What makes a moment? Any wedding photojournalist will tell you that the very notion of 'making' a moment disqualifies it from actually being a moment. So perhaps the more pointed question is: What is not a moment?
"A moment is not two hands, two rings over the bouquet. The flowers, the wedding dress pictures - those are not moments," says wedding photographer Michael DiBari. "Those are clichés that have traditionally been taken by photographers. They are details of the day."
WPJA medallion recipient David Murray agrees, broadening the concept of what a moment is not: "Anything that is staged," he states. He believes that when a photographer asks the bride, groom or guest to do anything at all, he becomes a part of the moment instead of the person capturing it. It can't be a moment, he charges, when a photographer's presence is known, and the subjects are acting for the camera. By his definition, a moment is "that time when the subject is so involved in what they're doing, that they're totally unaware that anyone is recording the moment."
"A moment is when the brother in law jumps on the table and starts singing a song during the reception. That's a moment," DiBari says. "If you can recreate something, then it's not a moment. Good moments are fleeting. Good moments are one-of-a-kind. Once they're gone, they're gone."
Which is why anticipating the moment is so crucial.
There are foreseeable moments during a wedding that every wedding photographer should learn to look for. Once you learn to predict, advises DiBari, you can make sure you're in the right place to get the best shot.
Like the first time the father sees the bride in the wedding dress & that has the potential of being a real moment; and you should be ready in case it does. Thus DiBari puts himself in a place where he can capture the moment should it occur.
But a little trickier are the completely unexpected moments, which often make the best photographs of all.
"You can't plan for it. You can try to anticipate when it might occur, but when a great picture happens, it's great because you can't expect what's going to happen," says Gold Medallion winner Gary Allen. "You have to be able to react in a millisecond. If you see something and then you pick up your camera, the moment is already gone." Diligence and patience, he says, are two of the most important hallmarks of capturing these fleeting moments. But paramount to everything is the ability to think clearly and quickly. "More than having a decent piece of equipment or a fast lens, the most important tool for the photographer is his brain," he explains. The camera has to be ready to fire instantly, sometimes from the hip, and you can't be off letting your mind wander. "I like to think I can react almost instantly," he says.
To react is to anticipate and then respond with action. Like other good photojournalists, Murray depends on the shared human experience to help him navigate this nebulous territory. "We're all made up of our experiences, and we all have universal moments that we share as human beings. I have that common ground with everyone," Murray says. "I hear the sounds, and see the signs as a weatherman would. I observe the elements, the words spoken, and anticipate, and I predict that something will happen at a certain time. I have my cameras around my neck and shoulders and make split decisions on what lens is the one to use. I see how the subject is relating to the others in frame, while paying attention to the background. In an instant, the image is there and gone."
And once the moment is gone, you don't ask the bride, groom, or guests to do it again so you can capture it. That's a set-up, not a moment. "If you want to be a real journalist," Allen says, "you do not stage any pictures. If you stage something, it becomes a portrait."
A lot of photographers, he says, don't have a problem with the coaxed moment. You get a picture out of it, but it's not a real moment. And that's acceptable, as long as you'r not passing it off as wedding photojournalism.
"Photojournalism has deep roots, representing reality in a truthful way. If you set up a photo at a newspaper, you get fired," he says. Perhaps that explains the no-exceptions ethical code of honor: DiBari, Allen and Murray all have a background in newspaper photojournalism, where they learned how to approach their subjects with integrity.
The bride and groom might not have a problem with the coaxed moment or the set-up shot. But Allen warns that you cannot pass off the photographs to others, or the WPJA, as real wedding photojournalism. "Real wedding photojournalism has to be truthful. Even if you remove a can of coke from a scene, you are altering", he says.
"My attitude is that of a photojournalist whether I'm shooting a wedding or the President of the United States. I'm not going to ask the President to step over here. And when I'm shooting a wedding, I try to stick to the same philosophy," DiBari agrees.
"A photojournalist never directs. He's reactionary, not proactive. It's what separates true photojournalism from photography," says David Murray.
"My pictures, my weddings are real moments. The bride isn't always perfect, but the moment is real. It really happened," says DiBari. "When the bride looks at it, she's not going to notice an imperfection; she's going to remember that moment. There's more of an emotional tie."
Aside from your ethical obligation to the very definition of wedding photojournalism, anticipating and capturing a true moment yields photographs that are linked back to real memories for the bride and groom. If they were asked to pose, then that's what they'll remember when they look back at the photograph.
And if you do want to capture images of the details - of the ring, gown and flowers variety - DiBari recommends shooting those within the context of a real moment. "The bride might have gone to 16 florists before she found the exact flowers that she wanted," he says, noting how important such an image may be to a client. So, I'll make sure to photograph her bouquet in a scene that's really happening."
Murray says that the biggest compliment is when a bride says "That's exactly how I remember my day.'"
"That's always my goal," he says. "To have them remember their day in a way where art and reality coincide."
— by Meghan McEwen for the Wedding Photojournalist Association