“Life has loveliness to sell. Buy it; never count the cost.” – Sara Teasdale
You might think that the very first wedding I ever photographed was what inspired me to become a wedding photographer. You might think that I left that first-ever wedding with a spring in my step and a song in my heart.
You would be wrong.
At the end of the first wedding I ever photographed, I called my best friend and said something along the lines of, “F*ck this sh*t.”
(Not to put too fine a point on it or anything.)
See, weddings didn’t come naturally to me. They were an uncomfortable mingling of awkward family photos and erratic emotions. They demanded that I be everything at once: efficient, artistic, sensitive, focused, connected, unaffected, conscientious, and highly organized – to name a few. And, at 19, I was lucky to nail just one of those on any given day.
I didn’t feel wedding photography for another couple of years, when, at 21, a coworker asked if I would take pictures at her tiny backyard wedding. My only camera was an all-manual Mamiya 645, a medium format clunker not at all well-suited to documentary image-making. But I didn’t know any better, so off I trotted with a $350 check and 10 rolls of 120 film, eager to make a series of moving, Cartier-Bresson-esque photographs.
And it was at this itty-bitty, 50-guest, cake-and-Dixie-cups celebration that I found my heart.
It wasn’t the wedding. It was the people, and the tiny, barely perceptible moments. It was the light and the shadow and the laughter. It was the unexpectedness of everything, with no planner to keep a schedule and no band to announce the next event.
This little wedding set me on my path for the next wedding, and the next, and the next one after that.
Over the years that followed, I grew a casual Craigslist endeavor into a full-fledged business, shooting weddings for $500, then $1500, then $5000. Every year my income doubled, my client list grew, and my responsibilities weighed more heavily on my shoulders.
And before I knew it, I was back to where I had started, shooting frantic events in policy-smothered churches and questionably desegregated Southern country clubs. I was fending off handsy groomsmen and evading moody mothers. When a bride screamed – yes, screamed – at her maid of honor for wearing the wrong earrings, I knew something had to change.
Because once again I was on the phone, telling whoever would listen, “F*ck this sh*t.”
My motivation had never been the weddings themselves, the pomp and circumstance, the glitter and glamour. It had been the life and the celebration. It had been the people.
Where were those people, the couples who had drawn me into the bizarre world of wedding photography in the first place? Where were the lovers and the dreamers? Where were the simple couples in complicated love, focused less on holding bouquets and more on holding hands?
I blame the industry, in part. I really do. It’s hard to define, but there is a culture that permeates the world of weddings, perpetuated by media and money and – yes – even myself. Because how can a couple survive without a minimum of 8 hours of photographic coverage? How can two people expect to be happy if they don’t hire a team of at least 2 photographers? How can anyone find fulfillment with anything less than a handcrafted wedding album, imported from the other side of the globe?
I bought it for a long time, the lie that any one thing made a wedding what it was.
And I sold it.
“Friends marry Friends,” I read in a novel describing the Quaker wedding ceremony.
Quaker tradition holds that marriage is between two people, and those two people alone. It is not religious, but it is sacred. It is not a legal construct, but it is binding. There is no officiant. There are only the two Friends, becoming one family, surrounded by their loved ones.
This revelation nudged at the part of my soul that had loved weddings. It pricked at that callous in my heart that had grown tired of the tradition, weary of the ritual. It reminded me why I do what I do.
Not for album sales or print purchases. Not for newspapers or magazines or blogs.
I photograph weddings because a friend is marrying a friend, and such a milestone deserves to be documented. I photograph weddings because “sometimes the best historian is the artist.” I photograph weddings because there is life in celebration, there is purpose in community, there is fulfillment in every moment of loveliness we wring from this world.
While I’d been pouring my energies into sales pitches and marketing endeavors, I’d lost my heart for the beauty of this work. I’d forfeited my wonder at the mystery and the madness.
And I’d disconnected from couples who shared my values, and settled for couples as lost as I was – caught up in the posturing and the obligation and the process.
Perhaps, for some, that’s all a wedding is. Perhaps there are couples whose perfected, directed, impeccable wedding days will bring them joy for decades. We all have our truths to uncover, and who’s to say that I’m right and they’re wrong?
But I know what I believe. And I know what brings me joy. And I know that I’m not alone.
So I’m re-centering and letting go of the industry standards. I’m slowing down, and sifting through the crowd for the couples who are meant only for me. I’m closing my eyes to the trends and blocking my ears to the sales pitches. I’m returning to the love stories, the life stories, the families grown and growing.
After a months-long, soul-searching hiatus, I shot my first wedding of the fall in the mountains of north Georgia, an intimate affair with incessant laughter and flowing wine and homemade cakes and love… so much love. And when it was over, I picked up my phone.
And I told my best friend, “It was perfect.”
I know that not every wedding can be that wedding. But that’s okay, because not every wedding is for me. I’m committed to holding out for the perfect fit. I’m dedicated once again to the craft, the connection, the kindred spirits.
It’s what brought me here in the first place. It’s the good that keeps me coming back for more.