In the 1950 classic film Father of the Bride, George, played by Spenser Tracy, watches his daughter Annie, played by Elizabeth Taylor, take her wedding vows and says to himself, “I realized at that moment that I was never going to come home again and see Annie at the top of the stairs. Never going to see her again at our breakfast table in her nightgown and socks...Annie was all grown up and leaving us, and something inside began to hurt.”
The scene may be fiction, but the emotion behind it is real. Throughout the wedding day, parents and their children walk a delicate line between past and future. Letting go is never easy, but it can make for dramatic photographs full of heart. Through experience and instinct, wedding photojournalists capture tender moments many bridal couples typically don’t see, giving them windows into the hearts of the people they love.
“There’s always a moment during the day when it hits the parents,” says Louisiana, USA-based WPJA member Cameron Gillie. “Sometimes it’s immediately after the father walks down the isle with the bride. But the parents’ dance is also very emotional and I’ve seen it hit the parents then.” In his experience, Gillie finds that the gravitas of the day most often impacts parents and bridal couples immediately following the ceremony. “These are always great photos—lots of hugs, joy and sometimes tears.”
When Gillie took his award-winning photograph during a summer wedding in Houma, LA, USA, he had been keeping an eye on the bride’s father, even after he walked his daughter down the aisle. When emotion swept over the parents, Gillie captured their tender faces. The moment is so candid that it seems as if Gillie was invisible to the couple; which is key in this trade. “Being as unobtrusive as you can be is the essence of photojournalism,” he says. Comparing wedding photojournalism to his work as a newspaper photojournalist, which he did for a decade, Gillie says photographing weddings requires more finesse. “It’s a dance of giving people space and getting the picture.”
Zoya Dicaprio, an Alexandria, VA, USA-based wedding photographer, takes a more spiritual approach to capturing intimate moments between the betrothed and their parents. “I’m constantly aware I’m in someone else’s space,” she says, “but I’m there as a vessel. Photographing a wedding is like meditating for a long time. I’m constantly in the moment, which feels good. It’s the bride and groom’s time and I feel privileged to be in their space. I’ve had to walk in really close to people at very sensitive times. When I have to do that, I try to be quick, respectful and totally in the moment.”
Dicaprio’s photograph of a bride dancing with her father, which placed in the Emotion category in a WPJA competition, was a sensitive moment as such. All day, the bride’s father had been stalwart, showing no emotion whatsoever, she recalls. Then at the reception, his emotions got the best of him. “That often happens when fathers dance the first dance with their daughters,” she says. Even so, this family was so somber that the father’s sudden display of feelings was a surprise. The picture, however, didn’t elude her. “When you put experience, being in the moment, and empathy together, you see the moments come.”
Like Dicaprio, Neil Kiekhofer, a wedding photographer in Milwaukee, WI, USA was surprised by a sudden outpouring of emotion in a wedding he recently photographed. “The difference between being a good photographer and great photographer is being able to understand who you are photographing,” he says. “I had noticed that the family was close, so I was watching them and was in the right spot.”
It happened during a Jewish wedding in Milwaukee. In Jewish weddings, the ketubah, or marriage contract, is signed prior to the wedding in a private ceremony attended by only immediate family. “Typically after the ketubah is signed, the rabbi sings and there are hugs and kisses. It was unusual for so much emotion to come out,” says Kiekhofer. “The groom’s sister teared up and her parents moved in to console her.”
Kiekhofer was touched by the family’s emotion, he says. “It reminded me of when my sister cried for me during my wedding. It’s a very special moment, a pivotal point when [a family] realizes the child has grown up.”
Empathy during a wedding is a critical component of taking intimate photographs, says Dicaprio. “Every wedding I photograph, I wonder what it will be like when my daughter, who is six, gets married. I wonder what it’s like for the mom to see her daughter get married.”
North Carolina, USA-based wedding photographer Christopher Record also caught a warm moment between a bride and her parents. The bride decided to see how the decoration of the reception hall was coming along before getting dressed. Her parents seized the opportunity to have her alone for a few minutes and gave her a bouquet of flowers and a gift. “I think the magnitude of her getting married hit them at that moment,” says Record. “They forgot about me,” he says, so no one was self-conscious. The picture won third place in a WPJA photo competition.
Capturing intimate family photographs is most effective when everyone becomes comfortable around the photographer; when they forget he or she is there. According to Record, that takes patience, time and trust. “Having done a lot of documentary photography, I’ve found that it’s possible to become somewhat invisible. You have to be patient, get to know the people, and let them know you are professional, which makes them feel comfortable. Then they forget about you. My favorite pictures are those in which the people obviously didn’t notice someone was taking their picture.”
Kiekhofer agrees and adds that photographers also have to know when to put the camera down. About his award-winning photo of the groom’s parents and sister, Kiekhofer says, “The moment was there and then it was gone. I took one or two shots and no more. If I had kept shooting they would have become self-conscious and ruined their moment”—the antithesis of good wedding photojournalism.
Throughout a wedding day, a close connection between wedding photojournalists, bridal couples and wedding parties makes beautiful, intimate photographs possible. “I don’t need a Hollywood-perfect couple and a $2 million wedding to have beautiful photographs,” says Kiekhofer. What makes for wonderful photos is “the relationship I build with the couple, and the couple’s emotions and passion for each other,” he says. “Their love is transferred to the parents and friends. The whole day is intense in a good way. There is so much beauty and love everywhere you go that it makes my job that much easier.”
—by Lorna Gentry for the Wedding Photojournalist Association