Photographing My First Wedding

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Back in 2016, the summer after my sophomore year of college, my friend Florence (or Flo, as most people knew her) asked me to photograph her wedding. She and her fiancé, Daniel, had been dating for six years, and news of their engagement spread quickly and without surprise. Beyond just being a very photogenic and endearing couple, Flo and Daniel’s personalities complemented each other quite well. They were each enormously generous with their time and energy, and as a pair they were supportive of each other while remaining fiercely independent, each able to lean on the other without losing his and her own balance.

They were proof, it seemed, that if a perfect relationship didn’t exist, at least something very close to it did.

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Mind you, these were all just things that I’d heard about through other people. My time in college only overlapped with Flo. Daniel started medical school my freshman year, and I met Flo because she was working at Princeton that year before applying to medical school herself. But I had no reason, or frankly desire, to doubt the stories. My own interactions with them (I crossed paths with Daniel occasionally when he visited Flo) always reflected the qualities I’d heard about through others, and as one of the first couples getting married whom I considered to be my own friends, I was quite eager to attend their wedding.

When I received an invite, I RSVP'd immediately, quickly joining friends (many of whom also hadn’t attended any of their own friends’ weddings) in imagining just how perfect the day was going to be.

And so, when Flo asked me a few days later to not only attend the wedding but photograph it too, I was both flattered and terrified.

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I’d only been photographing for a year at this point, and while I felt confident in my skills, the responsibility of capturing a wedding still made me nervous.

That “perfect” day I’d previously imagined would now depend, in part, on me, a very imperfect person, prone to mistakes and a lack of experience.

Weddings occupy an almost mythological expectation in most couples’ minds. It’s the one day where it’s not only okay, but expected, to believe that everything will turn out perfectly. But beneath perfection is reality, and the reality of planning a wedding is often enormous stress. The number of decisions to make, people to coordinate, details to look out for is, honestly, obscene; venues, flowers, dresses, food, guests, transportation, and, of course, someone to document it all.

Wedding photography in particular carries unique burdens. For one, it survives in perpetuity; flowers wilt and cake gets eaten, but photographs become the cornerstone of memory, to be looked at years, decades, or even generations later. For another, it’s incredibly unpredictable. A couple can choose the exact flowers they want or food they’ll serve, but they cannot choose the exact photos they’ll receive at the end of it all, and so wedding photography is, by necessity, an act of trust; trust that the photographer will capture every important moment and know how to work through a couple’s fears and insecurities and excitement and awkwardness; trust that the photographer can turn imagination into reality.

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I wasn’t quite aware of all of this when Flo asked me to photograph her wedding, but I was at least aware of the trust involved, if only because she (and Daniel) extended so much of it from the very beginning.

So, I agreed, and that summer found myself stepping off a bus and into the hot, humid New Haven air. I’d arrived a day early to scout out locations and be as prepared as possible, and was quickly absorbed into the flow of rehearsals and last-minute preparations, doing my best to take mental notes while also being helpful. I went wherever was convenient for me to be that morning and afternoon, hitching rides between the ceremony and reception venues and offering to carry things or give my opinion when someone asked.

Despite the venue being incredibly gorgeous (there was a literal, working carousel that I couldn’t believe was real, and the ocean was just a few steps away from the building) that was the extent of any “extravagance” Flo and Daniel wanted for their wedding. Their wedding planner was simply a friend from church, and nearly every other detail about the wedding was handled by family or friends, from food (which was cooked in bulk the night before by bunches of family members) to decorations (made and brought by some friends from college) to, of course, photography (which they delegated to yours truly.)

It struck me then just how dedicated they were to keeping the wedding incredibly personal. While it was certainly on the larger side (there were more than 300 people in attendance) that was more of a reflection of how many people truly mattered to them, rather than an inability to cut guests, a notion cemented by the fact that there were almost no external people involved in organizing the wedding. They wanted to be very involved with the planning process, and also wanted their friends and family to be involved too.

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After a long day of rehearsals and last-minute tasks, dinner that evening, a cozy affair at a local Chinese restaurant, offered everybody (especially Flo and Daniel) a welcome break. In attendance were friends they’d grown up with, family who’d raised them, and me, a relative stranger to some and complete stranger to most. I was ostensibly there to photograph, but some relatives soon told me to put my camera away and just enjoy the food and the company.

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No one seemed to mind my presence, and as our bellies filled so did my understanding of Flo and Daniel. College classmates reminisced about their freshman year, when the two closely eyed one another but didn’t begin dating until a year later. Childhood friends shared how each had changed as a result of the other, Daniel becoming more generous and Flo more patient. Family members beamed with pride, satisfied that Flo and Daniel had not only accepted but embraced a worldview rooted in Christianity.

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After dinner, we all went back to Flo and Daniel’s home to finish up some last minute decorations and details. A few aunts and uncles made dumplings in the kitchen for the reception, while some of the groomsmen quizzically studied a tutorial about how to tie a bowtie.

As the hours passed, everyone did their part to help, cooking food or touching up decorations, and in the middle of it all were Flo and Daniel. In their home, this space where they were most comfortable, surrounded by the people they most loved, Flo and Daniel moved as they always did: intentionally and generously and joyfully, a feeling reciprocated as everyone else in turn gave their energy to two people who’d already given so much of their own.

 
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The next day revealed many more such moments that reflected Flo and Daniel’s personalities, from the extended sermon at the ceremony (reflecting their dedication to their faith) to the family-cooked food at the reception (reflecting their frugal and practical upbringings) to the way they laughed with (and at) each other as they danced into the night. It was a view into who they were as people, shaped not just by my own interactions with Flo and Daniel but also their interactions with family and friends.

It was a view that left me with new impressions of not just love but humanity, too.

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Photographing Flo and Daniel’s wedding fundamentally changed how I view photography. Once simply a fun way to spend time with friends, photography was now also a path towards empathy. Just as getting a meal with someone serves not only to nourish but also to provide a time and space for conversation, so I discovered that photography serves not just to capture moments in time but to gain a better understanding of others’ beliefs and goals, to learn about people both similar to and different from myself.

That discovery has guided my work ever since.

 
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