How pure are you? When it comes to wedding photojournalism, purism is a good thing, which is why the WPJA strives to recognize and award purists.
Yet purism isn’t some religion; it’s about results.
So what is pure wedding photojournalism, and how does it impact the pursuit of good shots, as well as “giving the clients what they want”? We solicited expert perspectives from three successful WPJA members—all acclaimed contest winners who came to wedding photography with photojournalism backgrounds.
During his 15 years as a Pulitzer Prize nominated photojournalist, Christobal Perez worked on staff for the Houston Chronicle, The News and Observer in Raleigh, NC and the Shreveport Times. Now he covers weddings with his wife Kathleen (also a WPJA member) at Azul Photography in Raleigh, NC, USA.
“I approach weddings in the same way I used to approach my assignments at a newspaper,” he says. “I don’t direct, I don’t tell people what to do. I’m there to observe and absorb the environment and document it as it is. Just like you don’t want to lie to the public when you publish an image in the paper, I don’t want to do that at a wedding.”
“The sanctity of the image and the truth in the image is something I’ve always valued as a photojournalist,” agrees Austin, TX, USA-based David Hill, who worked for years as a newspaper reporter and photographer before getting into wedding photography. “I come from a set of ethical restrictions that don’t exist in the basic art world.”
Hill believes he attracts clients that think like him and want something that’s simple, pure and not highly interpreted. “I like to think that operating that way produces an image that is kind of obsolescence-proof,” he states. “It can’t go out of style in the way it’s shot.”
One of his award-winning images beautifully exemplifies the esthetic. “I was in the bride’s suite and kind of poked my head around the door and saw this little bridesmaid standing on the toilet because she was too short to see the mirror,” he recalls. “When I saw that happening I knew that I only had one chance to get the shot. So with the motor drive I got two frames off before she became ‘camera aware.’ By that next frame, she had seen me and was looking straight into the camera.”
The contest judge described the shot as “a good example of shooting on the edges,” which Hill interprets as “you know that you barely got the shot—you’re working on ‘the edges’ because the subject is going to see you and it’s going to be over very quickly.”
Hill believes that if he didn’t have that photojournalistic ethic, he could have improved the photo, but it won because it is pure and real. As he says, “The next shot after that was composed better, but by that time the moment was over.”
The most devout among us generally are loathe to have any role whatsoever in influencing their subjects or altering the content of their photos, preferring to blend into the background and purely document the events and moments of the day.
Hill also minimizes his interaction with clients. “I’m friendly. I talk to people a bit, but basically I stand back and take the pictures,” he states, adding that “Some critics misconstrue our code phrases like 'standing back' or 'fly on the wall' to mean that we're physically fleeing. That's not the case at all. Rather, it's a state of mind. Often it means working up close or getting doused with beer as unobtrusively as possible. It conveys in your body language and in what you don't do: I don’t direct people, and I don’t ask them to repeat actions. If I miss one little thing, I go on to the next.”
“I think that just me being there influences the situation,” says Anne Ryan, a Chicago, IL, USA-based award winner who with husband John Zich (another WPJA member) has covered an expansive array of news and sporting events for such publications as Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, People, USA Today and others. “However, with this and other documentary work that I’ve done for publications, I’ve found that you can be right there and people will get comfortable with that fact and will let go and behave naturally.”
“I’m not a director,” she adds. “I really like it when people are being themselves and I’m just capturing what happens. I do my best work that way.”
Such was the case during the second wedding she and her husband shot. It had snowed about six inches that day, and the wedding couple was dancing in the foyer. Their nephew just walked up and she created the WPJA award-winning photograph featured in this article.
Altering a scene can perhaps ‘help’ a great picture to become a phenomenal-looking shot, but that’s not what gives real, lasting value to wedding photojournalism.
Yet many photographers who embrace the photojournalistic ethic still make concessions to their clients by taking a few set-up shots. If these images are only given to the bride and groom, then that is fine. You’re there to assist and please them, but you also need to have the integrity to say, “Okay, we can do that, but it’s not wedding photojournalism.” And obviously, you should not display those types of images as wedding photojournalism or enter them in WPJA contests since they constitute a dilution of the pure esthetic.
The issue here is more than just one of simple philosophy, or some blind devotion to a concept. It’s about wedding photojournalism ethics.
“I think that the best images tend to come when you’re not planning anything, so I think that someone who operates under the photojournalist ethic over a period of time will end up with the best images,” Hill states.
Perez echoes other WPJA members when he says that he typically doesn’t seem to need to talk to the bride and groom specifically about his photojournalistic style, noting that they seem to already have gotten enough information from his Web site. “They believe in us,” states Perez. “They tell us ‘we know what you can do, so go ahead and do your magic.’”
Most wedding photojournalists are more than willing and able to accommodate the couple with the more formal portrait shots, but that’s not why they’re hired, and most brides and grooms understand that.
Ryan estimates that about 90 percent of her clients come in to personally meet with her and her husband before booking. “We’ll show them a slide show and talk to them about our philosophy. We tell them that we’re just going to capture the day, except that we’ll set aside a specific time for the group shots that you want.”
She notes that sometimes people want to go around town – for example, walk up and down Michigan Avenue, to get pictures of themselves. She’ll set aside time to do that with them, but will also tell them that the rest of the day will be dedicated to documenting the event.
“This is a service I’m providing to a client, so I’ll shoot those somewhat set-up shots,” she says, “but it’s not the bulk of what we do or why they hired us. If I’m on an assignment for a magazine and the subjects say ‘hey, let’s have you photograph us strolling down Michigan Avenue,” I’d have to say, “I’m sorry, but I can only photograph what is true—what really happened.”
Perez says that he takes the same approach to wedding portraits that he followed for his newspaper portrait work, which includes a little more ability to direct. He sets aside 30 minutes to document what he likes to call the “dignitaries” of the day. “It kind of narrows it down,” he explains. “If long-lost Uncle Phil falls into that category, then he probably needs to be photographed with the bride and groom, but it needs to fall into that 30-minute time frame.”
He tells the bride and groom “Let’s get everyone who’s important to these formal portraits and knock them out so that you can get back to the reception in a timely manner to enjoy yourself.”
“I’m always there to work for my clients, and if they ask me to take a shot, I’m not going to argue,” he says, then adds: “Or sometimes I’ll call my assistant over and say ‘Here. Let me put you with this person.’”
“If someone wants to pull me aside to shoot pictures of her and her sister, I’ll shoot it, because it’s easier just to knock it out and move on,” Perez says. “I’ll do it, but they understand that it’s not why I was hired and isn’t the main value of what I bring to the table.
With digital photography and Photoshop there’s obviously a great deal of opportunity to manipulate images. There’s no doubt that it’s another method of expression for photographers. It’s okay to be pure and have fun on the side at the same time, especially if you have separate galleries for manipulated photos. The WPJA’s Artistic Guild of wedding photographers was created as a platform for featuring and awarding those types of images.
However, our experts are quite particular in how they approach authentic wedding photojournalism.
“I follow the guidelines of ‘If I can’t do it in a darkroom within newspaper ethics, I’m not going to do it to any images that I present to a contest,” says Perez. “That means no cloning or hand tinting, touching up pimples, or over-saturation. It has to be a close representation of reality.”
Some color correction is okay, our experts agree. If you need to take out a little yellow or magenta, or if you need to darken up the blacks, then fine.
“I have a standard of dividing everything you can do in Photoshop to ‘quality improvements’ versus ‘content changes,’ Hill says. “I don’t manipulate the content of an image or do any of the popular wedding Photoshop Actions in order to get some sort of look. None of that can be done in pure photojournalism.”
“I do color correction and tonal range correction on every single image, because the human brain sees color as it should be seen and a camera sees color the way it is,” he adds. “I think it’s vital and acceptable to close that gap, and I take that very seriously.”
The bottom line is that wedding photojournalism purism is more than just a philosophy. It pays off in the real world. “I like the fact that you can offer your clients a choice of buying something that is completely non-fake and truthful, rather than doing a lot of manipulation and interpretation,” says Hill.
Perez’s award-winning shot of the bride and groom clowning around at the cake cutting exemplifies all that is valuable in wedding photojournalism. “That couple was so fun,” he remembers. “You had no idea what they were going to do and you had to be ready. This is not a great photograph—it’s just a great moment. It says a lot about personality, who they are. And that’s what we do as wedding journalists: we focus on moments of the day.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association