Artist Uses Found DNA Data to Generate Photo-realistic Portraits

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Just as RAW photo files contain all the information you need to put together a photograph, DNA contains all the information needed for a human being. Information artist and PhD student Heather Dewey-Hagborg has a fascinating portrait project that explores this idea.

Dewey-Hagborg finds and photographs DNA samples out in public, collecting everything from hair to chewed gum and cigarettes. She then sequences the DNA, extracting information about certain traits related to outward appearance (e.g. gender, eye-color, ancestry).


What she ends up with is a comma separated text file that’s roughly 25 megabytes in size. This file is essentially the distinguishing elements between that stranger’s DNA and common DNA shared by humanity.

Dewey-Hagborg then feeds this information into a computer program that uses the details to create a 3D model of that person’s face. Finally, the 3D model is sent to a 3D printer at New York University and turned into a physical sculpture.


The portrait at the top of this post was created using a cigarette found under an overpass in Brooklyn, New York:

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The DNA revealed that the person was a female of European descent with brown eyes.

Here’s a collection of found DNA samples next to the portrait sculptures they were turned into.

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Dewey-Hagborg even did this same process using her own DNA. Here’s what she came up with:


Heather Dewey-Hagborg posing with her self-portrait DNA sculpture. Photo by Dan Phiffer

Heather Dewey-Hagborg posing with her self-portrait DNA sculpture. Photo by Dan Phiffer

In the project’s artist statement, Dewey-Hagborg says that by “working with traces strangers unwittingly leave behind,” she’s calling “attention to the impulse toward genetic determinism and the potential for a culture of genetic surveillance.”

Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg (via

Image credits: Photographs by Heather Dewey-Hagborg

  • David Liang

    That’s actually pretty close…surprising, and interesting.

  • Thiago Medeiros

    Awesome and creepy

  • 11


    but any ground truth validation? btw, I would not be very happy if someone scanned my dna without my consent.

  • 3ric15

    Then don’t litter….just sayin’.

  • Andi

    if it wasn’t in the text that it’s her selfportrait i wouldn’t think it could be her… not very similar i think…

  • Aleksandar Aleksić

    hey, that’s mat damon over there!

  • lidocaineus

    Heh, yep. And don’t touch anything or scratch an itch out in public or pretty much anything but breathe… and even then…

  • JPD

    Her rendered faced has little to no resemblance to her in real life. This reconstruction process sounds more like a pipe dream, there’s so much more to what a human face looks like than what the DNA dictates. Environmental, social, economic, eating habits, etc. can drastically impact someone’s face. I’d say interesting start but lots of work still to put into this project before it can claim any kind of accuracy.

  • faloc

    Soo cool yet soo damn creepy

  • Ryn

    This technology would be extremely helpful in criminal investigations.

  • Will Ganness

    You would have made a much better article by showing us DNA assisted images vs the actual appearance of what the person looks like. From this last image – its appears that this does not work as yet.

  • 11

    …rethinking of signing all over with ma’ dna

  • madmax

    Stupid. I´ll bet all my money she is not able to make a true portrait of an unknown person.

  • Jason

    hmm… so all the footage of “Bin Laden” could’ve been a CIA agent pretending to be Bin Laden???

  • 4dmaze

    Since DNA can not determine race (but can determine basic geographical ancestry) or age, I don’t see how she can be doing anything but guessing. Most people wouldn’t be able to match up peoples adult photos with their childhood likenesses. Probably why she picked strangers.

    I would love to see a blind test of submitted DNA and then show the originators after the masks are done.

    CSI TV and their junk science will probably jump right on this.

  • 9inchnail

    She’s propably just using statistical data. The DNA might tell you the color of the hair (original color, the person might dye his/her hair) and eyes, gender and race but that’s about it. The rest is averaging. If you know it’s a white female, you create averages of white female faces, take the average weight of a white female in that country and so on. And since no one will ever come up and say “Hey, that was my gum”, we will never know how acurate these models are. I mean, her own model doesn’t look like her, so why are we even talking about it?

  • Sky

    Is this even legal?

    Shooting and publishing portraits without a permission in theory is illegal, so I wonder how it looks like with sequencing DNA and than creating portraits of people based on that.

  • jan

    omg, you cannot determine the look of anyone by DNA sequencing. nice idea but totally made up.

  • friv200

    Oh yeah! I agree with the idea that there is a coincidence.

  • PBcoops

    Think it’s a younger version of her??!! ha ha

  • Richard Ford

    I must watch Gattaca again…

  • artfrankmiami

    Taking pictures of people on a public street is not illegal–except for commercial advertising purposes–so this kind of falls into the same realm. I think it’s not exactly right, though.

  • yoe

    Where are the non white people?

  • wat


  • Segmation

    What wonderful work by Dewey-Hagborg ! Extracting Art from Science!