Facing up to the Likeness

My mother-in-law looked Chinese. This petite, pure Okie born and bred Caucasian lady—I thought of her so often when I was traveling in China recently, because I saw her double everywhere. How could that be?

Each of us is unique, face-wise. When I passed through immigration in Beijing, the clever machine that checked my identity knew immediately that I had been there before, just by looking at my face in its little camera (my face that is a year older than it was last time it saw me).

Me with an artisan in Guizhou, China. Do you think we look a tiny bit alike?

Each of us is unique. Babies can identify their mothers almost as soon as they’re out of the womb and do not happily accept substitutes. Ravens and hummingbirds can identify their particular human acquaintances from yards, or miles, away. They say that each of us can store at least as many as 5,000 different faces in our memory banks (though we can’t necessarily attach a name to each).

I think of this when I page through Joe Coca’s portrait photography. These eloquent, expressive faces from all over the world, each telling the story of a particular place, life story, DNA. If you crop out the hat, the hair, the costume, if you render them all in black and white, can you tell who is from where? Can you tell which one is my mother-in-law?

Domingo Asicona. Photo by Joe Coca from Traditional Weavers of Guatemala.

And yet we draw such lines of distinction between nationalities, races, villages, clans. Humans expend a lot of energy building fences, labeling others, adopting special dress. Strip us down to the essentials, though, and what’s the difference?


Matching game: Can you match the face to the country? Answers upside down below.






Thrums Books are known for their beautiful portrait photography. Buy a book today; you might discover your own face inside.


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