When WPJA photographer Michael Barber made his award-winning photograph of a bride shimmying up into her descending gown, it was a proverbial Hail Mary shot. Barber’s photojournalist background enabled him to conquer a challenging situation. With no ladder and no picture possible at eye level, he pre-focused the camera, lifted it up over the dress and fired away.
“I didn’t know what picture I had until I saw it,” he says. “It goes back to my press conference and sports photography days where I was working in a pack and it was impossible to get a good picture at eye level. The spontaneity of the photo makes it fun.”
Spontaneous moments like these are what every wedding photojournalist works to capture, but not all uninhibited moments are humorous or touching. Some can be downright embarrassing. Should you shoot when a bridesmaid has a wardrobe malfunction á la Janet Jackson? Walk away when the bride disrobes to put on her dress? Photograph an adorable five-year-old flower girl who’s half in, half out of her dress? As a wedding photojournalist, when is it appropriate to document a moment and when should you walk away?
“I’m there as a storyteller, not a voyeur,” says Barber. “Clients are comfortable knowing that that’s my role. Changing clothes is an awkward moment perhaps, but certainly not one that gets in the way.”
Barber leaves the decision of whether he should stay or go up to the bride. “It comes down to the client’s comfort level. We all know she has to change from street clothes to bridal gown. I have a conversation with her before the wedding about that moment and tell her I’ll leave the room when she’s not comfortable and come back when she is. My respect for them and their respect for me allow me to work most of the time when they’re changing without much ado. But I have clients who want me to leave when it comes time to change. Then when I go back in she’s completely dressed, which is fine, too.”
It’s rare for anyone to ask WPJA award-winning photographer Matt Kim not to take pictures, he says, in the bridal chamber or anywhere else. He’s actually often surprised by how much access he has to private moments—including hostile ones. Emotions run high at weddings and fights or disagreements can happen, “but I don’t shy away from that,” he says. “I hang in there and photograph it as an observer.”
Kim’s award-winning photograph, taken earlier this year of a private moment in a San Francisco bridal chamber, shows just how comfortable his brides are with him in the room while they change. Kim caught the bride’s comical grimace as her friends helped her into her dress. “Getting into those dresses isn’t the most comfortable or easiest thing to do,” he says. Difficult wedding gown wrangling is a scenario that happens frequently at Kim’s weddings, but so far none of his brides has shied away from including those private images in their online and paper albums.
Michael Barber believes the bride dressing into her gown is an important moment that shouldn’t be missed and he relishes the opportunity to be there. “Sometimes there is so much going on that I’m left in the hall and they forget to come get me,” he says. “I have to be attentive to that situation because otherwise I’ll miss the moment of the dress going on. It’s a transformational moment. The bride is transforming from a nervous girl, who has so much on her mind, to a bride ready to meet her groom. That moment is what we’re really after, and it’s a big moment for her, as well as her mother, sisters and friends.”
Would it be easier if the bridal suite photographer were female? Barber is not so sure. “It’s not so much who’s in the room but what’s taken out of that room that’s the difference,” he notes. “If a bride is comfortable enough to walk around in her underwear in front of a male or female photographer, that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants those images online or in her album where her friends and family can see. So a female photographer may have greater access, but even still she needs to be discreet.”
Privacy is in the eye of the beholder, according to wedding photographer Julia Bailey. “Sometimes brides say, ‘No way are you taking a picture until my dress is on,’ and others say, ‘Oh, can you take some nudes?’”
“I tend to have beautiful brides,” Bailey continues. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t show off their bodies. Often they ask if I can take a picture of them with nothing on but their veil. Sometimes we do a [pre-wedding] session and put a book together that they give to their fiancé on their wedding day as a gift.”
Like Michael Barber, Bailey believes that her discretion in handling nude and sensitive photos is paramount; therefore, she places those images in a separate gallery on her web site. “If I take some photographs where body parts are exposed as a bride is getting her dress on—like breasts, even in silhouette—I don’t put those online where anyone can see,” she explains. “I put them in a private gallery that is locked and can be accessed only by the bride. Then it’s up to her if she wants anyone to see them. I do the same thing with nude portraits.”
Matt Kim is also sensitive toward indiscrete moments that can happen during a wedding, especially at the reception, where on the dance floor intoxicated women in strapless gowns can reveal more than they realize. “I delete those images,” he says flatly. On the other hand, when something dramatic happens he doesn’t hesitate to shoot. “At a wedding that took place on a hot day, one of the groomsmen fell straight over,” Kim remembers. “I ran over and pointed my camera but people were saying, ‘Don’t take the picture.’ I took a couple of shots but backed off instead of trying to completely capture the moment.”
The gentleman recovered and was fine, says Kim, but it begs the question: Should you photograph wedding guests in distress? “I think you’d have to be in the situation to figure it out,” he says honestly. “But if a grandparent fell over with a heart attack or something, I don’t see the benefit of photographing it. In my work I’m trying to convey the truth of what happened, but God forbid if someone died. Hopefully I would have some pictures of the grandparent alive.
When it comes to photographing nude children, Julia Bailey hesitates, in part because she is a mother herself, but also because she’s sensitive about even the appearance of sexual exploitation. She has taken photographs of children partially clothed, she says, “but even though it’s an adorable moment, I’m aware that it can be misconstrued as pornographic.” So Bailey is frugal about taking pictures of undressed children, except when she just can’t help herself. “Once I did get a picture of a little girl in her bloomers who was about to get her dress on. She was very shy and covered herself up with her arms. I couldn’t resist; her shyness was so cute.”
Shyness, however, just doesn’t come up very often with Bailey’s brides. Even though she looks a little like an alien in her old-fashioned hair drying bonnet, the underwear-clad bride in Bailey’s award-winning photograph had no qualms about being photographed while she got ready for her New Orleans wedding. And more than one bride has exposed herself in front of Bailey’s male assistant, Max, who happens to be her fiancé. “There was one bride who walked around nearly nude in front of him and she was fine with it, but it made me uncomfortable. I said, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to see that!’”
— By Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalist Association