Weddings are a time to honor tradition, commitment and family. But as any wedding photojournalist knows, they’re also a great time for people to come together and cut loose. To capture all those spontaneous moments that will be talked about for years to come, a wedding photographer needs a quick eye and a good camera—oh, and a sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. A few award-winning WPJA members share their stories about some of the wildest, party-centric weddings they’ve ever covered.
Even the most well prepared wedding photojournalist might not know when a reception will be a party-hard affair.
“I never know until I arrive if the wedding I’m at is going to rock the house or be prim and proper,” says Karen Gordon, a WPJA member from New York. “I've been doing this long enough to know that sometimes the couples who I think for sure will let loose have a rather dull reception, and the couples who I would never have expected to really know how to get down end up having a blast.”
Heather Mabry, a WPJA member in Texas, has a similar view. “I've photographed weddings in which I arrive, I get a sense of the atmosphere and the guests, and think to myself ‘this is going to be a slow one’ — and then they end up surprising me. Grandma is getting down on the dance floor and the bride and groom are doing tequila shots. You never really can tell for sure.”
So how to prepare for the unknown? Mabry, as a rule, makes sure she’s ready for anything. “Often, I'm in another room at a reception and I hear clapping or screaming or laughing and I know right away that I have to get into that other room as soon as possible,” she says. “I always have my camera on me, even when I'm on the way to the bathroom—you never know what could happen on the way!”
George Wolf, a WPJA photographer from Nevada, finds that watching the mood of the wedding itself gives the wedding photojournalist a good idea of where the reception is headed. If a wedding is a more casual affair, held outside or in a different venue from a church, “that casual atmosphere will carry over to the reception. The other clue that people might get rowdy,” he wisecracks, “is when half the crowd is holding a Corona during the actual ceremony.”
Some great photographs may come at those moments when wedding guests’ antics and tradition collide, as in a photo by Karen Gordon that placed in a WPJA contest. The picture shows a man sitting in the middle of the floor covered with money, balancing an unidentified beverage on his forehead.
“This photo was taken at the climax of a Greek wedding celebration,” Gordon remembers. “In that tradition, the guests throw money at the bride and groom and anyone else who gets in the middle of the circle. This moment was a serendipitous intersection of a guest letting loose and the money flying through the air.”
A wedding photojournalist’s focus on the bigger story, rather than one individual photo or set of posed photos, means that he or she has the confidence and the skill to get right into the thick of things without disturbing a great moment or, worse, missing it altogether.
“Shooting a reception is a lot like being at a volatile spot-news situation, like a riot or protest march,” says Wolf. “I roam around with the wide angle lens and wait for something to happen, then I pounce on the developing action.”
He continues, “as a group, I think [wedding photojournalists] are better at getting in the middle of the action and finding and capturing the emotion there. It's a lot like getting the jubilation after a sports team wins the big championship game. You just run into the mayhem and look for good faces.”
In one case, the mayhem he captured, a bridal party dancing on top of a limo in a photo that placed in a recent WPJA contest, was definitely of the one-in-a-million variety.
“This particular photo would never have happened during a normal situation,” Wolf remembers. “But in this case, the limo driver was their friend and it was a privately owned car. So, he let them get on top. When the car got close to the restaurant everyone could hear the rowdy noise and it was just a matter of grabbing the long lens and snapping off a few quick shots while the car went past.”
Not everyone at the reception got into the spirit, however. “The funny thing is that when the limo stopped, the security at the facility came out and griped out the driver and the bridal party for twenty minutes over the liability issues. Of course, no one really cared and they ignored the complaints as much as possible.”
Heather Mabry also prepares for action whenever and wherever it arises. “I think when you're at a wedding where people are having a great time and cutting loose, it’s really important that you be ready to capture those unscripted moments,” she says. “They always end up being some of my favorite images.”
Her photo of a bridesmaid performing some wild dance moves, which placed in a WPJA contest, demonstrates this to great effect.
“I was in the room with this lively group of bridesmaids as they were getting ready,” Mabry says. “This particular bridesmaid was a ball of crazy energy. She started to demonstrate her dance moves for the reception and I knew I had to get a shot, so I put my Canon Mark II shutter on high speed and shot away. This was my favorite shot of the group because of the way her hair is in motion and because of the look on the other bridesmaids’ faces.”
The wedding photojournalist can’t hang on the sidelines if she wants to get that great shot. As Mabry says, she’s got to be in the midst of it and share the mood and excitement.
“There have been times I have been scared of getting hurt when crazy drunken groomsmen are jumping around and throwing people...but I know that I can get a great shot that way and it’s worth the risk. That is why I have insurance!” she jokes.
Karen Gordon agrees. “Wedding photojournalism is all about capturing the moment, and there's nothing more exciting than being in the midst of a moment that is full of life, that's uninhibited and raw in its celebration,” she says. “Few things inspire me more.”
—by Heather Bowlan for the Wedding Photojournalist Association