I used to photograph around twenty or so weddings a year, but far fewer these days. This isn’t a rant about how amateurs are undercutting the work of professionals; that discussion has already been had.
My issue with weddings is, I’m afraid to say, much the same as my issue with public transport. The more I ride on a bus or a train – the more I like my car. I don’t wish to be antisocial, but as I grow older, I genuinely grow more perplexed about the reasons people do the things that they do. I realise that over the years I’ve become more and more divorced from popular culture, but it’s when I go to a wedding that I begin to realise just why.
Many times when I’ve been to weddings, things have got gone quite according to plan. Sometimes things go wrong for entirely understandable reasons, but often it seems that people are being deliberately perverse. Even something as simple as getting to the brides home can be far more problematic than it needs to be. ‘Take the next left.’ At the end of the road we turned left. ‘Take the next left.’ At the end of the road we turned left. ‘Take the next left.’ At the end of the road we turned left. ‘Take the next left.’ At the end of the road we turned left. Now, hang on, we’re now back on the original road, still being advised by the ever-helpful satnav to turn left. After a few more left turns, we noticed a small gap in the hedge which was running alongside the road. In desperation and with a certain amount of trepidation, we edged the car through the gap (it really wasn’t any sort of road); suddenly we had arrived.
We found ourselves in a traveller site, being guided by a small grubby child into a gap by one of the larger caravans. There was no indication from the paperwork that the bride lived in a field and perhaps that might have been useful to know as we were going to photograph her wedding. The ’Great big Gipsy Wedding’ that apparently we had been hired to photograph was not getting off to the best of starts. Frankly the day did not get much better. Interesting – yes. Better – no. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if the bride’s dress is literally wider than her sitting room, getting out of the front door was going to be difficult, but that apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone. The bride’s brother was driving the bride to the church. He really did not understand that if we were photographing the bride getting into the car and then had to photograph her getting out of the car at the church, we really, really did need to overtake the bridal car at some point. No, he regarded every attempt to overtake as a personal affront to his manhood and stayed resolutely in front of us nearly all the way to the church. After a feint to the right, then a deft inside manoeuvre, I finally got past him and barely managed to park the car before he screeched to a halt shaking with rage.
After the ceremony (which was thankfully uneventful) the guests scattered to all points of the compass, giving us only the sketchiest of directions to the reception which turned out to be a desolate community centre on a council estate a few miles away. The four hundred guests seemed to be split evenly between travellers and East End gangsters. Pride of place in the car park went to a blacked out Range Rover with the number plate that appeared to read bigot! Some of the guests seemed very keen NOT to have their photos taken.
This was a pretty typical wedding job for me (and my wonderful assistant – aka – my daughter). On another job in South London, the groom looked particularly pale and pasty, which I put down to nerves. The reason for his complexion became clearer when I turned up at the reception to be greeted by the fathers of both bride and groom wearing identical shirts. Identical prison issue shirts. After the groom had gone off to change, he too appeared wearing the same design shirt – as did most of the male guests! The thousand pounds float they left behind the bar lasted about two hours, but no-one working at the venue seemed eager to tell the guests.
On another wedding, this time in Poole, Dorset, the instructions sent me to the groom’s house. He was at the registry office, with his ‘phone turned off. The bride also had her ‘phone turned off impatiently waiting for me to arrive at an address I hadn’t been given, so I had to find the groom first at the Town Hall, to find the address to meet the bride.
On another, the very sensible bride had managed to book myself and another photographer for the day. Great!
On a lighter note, one groom stood up to give his speech and retold the story of how he had joined the navy to see the world – only to find himself serving on a nuclear submarine, with no idea where he was at all. Once he ‘phoned home to tell his parents that he was in France, only later to find out that he was actually in Wales.
Wedding speeches are often moving affairs, but sometimes they do go a little awry. At one wedding at Oxford, when the groom stood up and announced that the best man was going to say a few words, I actually managed to memorise the entire speech. The best man slowly rose to his feet, looked about at the expectant guests and said the immortal words, ‘I actually have nothing to say’. He then sat down to stunned silence.
The ‘best’ wedding speech was, however in one of the Medway towns to the east of London. The bride and groom were both nineteen, but had a four year old son, and the groom had recently been released from a Young Offenders Institute. At the speeches, the father of the bride stood up to give his speech. Obviously very uncomfortable in his wedding suit he removed his jacket and loosened his tie. The less than professional looking Chelsea tattoos were now clearly visible on his neck, wrists and hands. Leaning forward on the table, he began to address the guests by saying how proud he was of his daughter and how lovely she looked on her special day. Moving on to the (rather nervous looking) groom, he pointed out to the assembled family and friends that although they had had their differences in the past, all that was now behind them and this day represented the opening of a new, and bright, chapter in the relationship of the two families. ‘Of course it goes without saying (looking straight at the groom) if you break my daughters heart, I’ll break your f***ing legs.’ The standing ovation that ensued was led by the father of the groom!
One classic wedding took place close to Alton Towers Theme Park. The groom was just out of basic training and was soon to be posted overseas. Most of his friends were in the same situation and this was possibly the last social event that they were going to have as a group before being sent to Iraq. The wedding ceremony took place at a very pleasant small hotel and the guests had booked all the rooms. The wedding was scheduled for 12.00 noon so the bar opened at 11.00 so the guests could have a quiet drink beforehand. The ceremony went without a hitch, but the reception was not due to start until 7.00pm, which left a lot of guests with little else to do, but hit the bar.
At this particular wedding many of the adult guests had brought their small children with them, but no-one had really thought through the implications of a dozen small children with nothing to do while their parents spent the afternoon trying to drink the hotel dry. At one point a small child entered the bar carrying a large leaf, She showed it to her mother and explained that the children had found something in the garden that made things flat. ‘That’s nice dear. Just go and play.’ The children had found an old, but fully working washing mangle that had been placed in a flower bed to add interest to the ornamental garden. The children began to experiment, and within a couple of hours, had completely destroyed the garden by mangling every plant in sight. The distraught and angry hotel manager eventually levered the adults out of the bar to belatedly supervise their offspring and closed the bar. Now consigned to the remains of the garden, some of the adults decided to retire to their rooms and sleep off the more obvious effects of the alcohol. Some of the remaining discovered the ornamental pond full of koi carp. The squaddies among them started to devise games to keep themselves occupied, a couple of which involved the pond. After a rather lacklustre game of, ‘who can drink a pint of pond water the fastest,’ attention focussed on the koi themselves.
Koi wrestling is a game best left to experts and the following chaos quickly alerted the staff who tried with varying amount of success to stop people leaping into the pond, or dragging them out, their wedding clothes laden with dirty pond water. During this scene reminiscent of silent era slapstick comedy (apart from the fact that it really wasn’t silent) other members of the wedding party amused themselves by taking and hiding (or stealing) as much of the hotel property as humanly possible. With this activity as a backdrop, it was perhaps unsurprising that the reception that evening was a more subdued affair than usual, resulting in the bride’s mother getting bored and going home early – with my money – leaving me with a two hundred mile drive home in torrential rain!
While comic in retrospect, these events simply serve to demonstrate that, as my grandmother used to observe, ‘there’s nowt as queer as folk’. Not everyone’s life is the same as your life and people certainly do have different life experiences. Normally we are insulated from the lives of others in many different ways, but when photographing their weddings, for a short time we become part of the narrative of their lives – on a very important occasion. All these things I can accept, and indeed they add interest to the experience for me, but there are other aspects of a typical wedding that I find far harder to deal with, and they are the real reason I photograph so few weddings these days.
Actually, what I find hard to deal with at weddings are the guests. Those over-entitled people who try (and often succeed) in making the day all about them. This can be done in a variety of ways, some of which seem to be part of the ritual on the day. At a recent wedding every one of the three hundred guests had to have their photograph taken with the bride and groom. Not to buy a copy of, you understand, but simply because everyone was doing it. If that weren’t hard enough, every one also wanted their photograph taken with their friends (in various combinations) with the bride and groom. This process, encouraged by the parents of the happy couple, took almost two hours and resulted in over a thousand almost identical shots. To add to the task, the other guests felt they also needed to take the same photographs, preferably from exactly in front of me!
So, at the same time as taking the five hundredth almost identical shot, worrying about whether I had enough batteries and memory card (or indeed the will to live) to get through the event, I had to fend off friends and relatives who either waved their ‘phone in front of my face, tried to stand in front of me, or tried literally to push me out of the way so they could take that the same shot as I was about to take. I would have quite happily left them to it had not the bride insisted that I take at least one photo of her and whoever it was standing near her at the time.
At the same wedding, when it came to cutting the cake, I was literally blocked from view by the crowd of ‘well-wishers’. Only a determined effort by ushers to clear the way allowed me to get to the front of the crowd, where displaced guests were actively aggressive towards myself and my assistant. At another wedding, the vicar asked the congregation if they would kindly refrain from taking photographs during the service. He had specifically told me prior to the service that under no circumstances was I allowed to take photographs in his church. With me standing at the rear of the church unable to do my job the twenty minute service was punctuated with flashes and clicks, as well as focus aiding lights as the guests clearly decided that the vicar wasn’t going to ruin ‘their’ day for them and total ignored his request. I was probably the only person present not to get any shots!
Although less common than it once was, it is not unknown for a church venue to place quite strict restrictions on photography during a wedding service. Partially this is done through the fear that flash photography will fade the colours of the fittings of the church. Another reason can only described as ‘getting one’s own back’. As congregations attending religious services are continuing to fall, church weddings are very popular. The reason for this is simply that churches make better ‘photo opportunities and are much prettier than most registry offices. Some vicars and priests react to this by restricting the opportunities you might have for great shots. If you want to play in their church, you have to abide by their rules. I actually think this is fair enough, but I greatly resent those who refuse to believe the rules apply to them.
On occasion I have been told quite firmly that I had to take photographs from the far end of the aisle, and was not allowed to move around while the service was taking place. This restricts me to long shots down the aisle, but these can be very effective, unless some numpty of a guest decides to get in the way. Because the rules do not apply to the numpty, he or she will shuffle out of their pew, crouch in the aisle, and happily snap away, ruining any chance the bride and groom have of me being able to take the photograph that they are paying for. At the end of the ceremony, it only gets worse as guest often try to literally climb over each other to get to the aisle first to photograph the happy couple walking back down the aisle. This is the real reason I don’t like wedding photography – the selfish bastard guests. I can put up with demanding brides and mothers from hell; they’re my clients and my job is to make a wonderful recording of the special day. I can put up with bad planning, incomplete instructions, or moody bridesmaids. The day can be long and stressful and as everyone wants it to be perfect, the level of expectation is probably too high for everyone to have the day that they hope for. But there is simply no excuse for the sense of entitlement that many guests bring with them.
If you bring a baby or small child and it cries, then take it out. It actually isn’t OK to let your baby cry, or your ill-behaved brat of a child to yell out or run about. Don’t expect everyone else to put up with the noise simply because dealing with it might have an impact of your enjoyment. If you’re told to put your camera away, yes that does mean you and yes it does include your ‘phone. You really don’t have to be in every photograph, or be at the centre of attention. It’s not your day. If there is an official photographer there, it’s because the bride and groom want them to be there and have probably paid a substantial amount of money to have their wedding photographed.
Getting in the way, brandishing your ‘phone or compact camera really isn’t going to endear you to anyone. Any if you do have a half-way decent DSLR and think you can do a better job, why not ask yourself why the bride and groom did not ask you to take their photos in the first place. Perhaps they value you as a friend and guest and don’t want you to have the aggravation you insist on imposing on the hired help. Just chill. Sit down and do as you’re told.