What Is it With My Family’s Love of Awkward Photo Shoots?

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I know that lots of families do photo shoots, and that maybe, when I was a kid, it was a little unfair of me to get so annoyed by them. But now that I’m an adult with my own kids, I’m STILL annoyed by them. I feel that teenage anger rising up every single time there’s another one. Doesn’t matter that I’m 39; there it is, rearing its irritated head all over again.

Generally, my family is pretty non-traditional, which I admire and appreciate. Yearly, though, there’s a burst of tradition that merges with the worst of their eccentricities and we end up with the most annoying family photo shoots in human history.

Let me just make this disclaimer: None of these shoots were ever my mother’s idea, nor did she participate in them. She would never have done that to us! It’s all my father’s side of the family. For years I assumed it was just my grandparents, but after my grandfather died, my father picked up the torch, not just embracing the photo sessions but also the unpleasant, large parties that seem to go hand-in-hand with them. My father’s family loves a gigantic party, the kind where there are place cards to prevent you from sitting with your fellow troublemaker siblings, speeches (usually scheduled before the food everybody’s waiting for), and a good hour or two of pre-meal mingling, so all the old folks who knew you when you were a toddler can come up and remind you that you, too, will one day age terribly and bore people decades younger than you are.

Then, it’s photo time. They gather us up somewhere, usually a place where we feel especially uncomfortable, and either require us to wear “dress-up” clothes we aren’t comfortable in, or worse, some sort of matching t-shirts created specifically for the event. The other partygoers wander in and out, becoming our unwanted witnesses. The photographers, inevitably, make it even more painful, although the locations, the outfits, and the final products are all pieces of the same obnoxious puzzle. Here, I’ll break it down:

1. The photographers

They’re awful.

There was the guy who kept calling my sister and me “sweetie” through gritted teeth as he arranged us down to the angle of our bent knees. He didn’t even know enough to physically move or Photoshop out the plants in the background, so in the final shot, it looked like one of them was growing out of my cousin’s head.  

There was the woman who probably thought she was cajoling us but was really berating us as she squeezed us in closer and closer to each other, then tried to re-position individuals by pointing vaguely and yelling, “You! No, YOU!” and wondering why the wrong person kept moving, inevitably edging over in the wrong direction. Finally she resorted to nicknames that were just as unspecific. “You! Curls! Move closer in!”

Curls?

At least in those pictures we’re laughing … at the photographer. My brother, an excellent photographer himself, got revenge for us by snapping a picture of her with her arm stretched out, pointer finger extended, mouth open, eyes angry. My sister keeps it on her iPhone and shows it to us again every time we see her. It never gets old.

Whoever they were, wherever we found ourselves, they’d make it worse than it had to be. They’d put us in direct sunlight, deny us sunglasses, and complain that we were squinting. They’d fuss and adjust and tweak and bully and then deliver photos where half of us were in the shade and half in bright light, faces shadowed and features obscured. They’d position us just so, in the most unnatural of postures, then complain when we moved an elbow or knee, but be baffled by our inability to muster up natural smiles. Have you ever tried to smile while you were massively irritated? It isn’t pretty.

2. The outfits

Yes, there are outfits.

They range from plain t-shirts of the same color to custom-made ones with our extended family tree printed on them, and then, at its absolute worst, lab coats with letters that spelled out a word when we faced forward and another when we turned around.

This year, a few days before a much-anticipated family vacation in Spain, an e-mail arrived from my otherwise quite charming and lovable dad: “We have finally found 20 matching shirts for all of you for the photo session! We want each family alone and then a few of us all together.”

Finally? This was the first we’d heard of it. My joke about how he would have been smarter to wait until we were already headed his way on airplanes before making such a statement did not amuse. And yes, my t-shirt was too small. Fortunately, I am familiar with the age-old trick of holding a child in front of me in photos to mask such a problem.

3. The locations

They’re usually places where we feel especially uncomfortable, like a country club. Whenever I’m in one of them, I can’t help but wonder if they used to exclude Jews like us in decades long past.

One year, we all had to pose in a hotel lobby, where the belligerent photographer spent agonizing hours adjusting each and every one of us. People we actually knew walked by, and laughed at us. We heard wisecracks.

At the most recent one, we were on the steps of a beautiful old church by the beach in Spain … obstructing the path of everyone who came to see the sights. Yes, they laughed at us too. In Spanish.

4. The photos

The pictures line the walls of my father’s apartment, documenting the years of our discomfort. I don’t even know what he likes about them! We all look awkward and unhappy, forced smiles on our faces, squeezed together by some stranger who arranged us by height instead of allowing us to express natural closeness and affection. My siblings and I love each other dearly and relish any chance to be together, but the photos capture none of this; we look as miserable as we did when we were teenagers.

He always gives us a copy to keep in a frame, wrapped like a wonderful, thoughtful gift. The frames are always beautiful; we usually take out the family picture and replace it with a photo we like better.

The latest gift was the one of just our family, posed in front of the Spanish church. We liked this photographer because he didn’t speak English and took the pictures in record time; we knew why when we pried open the bubble wrap to see the results. The church is the star in this one, with the four of us in the foreground, reflecting the sun in our blinding white t-shirts, the print on them so small that you can’t even tell they’re identical. It’s a pretty nice picture of the church, though.

I promise my children, now that they too have to participate in this lunacy, that I will never make them do this myself. But then I get worried. What if it’s a recessive gene that’ll kick in when I hit a certain age? Suddenly instead of photographing them having fun, playing, jumping around on the beach or running around the playground, I’ll be shoehorning them into formal attire or matching outfits, lining them up in rows with their cousins, and yelling at them for not looking like they’re enjoying themselves? What if it happens to me, too?

If it does, shoot me.  

Photo: Getty