Mike Bender (’97), the co-founder of the Awkward Family Photos website, book, and photo exhibit is a Middlebury graduate. This past Saturday, Oct. 25, Bender gave a “Gallery Talk” about his career as a curator of awkward family photos. His talk was especially relevant because it was Fall Parent’s Weekend.
About 80 people filled Wilson Hall in McCullough auditorium to hear Bender articulate what has motivated him to collect more than 2,000 awkward family photos over the past five years. “We’ve all been awkward at some point in our lives,” he said, eliciting laughter from a crowd comprised mostly of parents accompanied by their college-aged offspring. With regard to the forced happiness that people try to conjure for family portraits, Bender said, “family is not all smiles, it’s all the things in between.”
One of Bender’s guiding tenants is that “family is awkward… When a group of people with the same last name and different personalities are forced to spend most of their lives together, plenty of uncomfortable moments are sure to follow.” Surveying the immediate milieu of Middlebury family units, however, the adjective “awkward” didn’t jump out immediately. Instead, I saw a sea of people that could stand in for Gap models: preppy fall coats, smart eyewear; mothers with tidy haircuts of convincingly youthful hues wearing Lululemon exercise jackets and clogs; fathers sporting college baseball caps, sensible slip-on Merrell shoes, pastel button-up shirts, and of course, sweater vests.
But maybe the acute conventionality of the average Middlebury family translates into some incongruous family photos. Michelle Yang ’17.5 particularly appreciates the medium of the family portrait because “It’s one snapshot that doesn’t capture the intricacies of a family,” she says. “You don’t know who’s on good terms with whoever, or if dinner sucked last night. You don’t get that.” In other words, family photos are most interesting when they communicate dynamics that the family is not trying to advertise. The discrepancy between the sought-after impression and the unintentionally implied reality makes us laugh.
The live portraits of student-parent relationships provided over Fall Parent’s Weekend at Middlebury probably reflect Yang’s opinion. They are most interesting to observe when they reveal clues to the tone of interaction at the dinner table, to internal antagonisms and alliances, to mutually tolerated nuisances – the things that represent us sincerely, if uncomfortably.
In the spirit of unapologetically embracing family awkwardness, middbeat invites you to submit photos of yourself or your family. Preferably aged ones, because your recent family photos could only be graceful and alluring, right?
All photos can be submitted to middbeatATgmailDOTcom with the subject heading FAMILY PHOTOS. The photos will be featured on middbeat and the most awkward or entertaining photo will receive a prize!