was now completely fascinated by the twins and their stories and any doubts I may have had about our photoshoot not going to plan completely disappeared.

During our photoshoot, we struggled with our communication but the determination from the twins to makes their voices heard was astonishing. In the end I feel I produced a portrait of the girls which not only shows the strong bond between the two but also the strength they both have to succeed regardless of their disability.

Now, whenever I look at that portrait of Hermon and Heroda I’m reminded that a disability is just a state of mind and anything is possible as long as you want it bad enough. As a photographer, I am used to inspiring others with my work but on this occasion it was the beautiful twin sisters Hermon and Heroda who inspired me and that is why the portrait is one of my favorites.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Peter. Your journey and work is truly inspiring and the way you capture the twin bond is much appreciated!

Check out more on Peter's work on his website and Instagram. The project "Alike but not Alike" will also be displayed at The Hoxton Hotel Gallery in Shoreditch in London from February 23rd – May 11th 2018.

We love learning more about everything twin and this is our latest interview in our interview series (check out the others, including with twinpreneurs We Are Andrex here and twinfluencers Twinnks here)

Twinning Store was established by twin sisters K & E in Los Angeles in July 2017. We sell clothing for twins, because twins rule! The store is made for twins by twins.