Ulric Collette is a photographer and graphic designer from Quebec City whose genetics-inspired project has been rocking us all lately. Collette's work aimed to ask the "essential questions about our own identity," but with a unique and artistic twist. His project "explores his ideas by illustrating the genetic similarities between different members of the same family, even to cousins who share up to 25% of the same genetic background."
Taking family members as obvious as siblings to separated by multiple generations like grandparents to grandchildren, he splices images in half and combines them together, a piece from each side. Sometimes his work shows startling similarities and other times it shows even more stark differences and it definitely leaves us wondering, with enthusiasm, just how much does genetics play into the physical appearance of a person?
Ulric Collette was born in 1979 and is a self-taught photographer, though he did study art and graphic design in Quebec in the 90's.
In an interview with Bored Panda, Collette said:
I started doing this genetic series in 2008 while doing a photo per day challenge. I had made a lot of self portraiture at the time, and made the first one of me and my 7 year old son a little bit by accident while trying something really different in photoshop.
A once fun project, Collette found it was well-responded to and it went on from there:
I published it on Flickr at the time and the response was great so I decided to try it out with other people, family and friends at first and so on… The project went viral a few time since then.
Since then, his work has become extremely popular and been featured in a plethora of media sources:
I've made a few exhibits around the world, in Montreal, Belgium and the U.S. and featured in a few art books and magazines. I’ve also made the final at the Canne Lion in 2012 for a foundation project. My work is currently on display at the Transportation Mall Photography Exhibit at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
His work is definitely stunning, and just the sort of thing you'd expect a phenomenal art book to display. Will Ulric have a book of his own? He says:
It would be great to do this with famous people and their family, maybe it could make a great book!
Regardless of the fact that Ulric has been doing this for quite some time now, it was still a process that occurred over time and has been honed.
There's a lot of detail in my photographs, and I've learned a lot over time on how the best light the subject and what I need in my photo for it to work.
And who wouldn't want in on this project? It's so cool! But it's not the sort of thing that can be done willy-nilly:
I've received a lot of photographs from families over time and for the most part, It would not work if people just sent their photos to me.
It would seem like it could be as simple as sending in a couple of photographs and letting Ulric work some magic, but it is definitely not that simple!
Most of the time the photos are too small, there are no details or the lighting is really different in the two photographs. For me, it is really important that I do the entire process by myself.
Ulric knows he isn't a scientist but his work has definitely been eye-opening and revealed a lot to him about the power of genetics:
I've learned a few generic facts on genetics along the way but really had no way to prove anything, unfortunately... For example, I've been told that daughters tend to look a lot like their grandmother from the father's side of the family.
In an article published by Penn State University, they say that DNA determines your appearance:
DNA contains all the information needed to build your body. Did you know that your DNA determines things such as your eye color, hair color, height, and even the size of your nose? The DNA in your cells is responsible for these physical attribute as well as many others that you will soon see.
It turns out that the DNA in your body came almost directly from your mother and father. If your DNA came from your parents and DNA determines your appearance, why do you not look exactly like your mother or father?
The reason is that your DNA is a mixture of your mother and father’s DNA. This is why some of your physical features may resemble your mother’s while some may resemble your father’s. Half of the DNA used to create your body came from your mother while the other half came from your father. Some of your features may look nothing like your mother’s or father’s.
Human DNA comes in 23 pairs of packages called chromosomes. These chromosomes are large bundles of tightly packed DNA. Your mother and father each donate 23 chromosomes, which pair up to give you your full set of 23 chromosomes.
Within these 23 pairs of chromosomes, there are certain sections that determine different physical features. These sections of DNA that contain information that determine your physical features are called genes. Since you have two pairs of chromosomes, you also have two pairs of genes, one from your father and one from your mother. These pairs of genes then determine certain physical features or traits.
The genes that you have in your body right now make up your genotype. This genotype then determines your physical appearance, which is called your phenotype.
PSU also says:
Genes can come in two different forms or alleles. A gene can be either dominant or recessive.
And of course, to further complicate things, "chromosomes carry many more than one gene. There are thousands of genes carried within the 23 pairs of human chromosomes."
The Genetic Science Learning Center of Utah says:
Some traits are controlled by genes that pass from parent to child. Others are acquired through learning. But most are influenced by a combination of genes and environmental factors.
For example, on Dimples:
Dimples are small, natural indentations on the cheeks. They can appear on one or both sides, and they often change with age. Some people are born with dimples that disappear when they’re adults; others develop dimples later in childhood.
Dimples are highly heritable, meaning that people who have dimples tend to have children with dimples—but not always. Because their inheritance isn't completely predictable, dimples are considered an “irregular” dominant trait. Having dimples is probably controlled mainly by one gene but also influenced by other genes.
What about whether or not one is right or left handed? Learn Genetics says:
Handedness describes our preference for using either our left or right hand for activities such as writing and throwing a ball. Overall, about 10% of people are left-handed, but the number varies among cultures from 0.5% to 24%.
Some have reported that handedness is controlled by just one or two genes, but this is not the case. Multiple studies present evidence that handedness is controlled by many genes—at least 30 and as many as 100—each with a small effect; many are linked to brain development. Environment also plays an important role: some cultures actively discourage left-handedness.
Meanwhile, there are things you wouldn't think have genetic indications... but Learn Genetics will teach you otherwise:
Without thinking about it, fold your hands together by interlocking your fingers. Which thumb is on top—your left or your right?
One study found that 55% of people place their left thumb on top, 45% place their right thumb on top, and 1% have no preference. A study of identical twins concluded that hand clasping has a strong genetic basis (most twins share the trait), but it doesn’t fit a predictable inheritance pattern. It is likely affected by multiple genes as well as environmental factors.
What about hairlines? There are a lot of hairlines in Collette's project. Learn Genetics says:
If your hairline forms a point at the center of the forehead, you have a widow's peak. If not, you have a straight hairline. While some sources say that widow’s peak is a dominant trait controlled by one gene, no scientific study supports this claim. Complicating the question of heritability is the fact that the trait is continuous: some people have just a slight suggestion of a peak.
Widow's peak is likely controlled by genes rather than the environment. But while hairline shape tends to run in families, its pattern of inheritance is usually unpredictable, suggesting that multiple genes are involved.
University College London headed some research on genetics and appearances, hoping to understand more about how genetics play into our appearances:
Despite its great biological and social importance the genetic basis of variation in human physical appearance is poorly understood.
The UK researcher's goal was to "identify genetic variants influencing a selection of such features [such as]: body size and shape, pigmentation (of hair, skin and eyes), facial features, type of hair, baldness and hair greying"
Their work will be long and gruelling, utilizing thousands of Latin American volunteer researchers, 3000 individuals using about ~300,000 genetic markers, to then be re-examined by another several thousand Latin American researchers and then roughly 20,000 European researchers!
One might ask why they're so heavily involved in such in-depth research, but they won't leave you hanging:
Identification of genes involved in physical appearance has a number of important consequences for basic biological research, such as examining the evolution of this traits and optimize their use in studies on human origins and diversification. This work will also have important biomedical implications as the genes identified could be involved in human disorders (of development pigmentation, aging and skin cancer). This work will also lay the foundation for the development of an entire new field of forensic genetics: the reconstruction of an individual's physical appearance based on a DNA sample. Finally, our proposal will inform the public about aspects of the relationship between genetics, ethnic identity and race.
The future of understanding genetics and appearances has a lot in store for us, globally.
It is wild to think that in such modern times with so much information at our fingertips that so little is still understood about our own genetic make-ups!
And Ulric's project may be nothing more than an artistic blip in a vast world of research and science aiming to better understand genetics and appearances... but it is definitely the sort of project that virtually anyone can look at and grasp with their own minds!
While scientists are globally trying to understand the technical aspects of our genetic backgrounds, artists like Ulric are exploring them in creative ways we can all enjoy and see!
It is an exciting time to be alive and experiencing the world.
And we imagine that whether or not Ulric knows the depths that science is exploring genetics in, he will not be cutting his project short any time soon. Thankfully, too, because it really has been cool to see.
We all have family members we've been told we look like, don't we?
Maybe we look like them more than we ever realized through our own eyes!