Thursday, July 21, 2011

Family photos as entertainment (11 May 2009)

Over the past few days, several sources have linked to this site, Awkward Family Photos. I couldn't resist looking through them, but I wondered at the weird enjoyment the site offered. I felt sort of ashamed looking at them, creepily voyeuristic. It's not clear that the people in the photos were the ones submitting them to the site (though that is probably the case with most of them) and this ambiguity makes me feel mean to be snickering. The site seems to want to capitalize on the premise that we all feel somewhat uncomfortable with our families, in the midst of them, being forced to surrender our nonfamily identity to merge with them. After all, aren't all staged family photos awkward? How could they possibly not be? What is comfortable and natural about family life is fluid, inherently casual, intimate, hard to define and convey. With formal photos, someone is always imposing their ideal or the image they wish to project to the outside world onto the rest of the family, who must subordinate their individuality. Worse, some of the other family members might rebel against the conceit of the photo and make embarrassing gestures at rebellion within the camera frame when the only successful rebellion would be to refuse to participate at all. So family photos inevitably become a record of these failed attempts to truly break away, or to truly accept one's family for what it is. It's very unlikely that there will be an occasion at which everyone who is obliged to pose is at peace with the circumstances and with their role in the family. Perhaps familial love is all about that tension -- between wanting to escape and wanting to be perfectly accepted.

So I guess the familiarity of that awkward feeling of not fitting in but also not opting out anchors our reactions to Awkward Family Photos, which then either provide comforting confirmation that everyone else's families are odd and awkward also, or give us a chance to gloat over the people who seem to have it even worse than we do. But generally, it is best not to judge what is going on within the obscure internal logic of other people's families. A lot of what seems perfectly natural to us in our own families will look to others like what's happening in the photos on the site.

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