In an age that, in many respects, is defined by photography, with millions upon millions of pictures being made every single day, it’s close to impossible for a photographer to produce a wholly original image. Someone—somewhere—has no doubt shot a similar photo from a similar angle in a similar way. Avoiding photographic clichés in such an environment, when everything is a cliché, becomes more and more difficult by the minute.
Then there are those times when the similarities between two (or more) images can be simply and even thrillingly uncanny.
Sometimes these similarities are purely coincidental; but occasionally, photographers purposefully return to a past subject and location to take a similarly composed photograph.
In 2011, Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder flew to Japan to record the devastating effects of the previous December’s tsunami and earthquake. One year later, he returned to the exact same spots as his previous photographs to show the progress made during recovery. Fellow Associated Press shooter Steve Rauke has photographed the dignified transfers of numerous U.S. servicemen at Dover Air Force base since 2009, serving as a constant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by our troops abroad.
Photographer Camilo José Vergara has photographed the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America for more than four decades, using photography as a way to understand and appreciate the spirit of those places and record neighborhoods as they change (or don’t change) over time.
But photo-driven déjà vu can take one by surprise, too. Triggered by images’ composition or content, pictures of divergent subjects in similar images can often seem like far more than mere coincidence. Unlikely connections in disparate photos can nag at us, even when the images are made years or many miles apart. And, of course, photographers working in different countries or on separate continents can have no idea that they’ve made an image nearly identical to another taken somewhere over the horizon, or on the other side of the world.
Perhaps our contemporary, collective déjà vu is trigged by the news cycle’s constant hunger for images. Photographers, after all, do sometimes document annual events — at the same time and place, year after year— as if nothing at all has ever changed, or ever will change, at that location.
Documentary photography, meanwhile, raises its own breed of déjà vu. Photojournalists often travel together and work side by side at the same event, documenting the same moment—seeing the same things, taking the same pictures. Even when working independently, photographers are not immune to conscious (or subconscious) mirroring, and the 20th century has provided a litany of masters—Cartier-Bresson, Klein, Evans and Frank come to mind—who have influenced entire generations of image makers. After all, we all want to pay homage to our forebears and our heroes. Is it so surprising when, paying tribute, we veer into imitation?
Even the most celebrated of photographers are not immune to this sincerest form of flattery.
In the book published alongside the Yale show “Walker Evans and Robert Frank,” Tod Papageorge writes of the influence of Evans’ American Photographs on Frank’s The Americans.
“Many of the matched photographs reproduced here obviously, and remarkably, echo one another; they demonstrate that, to a significant degree, Frank used Evans’ work as an iconographical sourcebook for his own pictures.”
With this gallery, TIME embarks on an anthropological dig through our collective visual memory, unearthing images from the last twelve months that awakened in us that singular, familiar sense that we’ve seen them somewhere before. Haven’t we?