“Awkward” brings the quirks and imperfections of family life into focus at ESMoA

By Christina Campodonico

From the funny to the downright bizarre, “Awkward” showcases all the eccentricities that bind families together

In the age of Instagram, the quality of a photo is not only measured by the number of likes, comments, or shares it receives, but also by how it’s hued, how precisely it’s cropped, or how effectively it conveys the photographer’s “brand voice” and #aesthetic. In such a world, it may be hard to share a photo that isn’t picture perfect or, God forbid — unfiltered.

But “Awkward,” the El Segundo Museum of Art’s current exhibition showcasing some of the most cringe-worthy family photos from Mike Bender and Doug Chernack’s blog Awkward Family Photos, wants to show off the kind of Kodak moments that are powerful because they’re so imperfect.

“Everything runs through this filter of ‘I want to look perfect. I want to look happy. I want to show everybody the whole family just looking perfect,’” Bender, who also co-curates “Awkward,” says of the Instagram-conscious world we live in. “That’s the image you want to convey to your neighbors and your friends and family. We all know that is not life. Life is messy, and sometimes the kids don’t want to behave. Sometimes the parents are frustrated. That’s really what Awkward Family Photos is about. It’s really about calling out and celebrating those uncomfortable moments in life.”

And there are plenty scattered throughout “Awkward”— a sad boy sticking his head into a pumpkin patch photo cutout, a crying child in the arms of a bug-eyed Big Bird, three kids posing with Santa (who has a black eye) and a goth teen going against the grain by wearing all black on the beach.

“Some are really just kind of laugh-out-loud, and others are like headscratchers,” says Bender of the collection.

Adding to the awkwardness is the retro look of many of the exhibit’s vintage photos — sepia-toned portraits, Coke-bottle glasses, ’60s style haircuts and fashions so passé they’re funny (like matching plaid or denim outfits, and Halloween pumpkin suits for every member of the family, including the daughter’s American Girl doll.)

“It has a very sort of, homey vibe,” says Bender. “It’s hung parlor-style. It’s like you’re walking through someone’s living room, and you’re seeing all these family photos up on wallpapered walls. … Everything is framed in a vintage frame of the era when it was taken.”

But Bender says it isn’t just the dated look of some of the exhibit’s photos that qualifies them as awkward. “Clarinet Boy” — a ’90s school picture of a band-uniformed clarinetist holding his prized instrument, layered over a very serious profile of the ginger-haired young man — is “like the Mona Lisa of the Awkward Family Photos,” says Bender, and plenty of contemporary photos make the cut.

“There’s just as many photos from the last five years in the exhibition as there are older ones,” he says, referencing a very today-ish looking photo of a couple walking on the beach hand-in-hand with their two young children. The photographer managed to capture a moment when the couple trips and ends up tossing their kids into the air — the younger one (a mere babe) flipping upside down, while the mother gasps in horror.

“Luckily the kid was totally fine,” says Bender, who also collects the stories behind each photo. “So that’s a great example of, ‘Can you still have awkward photos now?’ Well, yes, you can.”

If anything, the rise of social media since Awkward Family Photos’ founding in 2009 has made people more willing to share their odd and embarrassing Kodak moments.

“There’s a comfort level now with that, that maybe didn’t exist a few years ago,” says Bender. “People might have felt, ‘Oh, this is too private to share an old photo.’ But now, it’s like everybody feels comfortable at this point sharing photos. So, if anything, it just means there’s more content out there.”

And like a burgeoning family, the awkwardness continues to grow, as Bender continues to update the Awkward Family Photos blog with new images and enlarge its IRL showcase with new submissions from every place the exhibit goes. Since holding its first show at Santa Monica’s California Heritage Museum four years ago, Awkward Family Photos has traveled to New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Canada.

“Each community contributes their awkward photos and then we end up inducting those photos into the exhibition itself. So I kind of think about the exhibition as like a living, breathing thing that keeps traveling around the country and growing,” says Bender, noting that you can contribute your own awkward family photos to the El Segundo exhibition, too. “This really represents a cross-section of the country.”

Ultimately, Bender hopes that everyone will see a little bit of their own family in the collection.

“They are a snapshot into a family life,” says Bender. “It doesn’t matter what era you come from, or what era you were born in, what decade, what generation you’re from. Awkwardness is universal. It defies race, language, time. As long as there have been families, there’s been awkwardness.”


“Awkward” remains on view from 1 to
8 p.m. Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through April 28 at ESMoA, 208 Main St., El Segundo. Free. Visit esmoa.org for exhibit info, or email submit@artlab21.org to offer your own awkward family photo to ESMoA’s Photo Festival “This is Awkward.”