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An awkward (but thankfully not fatal) family moment is captured for posterity. The website awkwardfamilyphotos.com is so popular that it has now spawned a book.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 5/19/2010 11:30:16 AM ET 2010-05-19T15:30:16

It could be Uncle Joe rocking a gravity-defying mullet, or the Smith clan wearing matching swimsuits on a family vacation. Maybe it’s a baby displaying a grimace of terror instead of a smile, or a family portrait in which one member stands out for the wrong reason.

When it comes to photography, “family” is the awkward gift that keeps on giving. And recognizing that, boyhood pals Mike Bender and Doug Chernack have turned embarrassing, often cringe-worthy snapshots into a booming industry. First they took photos that used to gather dust in the back of family albums into an online showcase, and now they’re giving the world a chance to chuckle at them on the printed page.

Bender told Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb on TODAY Wednesday that the popularity of the pair’s website made putting out a book a no-brainer. “People send pictures to our website, and that’s where we got the photos we put in the book.”

The L.A.-based screenwriters have turned AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com into one of the biggest sensations on the Internet, with some 15 million people a month visiting the site to ogle families posing at their embarrassing best. And now their book “Awkward Family Photos” will debut at No. 3 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Birth of a notion
Bender said he has learned what is embarrassing to him would delight others, which hatched the idea with Chernack for the website.

“It started out with a vacation photo my mother hung up in our house,” he told Gifford and Kotb, pointing to a ski photo of his teen self and saying, “I’m the young lady right there.”

Some awkward photos reveal a lot about the personalities of family members.
“She hung the photo up and I was very confused why she would hang it up because it was an awkwardly painful memory for me. Doug and I were out to lunch that week, and Doug said he had a ton of those photos. We thought, ‘What if we could create a place on the web where people would feel comfortable sharing all their uncomfortable family photos?’ ”

Skeletons in the closet
What’s most amazing about Bender and Chernack’s celebration of the goofy family aesthetic is that, since their site launched 13 months ago, families have seemed more than willing to embarrass themselves. The pair began by posting their own family photos and those of a few friends, and things quickly snowballed.

They say there is a “me, too!” element for families wanting to show that they are not alone at having uncomfortable, often-posed photos lurking like skeletons in the family’s closet. Within days of launching, the website crashed. And the pair say they receive some 6,000 submissions a month.

TODAY
Sometimes it’s clothing that makes a family photo awkward; sometimes it’s an embarrassing incident. In this case it’s both.
Some pictures have an air of nostalgia — 1980s photos showing some of the worst hairstyles in history — and some are politically incorrect: One showed a gun rack on the wall of a baby nursery. Bender and Chernack say they actually prefer older photos (or at least ones taken before the website launched) to ensure the pictures haven’t been digitally altered to catch their eye. Their motto: “Awkwardness is all about not realizing you’re being awkward.”

Shirtless dads, scary bunnies
Bender and Chernack brought along some of their “greatest hits” family photos to show Gifford and Kotb, including babies crying on relatives’ laps, and in one decidedly head-scratching photo, a family gathered around in matching pajamas – expect for pops, who went shirtless.

“Shirtless fathers seem to be a theme on our site,” Bender said.

Chernack noted some photo themes tend to feed on each other: when they posted a photo of a child whose faced was fixed in fear while sitting on a giant Easter bunny’s lap, they were deluged with similar photos.

“We had no idea for frightening these blown up Easter bunnies really can look,” Chernack said.

Awkward or inappropriate?
Bender and Chernack work hard to keep the site family-friendly, and admit there can be a thin line between the awkward and the inappropriate. Risque photos aren’t posted on-line and didn’t make it into the book, either.

TODAY
Inthe spirit of the occasion, TODAY’s Hoda Kotb shared an awkward family photo of her own.
Likewise, Bender and Chernack try their best to keep out of family feuds. They say they’ve seen family dynamics play out in dramatic fashion — one family member may submit an embarrassing photo, and then the pair catch heck from an offended relative. Those pictures are immediately taken down in an attempt to preserve familial harmony, they say.

Gifford and Kotb played along with the awkward family photo game, bringing along some of their own. Gifford showed a photo of her younger self draped across her sister, while Kotb was brave enough to show her fifth-grade class photo in all her kinky-hair and glasses glory.

Video: Snapshots capture families’ awkward moments Bender and Chernack said they have no shortage of material for future books.

“We keep getting more and more photos, and because of the book, we’re getting a ton of photos,” Bender said. “We’re having so much fun doing it.”

Their next goal is to put awkwardness into motion by posting awkward family videos — because when it comes to capturing skin-scratching family moments, too much is never enough.

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