Meeting Chris and Nick Capozziello at the POYi awards ceremony, where Chris received an award for his book, The Distance Between Us, you might not have guessed they were twins, but you knew they were brothers. At an event that both honored and examined their relationship, I saw two brothers with very different life stories sharing one experience.
The brothers grew up known as “the Capozziello twins,” bound together by society because of that unique link in the womb. One thing separates them, though: Nick was born with cerebral palsy. While they are supposed to be equals in every way, it’s impossible, and it disrupts the bond that twins are often thought to have.
Through photography, Chris has been able to examine their relationship in a different way. In an effort to understand Nick’s pain and its affect on his life, he has struggled to deal with his own guilt and shame as the “healthy twin”.
It’s easy to view the work as heartbreaking; we want to empathize with those who suffer. But Chris and Nick are past that. The story has evolved. It’s less about Nick’s suffering as it is the twins’ quest to become the brothers they were born to be.
MALLORY BENEDICT: Nick, How did you get comfortable with Chris taking your photo regularly?
NICK CAPOZZIELLO: I just got used to it. After a while I was just like, why worry about it, you know? If there were times that I didn’t like him to take pictures I would tell him, and he would stop taking pictures. Or I would just give him the finger.
MALLORY: How do you think this photography has impacted your relationship? Has it changed or helped anything?
NICK: Most definitely. I think that we’re like “two peas in a pod”. We’re much closer and we talk about just about anything now. So I guess you would call it “brotherly love”.
CHRIS CAPOZZIELLO: I don’t feel like the pictures have necessarily brought us closer. I feel like we see that we have a lot more in common. When I read the book to my family for the first time, they heard more clearly that I felt guilty about [my health]. Talking about how that made me angry and the weight that it caused me to carry around for a number of years, our parents had no idea that I felt that way so it opened the door to be more honest about things.
MALLORY: Did you and your family have a conversation about this personal story being released to the public?
CHRIS: When I first shared it at the LOOKbetween Festival, I was asked to show a body of work that I hadn’t shown anywhere else, so after being pushed by friends and colleagues to show these pictures I went home one Sunday and said ‘Look, I’ve been asked to show some work, what do you guys think about me putting something together about Nick and us’ and they said ‘sure’. So I created a three-minute piece and I remember I was nervous showing it to everybody on my little laptop at home and [talking to Nick] I was sitting down and you were standing all around me, and you put your hands on my shoulder afterward and told me you were proud of me.
Throughout the process, I was nervous because I’m the photographer but I’m also the protector. I’m protecting my family so it’s a different kind of story; I’m so close to it.
MALLORY: Nick, with these photos getting more exposure, how do you feel knowing that people would see you in these photos?
NICK: Well, I personally don’t like looking at myself with those thrash-type cramps because that’s what I deal with on a day-to-day basis. I like other pictures in the book where I’m lying in bed with my hamster petting her or I’m singing karaoke at the bar—those pictures I enjoy. But the ones where I’m having a cramp, I really have a hard time looking at them. The first time [Chris] read the book to us, he actually read it twice to me because the first time he read it to us, I had to get up and leave because I just couldn’t take looking at the pictures. I was actually crying looking at them.
CHRIS: Be honest, you thought I was gonna get you a girlfriend, come on.
NICK: Yeah I did, I did.
MALLORY: Do you like connecting with people who have CP who have learned about your story through the media?
NICK: Yeah, I also ask them questions. There’s a guy [on Facebook] a few years younger than me and I was asking him how he manages life on his own, so we’re conversing back and forth about how he deals with it. You’ve gotta have a sense of humor along with what you’ve got. That’s the most important thing, I think.
MALLORY: With all of the awards and press coverage you two have received, is there anything you want to convey that you haven’t been able to?
CHRIS: Honestly, I feel like, for right now, the book is everything I would want to say. And certainly in some of the press we’ve gotten, there has been a sentimentilization of our story and I always kind of balk at that but I understand why it’s there. In part it’s kind of why I never really wanted to share the story because our parents never treated us different because we were twins. To everybody else, I wasn’t Chris, he wasn’t just Nick, we were Chris and Nick, we were the Capozziello Twins. Then we’ve kind of grown up and there’s this one-ness to us, you know, and that happens with most twins. But you can’t get away from those preconceived ideas. I know to the untwinned we’re really sort of weird; we’re a spectacle.
NICK: I’m guessing that if they just read the book or see the pictures, they only see one side of me, but if they read the book and then come up to me and have a conversation with me, then they’ll see the book side plus my personality side.
CHRIS to NICK: Do you think the book is honest?
CHRIS: So you think the book is honest, but after someone has interviewed us and they publish an article, have you ever felt upset about how you’re portrayed in those instances? You’ve gotta be careful about that one. [Nick is laughing] He’s laughing because, there was one interview where he said something and, let’s be honest, [interviewers] can kind of lead people where you want them to go and this person who was interviewing asked him a question, [talking to Nick] you sort of went down a rabbit hole and I felt like I couldn’t correct him because it would look like I’m trying to save face. So I let it go hoping that the interviewer wouldn’t include that part in the article but it was included. But afterwards Nick and I had a conversation and I was like, ‘what did you mean by this when you said this?’ So we had this long ongoing conversation between me and Nick and our parents about what he actually meant and what he said wasn’t what he actually meant.
MALLORY: So what’s next?
CHRIS: We got a small grant to take a road trip a couple of years ago. It’s something Nick really liked and wants to do again, so we’re going this December and want to make a thing of it every couple of years. It’s brought about a new tradition for us and we look forward to that. In the past, we never really planned to do anything together; we were just living life as we normally would. [This year] I think we want to go to the Pacific Northwest. But we were talking on the way down here [to DC] about him writing a little bit more. If there’s ever going to be another book— it’ll be years, we’ll be old men if that ever happens—I have this idea for my website where I want to add a journal aspect to our story where we have how the story’s been through now and Nick’s pictures about what life is like for him and some of his writings because he wrote really well. He kind of kicked my ass because [Talking to Nick] you wrote that text [in the book] in one day and it took me months to finish that text. And the proofreaders were like, ‘This guy just kicked your ass’ and I was like ‘Yeah I know’. So you one-upped me in that regard for sure.
NICK: I’m a good storywriter.
CHRIS: He’s very humble you see.
NICK: Yeah I am.
MALLORY: What do you hope people take away from this body of work?
CHRIS: Some of the headlines have been like ‘heartbreaking pictures of a brother’s story’ and I feel like, yes it’s hard for me but when you see those sorts of headlines it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth— there’s more here. I think that there are universal experiences that create bonds of solidarity. So when we’re talking about guilt, we’ve all felt guilt.
To tell a story in that way, you let the story do it’s job and maybe some will walk away from it and see the deeper things and some people will just go ‘oh that really sucks, that must be hard for you.’ And then they walk away and that’s the only conversation you have. But for the discerning viewer, for someone who stops and looks at a photograph the way it’s meant to be looked at, you look at it and you let it sink in and you view that image and you read the text that’s there. There’s much more present than maybe we’re wanting to experience or let in.
I’m acknowledging that it’s not just my burden, it’s not just for me to figure out: it’s for us to figure out. Life is different for Nick, it’s different for me, it’s different for us and we’re going to figure it out together.
Before we leave, I ask Chris and Nick if there is anything they want to add. Chris leans close to the microphone and, looking at Nick, says, “I think one thing you would want to say is that you are single and available. I’m helping you out here man.”
The brothers start laughing and, after a moment of consideration, Nick gets close to the microphone, like his brother, and starts giving his cell phone number. Chris gives him flack for seeming desperate and Nick goes on anyway, “Well I kinda am,” he says, “so come on ladies!”
Brothers will be brothers.