Feb. 29, 2007 -- It's an age-old belief with a strange appeal that somewhere on this planet, alive today, is someone who looks like you -- maybe not precisely, but close enough to be your double, your doppelganger.
It can be fascinating to imagine. But not everyone is ready to encounter an unexpected double.
"It's a little bit of a nightmare to meet oneself with no warning," said Francois Brunelle, a Montreal photographer who is compiling a collection of photos of people whose resemblance to each other is striking.
A Striking Resemblance
When Brunelle began seeking look-alikes, he got most of his leads from friends in Canada.
Some of his favorite pairs of look-alikes include Danielle Boucher and Jovette Desmarais, two retired Canadian women that even Brunelle thought were twins when he first saw them; Sarah Fournier and Alan Madill, look-alikes of different genders who happen to have worked in the same Toronto office; and Normand Grenier and Ahmed Galipeau, who move in the same social circles and are frequently mistaken for each other at cocktail parties.
Once his project was under way, Brunelle said, "I was lucky enough to get help from the media -- articles in newspapers and magazine."
After that publicity and in response to postings on Brunelle's Internet site, suggestions poured in from people who knew look-alikes or wanted to find their own.
It's All About the Face
The people Brunelle photographs are not identical. That's possible only with identical twins. And because his subjects may not be the same height, or even the same gender, the important patterns are in their faces.
Studies published in the October 2006 issue of the journal Science showed that our brains are particularly attuned to respond to the details in faces, and what Brunelle looks for are facial similarities that are so close that two people may be mistaken for each other, even by friends.
For Sophie Cadieux, 29, and Catherine Trudeau, 31, that can be particularly awkward. Both are actresses in Montreal. In January, they agreed to go to Brunelle's studio for a photo shoot.
"The funny thing is that sometimes people think we're the same girl," said Trudeau.
"And we're both actresses," Cadieux said. "So when people say, 'Oh, you're so good in that,' and it was Catherine's role, I say, 'I wish it was me.' And I have to admit that she's very, very good."
Fortunately, they've never auditioned for the same part. "But maybe we should play sisters," said Trudeau. "Somebody should call us."
Brunelle shoots the photos in black and white so that colors don't distract from the facial details.
"When I take the photograph, there's no makeup, there's nothing. And the more I look at the pictures, the more beautiful I think [these people] are."
A Cross-Cultural Phenomenon
Different cultures have different words for the look-alike phenomenon. The French use the word 'sosie,' or double. In German, the word is 'doppelganger,' a term also adopted into English. Supposedly, encountering your doppelganger can be a sign of bad luck, as it may be your evil twin, according to superstition.
Literary epics such as "The Prince and the Pauper" and "The Prisoner of Zenda" spin elaborate look-alike stories of royalty confused with commoners.
Brunelle has traveled in North America and Europe to meet and photograph look-alikes. Sometimes the doubles meet each other for the first time in his studio. "They come in, they open the door and there is an expression of uncertainty in their face. They're not sure they're doing the right thing."
Even if the resemblance to your double is flattering, Brunelle says, it can trigger a little earthquake in your ego. Your sense of identity is shaken. Some people contacted by Brunelle have refused to be photographed when they learn they have a double.
"I think they say no because they don't want to be facing another person that's like them," said Brunelle. "For them it's too much to ask."
It's also common for look-alikes not to believe they resemble each other.
Brunelle is more than halfway toward a hoped-for portfolio of 200 photographs which he plans to display in an exhibition and publish in a book.
Brunelle said many people have told him he has his own double: the actor Rowan Atkinson, famous for his role as Mr. Bean in a British television comedy.
Part of Brunelle's fascination with look-alikes lies in the contemplation of them, in the studying and contrasting the faces to tell them apart. He believes that viewers then focus all the more carefully on the patterns and details of human faces to find the uniqueness in each.
"Because these people are not the same," Brunelle said. "They were raised in different countries, sometimes -- different families, different religions, different backgrounds, different everything, and yet they look the same. I'm playing with reality in my own little way."