The Jackson Twins: Seeing Double

© The Jackson Twins ‘The cold murmurs were a feint to conceal her treachery’ (self-portrait 54) [detail] from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012

The idea of an ever-shifting identity is very interesting and we love the fact that we can amplify this in our work through these mythological and psychological narratives.


Soulmates or rivals, demigods or doppelgangers, telepaths or clones: since time immemorial, identical twins have been considered in some way exceptional. In the past, they were the subject of myth and legend, today they are the focus of scientific research and paranormal speculation.

Developing from one zygote, which later splits to forms two embryos, identical twins have precisely the same genetic make-up. In a world in which everyone looks different, the extreme similarity of identical twins has led to many, often contradictory, notions. In some versions, twins experience a deep empathic connectedness: they sense the other’s mood, feel their pain, even read their mind. But in other mythic and psychological constructions they are fierce adversaries, as though the positive and negative characteristics of an individual had been polarised, with one twin representing good and the other evil. In Greek mythology, identical twins were said to have been simultaneously fathered by a man and a god, with one child considered mortal while the other was believed to be magically endowed. Twins, then, suggest either the closeness of near-unity or the repulsion born of similarity, as with a magnet, where opposite poles attract, but similar ones push apart.

The British artists Karl and Ian Jackson are identical twins. They collaborate to create photographic tableaux in which they are also the performers, exploring the myths and parapsychology associated with twinnedness. Their images draw on the traditions of European folklore, Gothic Romance and Hollywood cinema, always laced with a dash of distinctly British whimsy. But, beneath the comedy and the melodrama, darker and more profound issues await those willing to contemplate the histories on which these visual narratives are built. This darker, subterranean psychology is a quality that gives their work its depth and complexity.

Another intrinsic quality – one which lifts their practice out of the dark and into the light of conscious consideration – is the way in which these pictures grow from the personal experiences of the makers themselves. Not in a literal way – these scenes do not depict real events or actual psychological states – but rather from the performative investigation the Jackson brothers are making together into the nature of being a twin and the perception of twins in the world around them.

Although their photographs are grouped under different series titles, each with its own mise-en-scène, their work is an ongoing enquiry. This is emphasised in the way that every photograph, from whichever series, carries a number locating that image on the timeline of their joint oeuvre. (For example, their most recent series, ‘Remade’, begins with numbers 72 and 73.) These images chronicle a continuing voyage of creative discovery for two individuals who started life as a single entity. 

Alasdair Foster

© The Jackson Twins ‘He had recognised how well the gentility has obscured the delirium’ (self-portrait 55) from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012


Alasdair: Have you always collaborated on your creative projects?

The Jackson Twins: Yes. We began working together while studying fine art at Birmingham City University. We are both very similar, not just in appearance but in the way we think, and it feels natural to extend that into our art practice.

What is it, do you think, that so fascinates people about identical twins?

Not many people know what it is like to be a twin; to share such a close life-long bond with another person. A lot of the mythology about twins stems from that mysterious quality: notions of telepathy, the duality of a good twin and an evil one.

In ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ you explore this mythology in a dramatic way. What do you imagine the mission of the Binary Institute to have been?

We picture it as a kind of sanatorium where the inmates are suffering an identity crisis. They are battling with themselves; their inner demons. They have been taken to the Binary Institute to confront their alter ego face to face.

© The Jackson Twins ‘The venery wanes, kissed by his decadence’ (self-portrait 44) from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012

So, each scene is about a single individual – one patient – who perceives themselves as two characters in struggle or complicity. Can you give me an example?

In ‘Self Portrait 44’, we wanted to explore the idea of psychological self-sabotage. We didn’t want what is happening here to be too evident. Is the main character about to commit suicide? Is his alter ego about to stop him? Or has the twin already fired one arrow, which the other has caught just before impact?… The brooding set and cathedral backdrop were to invoke a sense of darkness and impending death, yet we added the fireflies in postproduction to contrast this, and hopefully add further ambiguity to the scene.

Is ambiguity important in your work?

Yes, the idea of an ever-shifting identity is very interesting and we love the fact that we can amplify this in our work through these mythological and psychological narratives.

You played a wide variety of characters and both genders in this work. How did the scenarios arise and develop?

These are fantasy scenes and we drew much of our inspiration from the archetypes in fairy tales and folklore: the charming prince, the damsel in distress, the wicked tyrant… and, of course, the evil queen. We then explored these architypes in terms of their psychology and dramatic potential.

© The Jackson Twins ‘The Countess tended the blood-blossomed menagerie within her antechamber’ (self-portrait 35) from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012

While devising the character in our very first piece for ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts…’ series, we decided on the architype of the decadent, evil queen. This character appears in many fairy stories and is the principal villain in ‘Sleeping Beauty’. That tale involves the heroine pricking her finger on a needle and falling into a long magical sleep. Here our heroine is surrounded by many versions of herself – many attempts to take control of her life, which the evil queen has put to sleep with her magic needle.

Did you play dress-ups a lot when you were young?

As children, we used to love playing different characters, but we only started dressing up in costumes when we got older. Initially, it was a form of escapism; it allowed us to explore different identities, while still remaining twins.

Do you work with a team of costumiers and make-up specialists to create each metamorphosis?

No, we do everything ourselves. It is important that the entire ‘transformation’ process is just between the two of us. We keep practising make-up techniques and always plan ahead when it comes to costumes – sketching first, then either customising or completely making the costumes for each piece. The make-up and wigs are a lot of fun, and we have found that we can create dramatic changes with our self-taught skills.

© The Jackson Twins ‘The cold murmurs were a feint to conceal her treachery’ (self-portrait 54) from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012

For example, in ‘Self-portrait No 54’, we wanted our ghostly figures to have a delicate and ethereal appearance. In terms of the make-up for this dual character, we used smooth pale tones to wash-out most of her distinctive features – almost strip her of her identity – which had the effect of making her eyes more striking.

Do you use a lot of digital manipulation?

We only use Photoshop minimally, for retouching, lighting adjustments or colour balance. There are occasional exceptions when, for example, we duplicate ourselves several times within a single image. [For example, ‘self-portrait 35’ above.] But, when you have an identical twin, it is like having real-life ‘cut-and-paste’!

© The Jackson Twins from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012
[Left] ‘The words kept him suspended in shadows’ (self-portrait 43)
[Centre] ‘Uncaged, yet embraced by the beautiful tension’ (self-portrait 52)
[Right] ‘…and so she succumbs to the undertow’ (self-portrait 41)

Have you found there to be any advantages, or disadvantages, in working so closely together as a kind of two-headed, four-handed artist?

One of the principal advantages is knowing there is always someone else deeply involved in the project, someone who can provide input or challenge you on something that isn’t working. Our collaboration feels very active, neither of us takes a passive role – we both have strong ideas and we work to make sure that the final pieces are built on our combined creativity.

We really enjoy making our work together. We have fun and laugh a lot in the process. That is very important. We share a similar sense of humour and we encourage each other to bring this out in our images.

© The Jackson Twins ‘Attraction; passion; jealousy; instincts she tried to hide’ (self-portrait 50) from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012

Tell me about ‘Self-portrait 50’. Is that Goldilocks, the heroine from the folktale about stealing porridge from the three bears?

While Goldilocks was our initial inspiration for this character, we decided to take her in an alternative direction; dressed in fetish-wear and brandishing bejewelled sheers. She was a bad girl, after all.

She was indeed. In the early version of the tale, the bears were three bachelors and she ended up in one of their beds… only later was the story sanitised for children with the bears becoming a family of Daddy, Mummy and Baby.

As with lot of the pieces in the series, this image concerns rivalry and conflict. This is one of the more literal scenes, with the figure in the background bent on cutting off the golden hair of her double. We wanted to give the character raw, animalistic characteristics, further emphasised by the cavernous walls, the furs and the primal facial-expressions! And, yes, that is porridge in the foreground, complete with cockroaches…

© The Jackson Twins ‘The perception of play never crossed their minds’ (self-portrait 38) from the series ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts from the Binary Institute’ 2008–2012

As well as revisiting the stories of folklore, you also draw on ideas from psychology and parapsychology.

We are very interested by the idea of telepathy, mind control, and the psychic abilities often associated the twin-mind. This led us to explore telekinesis in ‘Self-portrait 38’. It’s an image that also draws on the more orthodox psychology of twin-sibling rivalry. This is something that we wanted to investigate, because it is an emotion we have never really experienced ourselves. In the image, the twin characters are practising their telekinetic skills, but one has more malevolent motives. They are hiding in the cupboard under the stairs, a space often associated in 19th-century children’s stories with spooky goings-on.

The idea of extrasensory perception, mental telepathy and shared feelings is fascinating. They are qualities often associated with identical twins. Several of the characters in ‘The Cataclysmic Accounts…’ series illustrate aspects of this – the characters sharing feelings; hurting themselves to inflict pain on their sibling, sharing in a mutual ecstasy and so on.

In ‘Self-portrait 58’, we wanted to create a sense of desperate longing in the foreground character. This is achieved with an exaggerated downward camera angle that amplifies his upward gaze. The costuming was inspired by the interpretation of fairy tales in traditional European ballet. So, when it came to the character design, we dressed this double figure like a classical male ballet dancer.

Have you ever been involved in twin experiments into these kinds of psychological phenomena?

At school, our classmates would perform little ‘experiments’, asking things like “If I ask Ian to think of a number, can Karl use telepathy to sense what it is?”

And could you?

Well, not really. We cheated! [laughter] We would rehearse it all the night before. Still, it completely freaked people out, so it worked, which was the main thing. That said, we do have this intuitive thing going on, where we kind of know what each other is thinking or feeling, whether we’re in the same room or not.

Your subsequent series ‘Project MZ2502’ plays on darker notions of scientific experimentation. How did it begin?

It was remembering those games at school that made us want to focus on a project about scientific experimentation.

As we researched this idea, we began to uncover some disturbing accounts from the Second World War; specifically, the experiments performed by Dr Josef Mengele at the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. His obsession with twins had led to some horrifyingly inhumane acts. This took our work on a tangent where we wanted to look not only at our twinned identities, but also think about the mistreatment of others.

What ideas are you exploring in this series and where did you find your inspirations?

One main source of inspiration was the book ‘Children of the Flames: Dr Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Children of Auschwitz’, by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Of course, with such extreme historical material, we were careful to be sensitive to this research and subject matter. The broader idea also tapped into the 19th-century fairground sideshows that exploited people with unusual traits for the entertainment of the crowd. The fact is that most of the accounts that we read were simply too horrific, so we decided to move the ideas from fact to fiction – to tap into the 19th-century blend of science and entertainment and shift it into the 20th-century aesthetic of B-movie sci-fi. This helped to remove the activities from the real world and let us explore them as another form of contemporary folklore.

Your next project, ‘Remade’, is itself something of an experiment. How did it begin?

This is our first project where we began to explore what makes us different from each other. We wanted to see how our individual interpretations of an idea would turn out if we worked separately and alone. So, this project became an experiment into twin psychology.

How did it work?

‘Remade’ grows out of a game-like idea based on television and movie stills. We took it in turns to write a very short brief, being careful to not be too descriptive, leaving a lot to the imagination. Then, we each went away and made an image to match that brief. We worked alone and did not discuss the shot. A date was set when we would meet and present our works to each other.

And what did you discover?

We were really surprised at how similar our images ended up!

© The Jackson Twins from the series ‘Remade’ 2015–2017
She is shocked and can only clutch her chest to steady her breathing. Standing, partially veiled by the curtain, she looks visibly anxious at the scene she is witnessing.
(self-portraits 72 and 73)

Can you give me an example of a brief you set yourselves?

Karl wrote the brief for the first image in the series and sent it to Ian via email. It read:

“A female is in distress. She is partaking in an evening out, possibly to the theatre or symphony. She is styled glamorously and perhaps wasn’t expecting to be party to the events that have led to this precise moment. Shadows play a big part in this scene but it isn’t apparent what has caused her distress.”

Later, we gave the diptychs titles that sound like directions in a screenplay. The title for this one was:


She is looking unsettled, and can only clutch her chest to steady her breathing. Standing, partially veiled by the curtain, she looks visibly anxious at the scene she is witnessing.

But these titling texts came after the images were finished and brought together. It was important that the initial brief was nonspecific.

© The Jackson Twins from the series ‘Remade’ 2015–2017
She sits at the vanity, littered with beauty instruments. A look of jaded defeat crosses her face while she gazes intently at her reflection. The muted clamour of the party downstairs breaks her focus.
(self-portraits 86 and 87)

Did this project set any other challenges for you?

‘Remade’ was not shot in the studio, so we had new challenges to address – finding the right location, time constraints, the limitation of available light – which all added to the drama of making the work and the finished result.

You obviously think a lot about the psychology that lies behind your images. What have you learned about yourselves individually and as twins through the making of this work that you might not have come to realise had you not made it?

It’s taught us not to take our twinned connection for granted. For us, it’s a rare and precious bond. There are many cases of twins being rivals, in competition with each other. We are not. Maybe before venturing into this collaboration, this was something we did rather take for granted. Of course, it’s important to us both that we don’t lose sight of who we are as individuals. It might sound strange, but it feels easier for us to express our individual personalities through collaboration; it has given us two kinds of self-awareness: as separate individuals and as twins.

© The Jackson Twins from the series ‘Remade’ 2015–2017
Standing under the vivid light of the streetlamp, he secures his gloves and looks out across the street in front of him. His expression shows concentration and determination, yet there is a glimpse of fear within his eyes.
(self-portraits 84 and 85)

Biographical Notes

Karl and Ian Jackson were born in Leamington Spa, England, in 1981. In 2003, they both received a Bachelor of Art with honours in Fine Art from Birmingham City University. They have subsequently co-created an extensive series of performative visual works which evoke the ambiguity and unease associated identical twins in a culture fixated on the individual. They have exhibited widely in the UK and also in Australia and USA. In 2010 they received awards from both the Rhubarb, Rhubarb International Festival of the Image and the Arts Council of England. Karl currently lives and works in Coventry, and Ian in Oxford.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme that year was staged photography.