A bride in a beautiful white wedding dress stands by a large hole several hundred yards into the jungles of Mexico. Followed by her immaculately clothed groom, she descends a ladder into the darkness, eventually entering the waist-high water on the floor of a Cenote cave. Flying bats veer crazily by her face, causing her to shriek, as she and her groom make their way toward a sort of island in the middle of a cavern, her dress dragging in the water. As they reach their goal, they step into a beam of light from the cave roof, and then strobes pop as photographers begin snapping pictures while the bats continue to swoop around them.
The result: Stunning, otherworldly photos unlike any of the shots produced at their wedding two days earlier; photos that express the couple’s personalities through a setting that may have been inconceivable in the past. And yet it works; the bride and groom’s love and dedication starkly highlighted and amplified in a mind-blowing, once-in-a-lifetime scene. The wedding dress may have gotten a little…um, trashed, but it was well worth it. After all, these moments will last forever through the photos.
Brides and grooms want awesome imagery from their wedding, period. They want the unscripted moments captured, but they also want a photographer that can get very creative during a portrait session. That’s why couples everywhere are donning their wedding finery and not only descending into caves, but plunging into breakers, walking through abandoned amusement parks, wandering through cornfields, wading into forest streams and chasing other wild pursuits in an increasingly popular ritual and edgy extension of wedding photojournalism called Trash the Dress (TTD).
More couples these days are favoring the un-styled, un-planned moments of the wedding rather than the prescribed agenda of highly organized groups of people staring at the camera. Members of the WPJA already are masters of capturing real moments (check out our contest winning images), so why not this?
WPJA award-winners Sol Tamargo and Matt Adcock happen to be at the center of the TTD movement, and are among its foremost practitioners. As a married couple who often work together on TTD sessions, they have no shortage of enthusiastic newlyweds anxious to experience this ritual, with the number of interested people growing by the week.
“It’s really getting popular,” says Matt, who with Sol and their associate photographers at Del Sol Photography shoot more than 100 weddings each year. “Last year we shot 22 TTD sessions, and at this point now we’ve already shot 30 and change, and we’ll still do 8 to 10 more. We’ve had 89 inquiries for the month of July, and at least half of them are interested in TTD.” It’s all perpetuated through online forums – the brides talking about it – helped along by session videos that Sol, Matt and other wedding photojournalists put on their sites.
Drawing on this experience, Sol and Matt will be serving as judges in the first-ever WPJA Trash the Dress contest, open to WPJA members and any TTD image created prior to 2008.
So why all the interest in this unorthodox form of portraiture? Some photographers have become known for edgy, over-the-top Trash The Dress images. Sol and Matt, like most WPJA photographers who offer TTD photo sessions, don’t subscribe to any single definition. They prefer to shoot in a way that showcases the love surrounding the couple, yet they most definitely see the growing TTD trend as anti-traditional, a rejection of what has come before.
“Our brides are not only seeking out photos that are creative, artistic or fun,” Matt explains. “They have this stigma that is attached to their parents’ wedding photos – the setting up of the shots, the perfect dress and so forth. They dream about how horrible it would be for that to happen to them. So anything that jumps away from that makes life way happier for these brides. They’re trying to escape that traditional world of the wedding photographer making sure your dress is perfectly clean or spaced out uniformly over the ground.”
The growing trend in destination weddings is another factor that plays largely in the rising popularity of TTD. “Everyone just looks around and says ‘wow’ when they see the beautiful beaches, crystal clear water and exotic ruins,” Sol says. “Brides started realizing ‘hey, this is liberation.’ Everyone has a sense of adventure. So here comes an opportunity to book a session, climbing around on pyramids or swimming in a cave, and it’s available.”
Great environmental portraits are no more a fad or a trend than any great wedding photojournalism. As a former staff photojournalist for The Hartford Courant and freelancer for AP, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, WPJA founder David Roberts estimates that 95 percent of his freelance photojournalism assignments were on-location portraits, as were at least a quarter of his daily assignments for The Hartford Courant.
TTD is photojournalistic in that through this form of expression brides and grooms are saying something about who they really are. Yet because this form of portraiture is so different, the media will often misinterpret and belittle the TTD approach, as if the only purpose was to destroy the wedding dress as some sort of narcissistic gag. “I’ve seen some really bad TV interviews where they were treating this as a joke,” says Matt. “They make it look cheesy and artless.”
In fact, this rising form of expression is following a well-trod path of both wedding and news photojournalism – putting the subject in a location that adds context and meaning to who they are. “It’s brides being themselves,” Matt says, “expressing how crazy or free or how removed they are from their parents’ photographs.”
TTD sessions usually happen one or two days after the wedding, providing the luxury of an open schedule for capturing great imagery. “I love doing them because it gives you the freedom and the time to take amazing, creative portraits at a location that can’t happen on the wedding day,” Sol says. “Then you’re running against the clock. There’s not much time to shoot the bride, and after the ceremony you have to cover the reception, with not much opportunity in-between to think about going to another amazing place. With TTD you have all of the time and freedom to do all kinds of different stuff. It’s just a happy moment for the bride and groom and free rein for us to do whatever we want.”
Matt notes that his and Sol’s clients are ready and willing to do just about anything, one client even writing to offer herself up as a Guinea Pig. “They see the option of no limits, and they think it’s so creative. So they’ll say ‘Please tell me to do anything you want and I’ll do it.’ The possibilities are limitless.”
Yet some brides may not want to totally trash their dress in water or mud, and there are in fact an unlimited number of ways to “step outside the box” with this kind of portraiture. Maybe the bride is only up for walking through fields, along railroad tracks or through abandoned buildings, all of which can work just as well. The risk to the dress is still there, of course, but real damage can be avoided.
“It’s really difficult to define the levels,” Matt says. “What is really considered ‘trash the dress’? How about sitting on horseback? It that actually trash the dress? Yes it is, because a bride would not ordinarily ever get on a horse. We had a client who wanted to do a sailboat, so we rented one and went out. If they have something unique – something they’ve seen or have been inspired to do, we’ll do it.”
Location, obviously, can really affect what kind of TTD session is possible, but any locale, from cities to cornfields, offer creative possibilities. “If you’re in a city you could go in a fountain, or perhaps shoot on a train track,” Matt offers, noting that one well-known photographer has even tied up a bride and put her on a railroad track. “So, you can go very dark or really artistic. In any case, the message being created, using creative light, should be about the love between the bride and groom, and that this dress is that it’s not going to be worn again.”
There are really no limits to creativity when a photographer is working with clients that are willing to sacrifice the dress for the sake of making a killer image, but should there be?
There are the personal safety issues that go hand-in-hand with dropping into a dank cave, wading in a river, climbing tall trees or swimming with wild animals in an ocean that could be hundreds of feet deep. “You put a bride in a wedding dress in the middle of the ocean, 100 feet deep, and who knows what might happen, so safety could be one of the limits,” Matt says, but there are no rules. For me, I don’t want there to be any limits or boundaries, because that’s the ultimate expression for this kind of session.”
“In my particular case the limit would be doing something that is not flattering to the bride,” Sol adds. “Stay close to the meaning of ‘we are just married and we are starting a new life together.’ It depends on what your clients like to some extent, but they are choosing you because they are seeing in your portfolio what they want to have.”
TTD also raises concerns about equipment. After all, you may be swimming underwater with lenses that cost $1,500, or with cameras that cost $3,000 to $4,000 and up. What happens if something breaks? Are you insured? What’s your liability? How you address those factors and the value of your own work depends on your region, location, and the demand for a session.
“You’re going extreme, and putting yourself and your property in jeopardy,” says Sol.
“Our location is torture on everything we have,” Matt adds. “The overspray that you get by the ocean at a nighttime reception, and the salty wind, is a beast. At night, the sea grape trees drip with moisture. Managing a big equipment load is a tax on the profits, for sure!”
Sol also notes that customer comfort should be a top priority in getting memorable shots. “Consider the location to where you’re going and bring stuff that is going to help you or accommodate the bride and groom and make them feel better. If we’re shooting in a crazy place like the jungle, we bring mosquito repellent. You need to think about all of this.”
Yet ultimately, says Sol, TTD is about the emotions and love that are surrounding the sessions, not the dark side on which some photographers may focus in an effort to provoke. “I want to make the images look beautiful, happy and sexy. I prefer to shoot the beauty. Go for love and photograph that.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association