The photo that started it all. Pic: Awkward Family Photos
Every time you turned round, there was my mum, camera at the ready. This was our annual family gathering, and no one wanted photographs.
We knew from experience we'd be gurning or frowning, with glassy eyes and rictus grins. We knew we'd pose with extraordinary stiffness, as if turned to ice by the White Witch. But she snapped away regardless - and now we have, as usual, a horrible display of awkward family photos. But we're not alone. Thanks to Mike Bender and Doug Chernack, two LA screenwriters who have been friends since high school in New Jersey, everyone now knows that embarrassing family snaps are completely normal.
"When a group of people with the same name and different personalities are forced to spend most of their lives together, plenty of uncomfortable moments are sure to follow," say Mike and Doug in the introduction to the book.
And when a camera is there to capture one of these moments, an awkward family photo is born.
"It's a skiing photo, and my Dad's fiftieth birthday - and my brother and I were asked to pose," says Mike, 35. "It's a very painful memory for me. It was so uncomfortable. And I said to her, 'Why? Why are you hanging it up?' And she said, 'It's a nice photo.' Doug and I went out to lunch that week, and he said, I have a ton of those photos. And we thought, if we have them, everybody has them. So we decided to set up a family-friendly website to give everyone the comfort of sharing them."
So in February this year, AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com was born. Neither Mike nor Doug had any technical expertise. "It took us two days to post a Facebook page," says Doug, 36. "We'd never done anything digitally before," says Mike. "We thought, what the hell are we doing?" But they persevered. The website was launched, and they got a modest 20 or 30 hits.
But by the end of the first week - thanks in part to a bit of publicity from a friend who worked for a radio station in Rhode Island - they had over a million visitors. Demi Moore is a fan, as is Matt Damon, Andy Roddick, David Byrne and Graham Norton. Photos kept pouring in from all over the world - from Australia, Norway, Brazil, Latvia, China and the UK. "What's really clear is that awkward family photos are a really universal thing," says Mike. "'It doesn't matter where you are in the world."
Mike and Doug now get about 250 photos a day, sent in by teenagers, mothers, fathers and grandparents. "Every now and thensomeone will send in a photo and we'll post it, and then a sister or a brother might contact us and say, you know, I'm not so happy about that photo being on the site, and we'll just take it down," says Mike. "We're not looking to embarrass anyone. We started this for fun, and we want everyone involved to enjoy it, too."
So do Mike and Doug have any tips for how to take the perfect family shot? Mike laughs. "Don't avoid the mistakes," he says. "We like them. In real family photos, the imperfections shine through.
Families aren't perfect - siblings fight, parents drag you off somewhere and you're miserable - but these candid moments are the most interesting.
Photographs like these, they believe, celebrate the family experience and shine a light on all those deliciously awkward moments that come with the price of membership.
What about formal studio portraits taken by professional photographers? Are they any less revealing? "Even with studio shots, they're only polished on the surface,' says Doug. "You get little glimpses of family dynamics - body language and sideways glances."
We're all in this together. No one takes the perfect family photograph. So the next time my Mum brings out the camera, I won't hide under the table. I'll just send it on to Mike and Doug in a gesture of solidarity.
Awkward Family Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack is published by Hodder and Stoughton in hardback, priced £12.99.