Throughout most of his life, Brian Tsai never kept a camera too far off hand. As a result, new friends would quickly pick up on the fact that he was the shutterbug of the group. “I have always been the guy with the camera,” Tsai admits.
It turned out to be a good trait, since eventually a friend, familiar with his hobby, drew Tsai into wedding photojournalism, asking him to be a second photographer and take candid shots at her wedding. That seemed to be all it took to awaken the wedding photojournalist inside Tsai, even though he had been pursuing a more typical career path early on, with forays into architecture and, later, software engineering. That first taste led to another wedding, which led to another and another, and soon enough he had a full plate of weddings to document—enough so that in 2005 he was able to pursue wedding photojournalism as a full-time passion.
Tsai’s latter career turn may not have happened given his family history. He comes from an engineering clan and earlier in his life thought of that as his main career option. At the time, he assumed that his artistic interests would be relegated to a hobby, much like his father’s dabbling into the pastime of oil painting.
A high school arts program, meanwhile, had given Tsai his first in-depth introduction to photography, teaching him the ins-and-outs of a manual camera. “That opened up a new door to something I wasn't entirely aware of,” he recalls. He would also spend hours in the darkroom, trying to get the print just right before moving onto the next shot.
Soon after, he bought himself a Pentax K1000—the extra appendage that led family and friends to know him as “the guy with a camera.”
Even as Tsai pursued his other professions, the camera was not far from his mind and could even be incorporated into some of his work. Architecture itself is a highly visual field, and as an intern with a firm, he would at times be charged with photographing a site before a particular project was drawn up.
Tsai, however, went beyond shooting empty lots. After photographing the site for his job, he would then turn the camera on the neighborhood to incorporate a fuller picture of the area. “I would try to capture the street life and the life of the area, trying to understand the context and culture,” he recalls.
Such a practice in the early days helped develop a photojournalistic style of shooting, where he really sought to document an entire story with each shot. Tsai's photo at a destination wedding in Kona, Hawaii, did just that when he took a WPJA award-winning picture of a groomsman pulling the groom's tie down to the ironing board to press some wrinkles, even while the groom tried to sip his orange juice, capturing the hectic nature of the moment.
“It all happened in a split second, and I was just there to capture it,” he says. “It was very spontaneous and very real.”
The move to photographing weddings hardly happened as quickly. After a career change to a software engineer, which he endured for about four years, he realized his creative itch needed to be scratched.
“There was something in me that was really restless, and this part of me wanted to do something really creative,” Tsai says. “At one point, I just felt that life is short and if I didn't do it today, I would regret it.”
His first wedding soon provided that creative oasis in a relatively low-pressure situation. A college friend had already hired a traditional wedding photographer for her ceremony, but hoped that Tsai, who was also attending, could take up an extra task during the wedding.
He immediately took a liking to the craft, finding that wedding photojournalism combines aspects from sports, glamour and fashion photography while trying to tell a story. When he returned back to his home in Texas, Tsai photographed another friend’s wedding for gratis, took out an ad in the local paper, and soon referrals poured in.
Tsai particularly likes finding the unique details of weddings that traditional wedding photographers may overlook while going through their list of posed shots. “There's usually another layer that I can communicate through photography,” Tsai says. “It could be humorous, somber, reflective or pensive, giving the photo another layer that goes below the surface.”
While doing one portrait session, he noticed a stunning contrast between the flower girl’s colorful bouquet and two black-and-white dresses between her. He cropped the photo close, boiling the imagery right down to that contrast.
In another scene that could easily have been overlooked, a guitar player and trumpeter were entertaining the crowd, and the back of their music stand had two faces on it. Noticing the potential for an amusing photo, Tsai angled a shot so that the images on the music stand “replaced” the musicians’ faces.
“It created a humorous situation and I just played with that a little,” he recalls.
In addition to freeing himself from a desk job, photographing weddings has also given Tsai an excuse to travel often. He splits time between his Austin and Seattle homes, while his destination weddings have taken him to Hawaii, Jamaica, Paris and various spots in Asia.
And as much as Tsai has found wedding photojournalism to be a creative outlet for a man who once embarked upon an engineering career, he’s also found it rewarding in another way.
“I love the emails or phone calls I receive from clients, sometimes in tears, thanking me for capturing those moments that touch them,” Tsai says. “It's humbling to think that there is some meaning to what we do.”
Judging from the body of work he has created thus far, Tsai is indeed humble when he speaks of his photos having some meaning. Those emails, phone calls and tears all suggest that he consistently strikes a deep chord in his coverage of the emotions and stories of the wedding day. It’s all a testament to Tsai's proven skill and artistic eye.
But then again, he's the guy with the camera—and he knows all too well what to do with it.
—by Paul Ziobro for the Wedding Photojournalist Association