Ethnic weddings, in addition to providing a change of pace from the more typical ceremonies that wedding photojournalists know well, also offer a rich visual palette and deep cultural rituals that can offer range to your portfolio.
In an ethnic wedding, you’ll probably have brightly colored, exotic garb, including capes, crowns and other visually appealing items to work with in crafting unique shots that couldn’t be replicated at more typical events. There’s also the host of rituals, venues and dances that come with each culture’s wedding celebration— all sure to provide opportunities for capturing sacred, meaningful moments.
There’s obviously some homework to do before jumping into an ethnic wedding headfirst. If you're new to covering a certain culture's ceremony, be sure to do some research on your own or take some extra time talking to the bride and groom, just so the ethnic wedding doesn’t seem so foreign—literally and figuratively.
Step into any traditional, American wedding, and most anyone will likely be able to figure out what's going on and what's coming up next. That's not entirely so for some ethnic weddings, some which have traditions completely unrelated to other cultures. With Indian weddings, says wedding photographer Seshu Badrinath, each of the 28 states of India has their own customs and rituals, so if you've seen one, you likely haven't seen them all.
How do you sort through all the options? Simple: Ask. "It comes down to having a dialogue with my clients," says the Connecticut-based Badrinath, who grew up in India.
For example, it would be useful to know that at a Macedonian wedding service, a platno (piece of cloth), usually bought by the nunka (maid of honor), is draped over the shoulders of the young couple in a symbolic gesture of binding them together, and that before the ceremony, the nunko (best man) shaves the groom because he traditionally is thought to be too nervous to do the job himself.
Knowing generally what to expect in an ethnic wedding, building an educated understanding of the depth of history and symbolism behind the traditions, will help you capture moments that are not only exotically colorful, but infused with poignant meaning to your clients.
After doing some research on your own, ask your clients about their traditions and rituals to confirm your own understanding. How long have certain traditions been around? Why do they do them? What do they mean? Are some more important than others? Does the family place more importance on one over the others? What is the most important ritual to photograph at their wedding?
Ohio, USA-based wedding photographer Michael Barber found that talking to a bride and groom about their Macedonian wedding beforehand helped him better cover the rituals, including a close up, intimate shot of a portion of the ceremony. They told him that at one point it would be acceptable for him to get right behind the officiant—provided that he take off his shoes, since he would be stepping into a holy area.
Even so, the proposition made him nervous, and he only ventured into position after an uncle went there himself. The result was a stunning, dreamlike shot that shows hints of smiles forming with the bride and groom.
"That particular shot was taken at a vantage point that I would've never gotten at any traditional ceremony," Barber says.
Some traditions may have certain lines that can't be crossed. However, the WPJA members interviewed said they found such restrictions more dependent on the specific officiant and not on any culture in particular.
And, maybe most importantly, if you think you may have to take your shoes off, wear nice socks. Without holes.
While a traditional American wedding will see a black-clad groom marrying a bride dressed in white, some ethnic weddings bust out colorful traditional clothing, as well as highly photogenic rituals employing a wide array of materials. As the documenter of the day, it largely comes down to the wedding photojournalists to commemorate those moments in ways that not only visually delight, but also ring true to the client.
WPJA member David Crane has shot his fair share of ethnic weddings in culturally diverse Southern California, USA, including Hindu, Japanese and Korean celebrations. Each brings its own palate of colors and visual traditions to the day.
For example, prior to a Japanese wedding couples often have a tea ceremony, a traditional ritual influenced by Zen Buddhism in which powdered green tea is served to a small group of honored guests wearing traditional garb. Koreans, meanwhile, come to a point during the ceremony called the peh beck, where the bride offers her new in-laws gifts of dried dates and jujubes, symbols of children. At the ceremony's conclusion, everyone tosses the dates and chestnuts at the bride while she tries to catch them in her skirt.
Hindu weddings have heapings of colors from beginning to end. When the couple first enters the ceremony, they're showered with flower petals, making for a wonderful photograph. The bride, meanwhile, is traditionally dressed in bright red, symbolizing happiness, while the groom has a scarlet robe and scarf.
One part of the ceremony, called the Saubhagya Chinya, involves the groom placing sindoor (holy red powder) on the bride’s forehead to welcome her into his life as his partner. He also gives her a mangalsutra (a necklace of black beads) as a symbol of his love, integrity and devotion towards her. That can be followed by the Anna-Prashana, where the bride and groom feed one another sweetmeats as a symbolic promise of fidelity.
"There are a lot of different things going on in a Hindu wedding," Crane says.
During one such ceremony, Crane got a close-up shot of the bride's hands decorated in henna tattoos, bracelets, rings and deep red sleeves, as she poured rice into her father's hands to signify wealth, health, happiness and prosperity. The lavish detail plus the vibrant colors and composition all made for a stunning photo.
And while traditional Jewish weddings, given that they start after sundown, may not provide the ideal lighting situations for WPJA members, there are certainly plenty of assorted items that can be worked into interesting shots.
The signing of the ketubah, or wedding contract, offers a chance to get the bride and groom into a more isolated situation with a couple of witnesses, incorporating the signing and reactions into a photo. There's also the shot of the couple smashing a crystal glass with their feet, symbolizing the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, or irreversibility of the union, since you can’t put shattered glass back together again.
And there's the huppah, a gauze-like tent covering the bride and groom that is a symbol of the home they will share. During one Jewish wedding documented by Bill McCullough, a Texas, USA-based WPJA member, the sky was dark and a large light hovered over the huppah, creating what McCullough judged to be a perfect scene and lighting conditions. “This was a gift since the rabbi didn't allow any flash during the ceremony,” McCullough notes.
With the bride's father standing alongside the canopy holding his daughter's flowers, McCullough captured both the father's pensive face and the couple going through their vows.
“I'm always trying to see things differently, it doesn't matter what type of wedding it is,” he says.
While its critical to understand what traditions are important and generally what to expect in an ethnic wedding, you still have to be prepared for the unexpected. As with any wedding coverage, you’ll want to approach ethnic weddings on your toes. As usual, you can’t overestimate the value of anticipating and shooting in the moment.
“You can't go into a wedding thinking, ‘I want this shot, this shot and this shot,’” McCullough says. “I need a completely clear mind to photograph, I want the split seconds to direct me.”
In fact, not knowing exactly what will come is part of the excitement that brings people to wedding photojournalism, and can ultimately yield the original and unique shots that the practice strives to create.
“You're always on your feet and as a [wedding] photojournalist,” Badrinath says, “you have to always look for those moments you haven't seen before.”
Because regardless of color, clothing, exotic material, language and cultural tradition, the moment is universal.
—by Paul Ziobro for the Wedding Photojournalist Association