The Story Behind Awkward Family Photos -- and Now the Book

7 years ago

The beautiful awkwardness of Awkward Family is now a book -- what creators and authors Mike Bender and Doug Chernack call "America's ultimate family photo album."   I spoke with them just before it hit last week's New York Times bestseller list about their year of living -- immediately, successfully -- awkwardly. 

Awkward Family Photos launched last year, when co-creator Bender noticed himself in an awkward family ski trip photo at his parents' house. He showed it to Chernack who said he had his own family material to contribute. Concluding that awkwardness and discomfort were better shared, they set up the site, began posting photos and calling for submissions. A friend posted the link on his Rhode Island radio station website -- a station that happened to be affiliated with Clear Channel radio.

"It was a very weird situation, where radio was kind of creating the traffic," Bender said. "It happened in a matter of two to three days, we went from ten hits to a million hits."

The immediate and enthusiastic response happens, they say, because most people can relate to the material, like it or not.

"The idea is tapping into something that is relatable and universal for everybody," Bender said. "Everyone can relate on some level to having an awkward family moment."

And while the site and book poke gentle fun at families, the authors say it is meant in fun and solidarity.

"We're not putting photos up there to just rip on people," Bender said. "We believe that awkward is a cool thing and we're celebrating it. We're all kind of putting ourselves out there and laughing at ourselves."

Their favorite photos are of holidays, with vacations a close second. 

"We get so many good holiday photos," Chernack said. "Families are's a time of year when awkward photos are most abundant. And there are so many good vacation photos. You're a kid, you're stuck with your family, you can feel the tensions."

Book offers were rolling in by June, while the pair handled the joys and pain of managing a viral pop culture sensation. They were completely overwhelmed, Bender said. The site kept crashing. It took them two days to figure out how to set up a Facebook page. 

But they soldiered on, and soon began to envision a book. Their editor Suzanne O'Neal from Three Rivers Press made an immediate impression by submitting an awkward family photo -- from her family. 

"We loved that," Bender said. "She just got it." 

The book is no repurposed and packaged website, the authors say. Of the 300 photos in the book, 200 have not been seen before. There is also a "Behind the Awkwardness" section that explains the stories behind some of the more curious photographs. 

"We just wanted to make sure it was really different from the site," said Chernack. And of the most awkward of awkward photos, Bender says, "You think, 'What is going on in that photo? How did that photo come about?'"

This section is different from the "Stories" section on the website, that contains gems like the Awkward Family Itinerary for a child's first birthday party and a very popular Thanksgiving Letter that they say they tried to include in the book but couldn't get permission.

The book also includes a section of confessions from portrait photographers -- the Sears and Olan Mills variety -- who responded to an ad on Craigslist and talked about what Bender and Chernack call the "conspiracy" to put children and families in "1950s poses," in hopes of better sales. Think those wooden fences and strobe effects were a coincidence? Think again.

Awkward Family Photos receives about 200 submissions per day, on what Chernack says is an honor system that the person owns the photo and has the right to share it. Permissions for the book were a different, more complicated story. The pair worked for months with their very small staff to track down permissions from everyone featured in the book. 

"I was faxing contracts to a person in Latvia who had access to a fax machine once a week," Bender said. "We had no idea what we'd signed up for." 

Many people featured in photos on Awkward Family Photos and in the book have embraced the role, with many even showing up at signings. One man featured with an unfortunate stain on his pants in a holiday photo has come to be known even beyond the site as "The Dribbler." 

"He actually signs his e-mails 'The Dribbler,'" Bender said. "He's known in Philly."

Bender and Chernack say while there may be some attempts at awkwardness now that the site is such a big hit, they can still separate the real deal from the staged. 

"We get a lot of stuff in Christmas sweaters," Bender said. "It's obvious when people send a photo and they're trying to be awkward...there's something about a photo that feels genuine as opposed to staged."

They are ultimately dedicated to keeping it fun for the whole family, they say, and want the site and its publications to be safe for kids as well as grown-ups to enjoy.

"We are very mindful of doing the book and keeping it family friendly," Bender says, adding that they are especially careful about what photos they post of children. "We've had a few people let us know that they looked at the book with their kids."

Bender and Chernack still do Awkward Family Photos as a side job, continuing to work as screenwriters -- Bender wrote 2001's Not Another Teen Movie, among others, and Chernack has worked in reality television. They are planning new features on the site that they can't yet elaborate on, they said, but it's safe to say the awkwardness will expand.

"Our feeling is there are so many other situations and relationships that are awkward that it's easy to expand upon." 

One such recent feature was the Magruber Awkward Mullet Contest, tied in with the theatrical release of Magruber, the movie.  The winner out of ten pages of submissions scored just shy of 19,000 votes.

"We've got mullets now," Bender said. "We've really grown." 

Bender and Chernack will be on tour with the book through the summer, and personalized copies may be purchased through their website. 

Meanwhile they feel they've met their goal of building a collective of family photos,  Bender said. "This ultimate awkward family photo album."

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites

Photos Courtesy of Awkward Family Photos

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