“So… why did you choose to shoot documentary wedding photography?”
I was asked this very question at a wedding by one of the bridesmaids. I had to give her a pretty quick answer as to why I ventured down the path of documentary wedding photography. I was commissioned to document my client’s day and not stand around talking about my early influences for 10 minutes and risk the wrath of the bride.
She wouldn’t have minded actually, she’s so laid back she was totally horizontal – just my kind of client, but I’m more professional than that and had key parts of the preparations to document. I gave the bridesmaid an abridged answer as I’m not so ruthlessly professional as to ignore a person or brush them away while I am working with them.
My quick answer was that documentary wedding photography gave me a chance to record events with a wide range of different emotions attached to them. I was too “chicken” to pursue the line of photography that had captivated me as a youth growing up in the ‘70s.
My longer answer would have been more like this…
Apologies. I’m afraid this first paragraph is cringe-worthy. Just about every wedding photographer nowadays has this in his or her biography section on their website, but here goes. It is the truth after all.
My semi-professional photographer father introduced me to photojournalism through the many books he had on the subject. I became so enamoured by the iconic images in these books that he treated me to a budget Russian rangefinder camera so that I could shoot and process my own black & white work in our home darkroom.
I was hooked on the work of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson & Elliot Erwitt. Also, guys like Robert Capa, Don McCullin and other photojournalists plying their trade documenting death and destruction in conflicts all over the world
A trio of iconic images from the Vietnam war really stood out to me though as a young teenager at the time. One of them by Don McCullin and the others by associated press photographers Eddie Adams & Nick Ut. Although I’d never shoot these kinds of images, they’d have a profound influence on my style of documentary wedding photography.
This is the one single image that got me hooked on photography. It’s by AP photographer Eddie Adams and shows an execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan in Saigon in 1969. It was the first image of its kind that I had seen. I was just 12 at the time, but I suppose my dad thought I was now old enough to be made aware of what was going on elsewhere in the world. Flicking through the pages of one of his books to find an image recording the very last seconds of another human being’s life was a pretty hard-hitting baptism of fire.
On Nguyen Ngoc Loan and his famous photograph, Adams wrote in Time Magazine in 1998: “Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American people?’. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”
Donald Winslow of the New York Times quotes Eddie Adams as having described the image as a ‘reflex picture’ and ‘wasn’t certain of what he’d photographed until the film was developed’. Furthermore, Winslow notes that Adams ‘wanted people to understand that “Saigon Execution” was not his most important picture. He did not want his obituary to begin, “Eddie Adams, the photographer best known for his iconic Vietnam photograph ‘Saigon Execution’’.
For the rest of his life, Adams was haunted by the photo and felt it was misunderstood. “If you’re this man, this general, and you just caught this guy after he killed some of your people… How do you know you wouldn’t have pulled that trigger yourself? You have to put yourself in that situation…It’s a war.”
Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam
Here’s the second of those iconic images… this one from Don McCullin.
This is probably McCullin’s most celebrated image. It’s a portrait of a dazed American soldier, entitled ‘Shellshocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam.’ It was taken during the battle for the city of Hue in 1968. In its stillness and quiet intensity, it says as much about the effects of war on the individual psyche as many of McCullin’s more graphic depictions of conflict and carnage. The eyes that stare out beneath the grimy helmet are not staring at the camera lens, but beyond it, into nowhere.
Sean O’Hagan – writing for the Guardian in 2010 – sums up the effect that documenting conflict has had on McCullin. “There is a sense when talking to McCullin that he carries a great burden of loss and regret. He has, he says, seen too much in his lifetime and it has left its mark on him. He is recognised as our greatest living war photographer though he bridles at the term. “Whatever I do, I have this name as a war photographer,” he says, ruefully. “I reject the term. It’s reductive. I can’t be written off just as a war photographer. Sometimes it felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed.”
The final image is Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl” image taken near the Cambodian border in 1972.
On the morning of June 8, Ut saw a group of refugees traveling down Highway 1. The South Vietnamese army had been fighting the Viet Cong outside the villages there, and the people living in the area were forced to flee. Ut was on the scene when South Vietnamese planes started bombing the refugees, thinking they were Viet Cong. Through the smoke, he saw a young girl, naked, running screaming down the road.
“I thought, ‘Why doesn’t she have clothes?’ Ut recalled. He ran towards her and snapped a photo. Then he put the camera away. With the help of a friend from Britain’s ITV, Ut covered the girl, 9-year-old Kim Phuc, in a coat and took her to the hospital, alongside other children wounded in the bombing.
Ut still looks at the picture every day; it’s in his room in his house in Los Angeles, where he moved in 1977 after the fall of Saigon. “Every time I see it I cry a little bit inside,” he explained, “because Kim was hurt so badly. She is like my family.” Kim Phuc still keeps in touch with Ut, and her feelings towards the photograph have softened. “I can accept the picture as a powerful gift,” Phuc told the AP in 2012.
Why Our Responses?
So why was I so moved and fascinated by these horrific & haunting images? I suppose it is the natural morbid response that we all have in us. The same kind of response when we see a crash on the opposite side of the carriageway of the motorway or when we see paramedics attending to someone who has collapsed in the street. It’s not a nice response, but it’s something we all have in common. Why has society become immune to feeling any type of emotion except curiosity when seeing other people’s misery displayed during the news, on the Internet, or in newspapers?
University of Leicester Professor Philip Shaw has a theory. “There is no doubt that our consumption of war imagery is a form of ‘appetite’ in us, related at some level to the dark, unsettling aspects of the human psyche. This is not a new phenomenon. The notion of war as an object of desire, providing the pleasure of a fearful or terrifying nature, has a long history. The eighteenth-century theorist Edmund Burke was not alone in regarding war as a source of the sublime. Then, as now, war is often presented to the public as a form of a spectator sport. In the 21st century we gaze in rapt attention at television news coverage of the latest events in Iraq or Afghanistan, perhaps even enjoying, at some perverse level, the shocking sights of maimed and dismembered bodies.
Our desire for entertainment leads, paradoxically, to a lessening of effect, which in turns feeds back into the insatiable demand for more footage, more shocking sights of woe. The technical vocabulary of ‘smart weaponry,’ ‘friendly fire,’ ‘surgical strike,’ ‘precision bombing,’ and ‘collateral damage’ contributes to this numbing effect. A combination of managerial, scientific and quasi-legal rhetoric conspires to mask the brute realities of war. I think the alienated spectator realises at some level that something is missing. It is perhaps the awareness of this absence that intensifies our wish to see more of that of which we are denied: the image of a body in pain, suffering on our behalf,”.
It was this kind of fascination with the reality that made me carry my camera around with me everywhere. I became the school’s resident photojournalist and my art teacher loved my work. I wanted to pursue a career in photography upon leaving school in 1982 and wrote to several photographic studios in Leicestershire enquiring about joining them as an apprentice. I had (pardon the pun) ‘negative’ replies from a couple of them and no replies from the others. I did manage to get a Saturday job in a high street processing lab in Leicester. I became disappointed and disillusioned though because I wanted to be taking shots and not developing them for other people. I joined the rat race and got through several run-of-the-mill jobs before I eventually found myself in the print industry and then the advertising industry running the studio for a Leicestershire ad agency.
I kept up with my passion for photography by shooting some PR and packshot work for clients of the agency and was approached by one of them in 2006 to shoot her wedding. I had shot a couple of weddings on film in the ‘80s but hated doing so as the pressure back then for a spotty teenager with no experience was immense. I had no prior experience, no confidence, an introverted personality and just 3 rolls of 36 exposures. I tried to put the client of the agency off but she chipped away at me and I begrudgingly accepted the commission and shot her wedding on a Nikon D70 and D1X. It all worked out fine and on the strength of that one wedding in September, I took another three bookings that year. I haven’t looked back since.
But even if I were lucky enough to have been given a break into the industry back in the early ‘80s, I could never have gotten into covering wars and conflicts. I’m a pacifist for a start and much too much of a sensitive soul for all of that, so documentary wedding photography is the next best thing for me. It’s far safer (especially as I have a young family to support), and the typical wedding day has a wide range of emotions attached to it.
There are tears of joy for the bringing together of two people in love. Tears of affection brought about by emotional words from the father of the bride or the bridegroom, and there are tears of sorrow for loved ones sadly no longer alive. I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve been known to have blubbed behind the camera at one or two amazing speeches.
There’s laughter at weddings. I’ve been witness to some hilarious moments at weddings and some genius speeches by the groom or the best man. I have also been guilty of chuckling away behind the camera during some of these speeches and image-stabilised lenses come in very handy for these very moments.
Then there are those wonderful moments when kids have presented me with some amazing subject material at weddings. Those brief glances between bride & groom, comical moments involving guests and moments where someone’s body language tells a story that a hundred words could never describe. These are the reasons why I now love shooting documentary wedding photography. Observing and anticipating moments and narrating the story of my couples days is an honour and it’s far safer than being out in some war zone.
To those brave photojournalists who put their lives on the line and often pay the ultimate sacrifice in documenting the conflicts around the world – I salute you. It’s just not the right kind of specialist work for me.
And that folks… is why I shoot documentary wedding photography!