What does it mean to resemble another person?

When I was forty-five, I received a photograph of my birth mother in the mail—the first time I ever saw someone who looked like me. Seeing myself in another person’s face was a lightning bolt so powerful it divided my life into everything that happened before that moment from everything that happened after. 

It’s a basic human desire to seek recognition by others, and physical resemblance is often the first form of recognition we experience. You’ll see a new parent flush with pleasure when that physical resemblance is commented upon: “He looks just like you” or “She has her mother’s eyes.” 

As an adopted person—who grew up without any connections to my biological relatives—I’d always wondered what it was like to have a visual bond with someone else: something that clearly marked you as members of the same family. Did it make you love each other more? Did it link you together in a way that nothing else could? 

I don’t have kids, so I had to wait to experience family resemblance until I was ready to search for my birth mother, which is when I received that photo. It’s nearly impossible to describe the feeling of first seeing someone who looked like me: a mixture of relief, wonder, and joy, but also sadness for the loss of growing up without a biological family. 

As a way of understanding my experience, I started this photo project to document people who are genetically related and bear a strong resemblance to each other. Over the course of three years, I photographed around 700 people and asked them about what family—and family resemblance—means. The participants’ photos and answers were so varied and powerful that they gave me a deeper understanding of resemblance, and my own place in the world.

—Eric Mueller