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AWKWARD FAMILY PET PHOTO
Authors Mike Bender and Doug Chernack have created a cottage industry by publishing awkward family photos in books and on the web. Their latest is "Awkward Family Pet Photos" (Three Rivers Press). | Courtesy of Awkward Family Pet Photos

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy famously began his epic "Anna Karenina" by claiming happy families are all alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Writers Mike Bender and Doug Chernack have also found something else that's universal with modern families: all of them, happy and sad, have taken awkward family photos.

They made this discovery through a life-changing lunch in 2009.

"I went home for the weekend, and Mom was hanging up a really awkward vacation photo," Bender told HuffPost Weird News. "I told Doug and he said, 'I have a ton of those,' and then we thought, if we have them, other people must have them too."

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At the time, Bender was a screenwriter whose most successful film was the comedy "Not Another Teen Movie," while Chernack was working in reality TV and helped create an E! series called "Star Dates," where average Americans were fixed up on blind dates with celebrities like Gary Coleman, Butch "Eddie Munster" Patrick and Jimmie "J.J." Walker from the 1970s-era sitcom "Good Times."

"We had no grand vision, but we knew we better get the site up quick," Chernack admitted.

Recognizing this little fact has helped Bender and Chernack corner the market for embarrassing family pictures through websites like AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com and its companion, animal-oriented sister site AwkwardFamilyPetPhotos.com, and a budding book franchise that includes the latest book "Awkward Family Pet Photos" from Three Rivers Press.

Diligent combing of family photos has also taught them some basic truths about awkward family photos and, perhaps, awkward families in general.

"Anything that involves a unified formation, such as ascending from the smallest member of the family to the largest, or matching outfits is bound to be awkward," Bender said. "It's very funny to us that a family that is related feels the need to accentuate that even more by getting matching outfits."

Chernack agrees.

"Matching outfits still crack us up," he said. "Also, anything that inadvertantly reveals the family dynamic, like if the brother or sister don't get along, or if Dad is yelling at the daughter."

As Bender puts it, "People work so hard trying to capture the family in a perfect light."

Of course, add an animal to the mix and perfection -- or at least a controlled atmosphere -- falls to the wayside. But it's not the pet's fault.

"Pets are not awkward," Bender insisted. "We are the awkward ones. What have we done to our pets that we feel the need to bring them to a photo studio to pose with Santa?"

The duo take their dedication to documenting awkwardness seriously. For the new book, they combed through thousands of submitted photos before narrowing it down to 280.

In the process, they learned that the more unusual the animal, the greater chance of awkwardness in the photo.

"Really, it doesn't matter what the pet is," Bender said. "However, posing a squirrel, raccoon or opossum does make the photo more awkward because we're not used to seeing them."

Chernack adds that the solitary nature of cats can add a unique dimension to an already awkward family photo.

"Cats are more observant [about the awkwardness], while dogs tend to go along out of loyalty," he said. "On the other hand, our book features people with cougars, snakes, skunks and rats and there's a commonality among the owners. All the love a person has for their skunk is the same as someone else has for a cat or a dog."

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