Awkward Family Photos Is Playing in Peoria

Like a long family road trip, the hilarious exhibition of awkward photos featuring kith and kin makes a stop in Illinois

"Wind Beneath My Wings"
"What About Grandma"
"Wagon Trouble"
"Usual Suspects"
"True Colors"
"Toga Party"
"The Picking"
"The Oversmile"
"The Joker"
"The Delicates"
"Suspicious Minds"
"Snake Charmer"
"Black Hole Son"
"Red in the Face"
"Reach Out and Touch"
"Pillow Talk"
"Picture Perfect"
"Petting Zoo"
"Life Aquatic"
"Fresh Air"
"Double Vision"
"Eye Contact"

Adriana Yoguvich’s fame was of dubious distinction. When the 38-year-old woman showed up at an exhibition displaying a pantheon of regrettable snapshots, portraits and other photographic bloopers, “it was like a celebrity showed up,” said Mike Bender, one of two founders behind

Yoguvich’s childhood picture posing in a pink tutu and gamely sporting jazz hands was like any other tucked into family albums. But her indecently torn tights won her an honored glory among the awkward.

Bender and cofounder Doug Chernack created the website in 2009, inviting applicants motivated by narcissism, catharsis or just a healthy sense of humor to send in embarrassing photos. The site went viral within a week. Soon came merchandise—books, cards, posters, T-shirts, games and calendars.

Finally in 2014, the collection moved from Internet sensation to museums, with a traveling exhibition that has graced the galleries of such esteemed venues as the California Heritage Museum, Middlebury College and the Southampton Arts Center in New York.

Its current home is the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Illinois, a Smithsonian affiliate.

In Peoria, the museum will complement the exhibit on September 27 with a guest lecture on the evolutionary history of family tension and awkwardness, featuring Knox College professor of psychology Frank McAndrew.

The lecture covers family dynamicss, or what’s going on subconsciously when family members bring out the awkward, the weird and even the worst in each other. As museum curator Kristan McKinsey puts it, “How [families] really work compared to how they are supposed to work.”

“One thing that makes your relatives different from everyone in the world is that you share genes with them,” says McAndrew. “You have a stake in your relatives you don’t have in anyone else. At the same time, those are the people who are your fiercest competition for attention from parents, for resources.

“Caring about these people and wanting them gone at the same time sets the stage for a lot of what happens in life,” he says.

He summarized what’s happening in many of the photos, particularly those taken over the holidays, as “a toxic mix of genetic obligation and grudges held in the past [that] comes together in these artificial situations when they want the day to be perfect.

“We have a very strong tendency to hold grudges” and because family members are in your life forever, “these grudges can pile up and create some hard feelings.”

Of course, not all of the photos are so painful. Others are harmless and humorous, and McKinsey hopes those may even be instructional. “We will have a workshop on how to take good photographs—how not to take awkward photographs.”

To McKinsey, the exhibition’s appeal certainly is similar to television's "America’s Funniest Home Videos."

"We always delight in laughing at other people’s stupidity, but that’s not all this is about. … The educational takeaway is both thinking about family dynamics and relationships and also [learning to focus on] what’s going to be in the shot.”

Each exhibition of the collection has been unique, a word that comes up not infrequently as a euphemism to describe the photographs themselves. In Santa Monica, for instance, a local news station covered Adriana Yugovich’s visit to see the exhibition, and she ultimately made an appearance on the "Queen Latifa" show, dressed up and posed like her old photo. 

“We’ve had 12 families so far come to the exhibition,” Bender says. “We have a master list of where they are in the country and write to the folks anywhere near [an exhibition venue].

“It really is a kind of study of contemporary family and life,” he adds. One might take away from it, then, that all happy families are alike; every awkward family is awkward in its own way.

McAndrew, however, argues that all families are awkward, period: “I think some families are better at the PR end of managing the image they put out in the world, but dig a little ... ”

He hopes when people see the exhibition, they’ll feel better about their own families. “You walk around thinking your family is dysfunctional losers, and then you see the photos,” he says. “The only difference between them and me is they have pictures [in the show]—ours are buried.”

The Awkward Family Photos exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum is on view through November 15, 2015.

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