To avoid this blog becoming rather too focused on selfies, I’m now going to look at something a bit different, but that still demonstrates how photography and discipline go hand in hand.
The website Awkward Family Photos has spawned a number of imitators, has been published as a book, and even been turned into a board game: (I told you that the photographic regulation of subjects was becoming normalized as a form of leisure, didn’t I?)
So what is it that makes the site so popular? I would argue that there are three elements to this:
1. It features people who are either rebelling against, or unaware of, the ‘rules’ of photographic portraiture. Through gesture, expression, pose and so on, these subjects are found to be amusing because they are making the act of being photographed blatantly obvious – through being caught mid-fall, mid-sneeze, or in a moment which is otherwise ‘not ready’ for the camera. Rather than comply with the suggestion that the camera can merely capture the harmonious and socially-acceptable selves we present ready-made to it, these images demonstrate the artifice involved in such a process, and what happens when the chaos of life is not adequately suppressed.
2. The site features subjects who are somehow other to ‘us’, the viewers. In this way, it is similar to People of Walmart, in that we are expected to derive viewing pleasure from identifying the difference between ‘their’ clothing / hairstyles / decor etc and ‘ours’. Sometimes this difference is temporal – “look at those 70s flares!”. At other times the difference is cultural or generational. But although some images suggest a more generalised sense of laughing at the hilarity of family life, many more examples focus on problematic subjects – the irregulars, the oddly-dressed and the social outsiders. If one is expected to look at these images and smile with recollection at one’s own family snaps, we are also expected to know that our families are not like this – are strange, but not this strange.
3. On a level beneath the amusement at others’ clothing, I argue that there is an implied sense of superiority at the subjects we are observing. Whether accompanying the image of a heavily pregnant pin-up, or the family hugging with an adult film playing in the background, there appears to be a moral criticism simply by virtue of being displayed here. These subjects are collected together because they are doing something awkward, something not socially sanctioned, something weird. And here we are all given the opportunity to look at them, to nod and to agree – and to marvel at why people would not just be like this, but be like this in front of a camera. Because having one’s picture taken has moral implications – it opens us up to the judgement of others, and makes claims about the self to people who do not know the subject, but who may want to derive pleasure from finding something non-normative, something deviant, in their photographic depictions.
My next task will be to make some sort of list or database of all the other sites I have been looking at over the past two and a half years which demonstrate this regulatory drive. Needless to say, there’s quite a lot of them.