Awkward Family Photos Are Out for the Holidays This Year

If you have or are part of something called a "family," you can bet that someone's going to want, need, and expect a photo of the two or three or five or 17 of you this season. And these days, they expect you looking cheery and doing something fun.

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If you have or are part of something called a "family," you can bet that someone's going to want, need, and expect a photo of the two or three or five or 17 of you this season. Preferably looking cheery. People are so demanding! Perhaps the creation of this photo has been accomplished already and the photo itself is now sealed in an envelope, on its way to whomever wherever. "Planners" have been on this for months now, orchestrating photo sessions with everyone seated perfectly like mannequins of themselves, all dressed up in matching white shirts and khakis or coordinating red and green sweater sets.

Others of us are more casual, and might be late to the game. We might not even send holiday cards (don't tell!) in favor of just posting a candid take or two on Facebook or sending photos by email to those who need to see them. And, frankly, we prefer the action photo, the scene from last year's festivities: Uncle Joe asleep on the couch after a few too many cabernets, a fake Santa beard on his face and your brother is giving him bunny ears while little Millicent, the baby, is tearing a fruitcake to shreds in the foreground with great resolve.

But however you do it and whatever form it takes, the taking of that family photos has generally been something of a big deal, with plenty of ways to go wrong even before you get to the phase of laboriously choosing the one in which everyone's eyes are open. How do you take a good family photo? Is there such a thing as a good family photo? The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger discusses this family matter in an article Thursday, writing, "Few holiday customs expose more intergenerational stress than posing for the family photo — that all-important image that gets plastered onto 150 gilt-edged cards or tucked into mom's annual family brag letter."

You are supposed to look happy. Clean. "Nice." Relatively pleased to be in close proximity to these people to whom you're related, whether that's true or not. (This is why sometimes the best family photos arise not at the holidays but well before, when everyone's relaxed and enjoying themselves on, say, a luxurious beach vacation.) In order to get the best take, and make things a bit less stressful — things that apparently work in collusion — Shellenbarger explains that people are expanding beyond that "Everyone dress up and put a smile on your face and stand there and deal until we're done" mentality. The times are changing! People are instead sending holiday photos of actual fun things they did together as a family, not just the faux-fun time of standing in a photographer's studio while a good shot was coerced and everyone sighed inwardly over and over again. More creative types are satirizing their family photos, making them cartoons. Others do a nice portrait, and then jump in a lake together, capturing that moment, too. (Clearly the lake photo is the better option.) Parents will secretly request heckling from photographers to get their teens to loosen up, or photographers will let teens do ridiculous photos if they take the nice, placid, formal one first.

But some grownup kids are rejecting the idea of the family photo completely. According to Shellenbarger, "When Nancy Caselli asked Lisa, her daughter, and sons Bryan, 23, and Stephen, 26, to line up in nice clothes for a holiday photo last year, 'we all looked at each other and said, 'No, Mom, we're not going to,' Lisa says. 'We laughed at her idea.'" (Bryan then created a satirical cartoon depicting the family, and that was the Christmas card, instead.)

Of course, taking purposely awkward and strange photos as well as recognizing awkwardly hilarious ones from yesteryear has been a thing for a while now, but it appears we may be ushering in a whole new era of family photos. Contrived and staged is out. Casual and real is in. Actually doing stuff is in. No more dysfunctional family drama covered in coordinated clothing; instead, real family drama (or happiness) front and center for the world to see, fanny packs and all. So, if someone's making you dress up in matching attire to get your photo taken in a forced setting, tell them that they need to take you on a family trip to the Taj Mahal instead. Or, just smile and let them take the picture. It only happens once a year. Who has stamps?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.