It took Niki and Tom 10 years and 4 countries to make it to the day they married each other. They met in Brisbane where Tom was a local and Niki a visiting Masters student from Scotland. She knew she would only be there for a year and like my lovely Kristen, Niki was an independent woman who had grand plans of traveling the world and helping humanity using her skills. Following her studies, she left to work in Bangladesh and sadly left Tom behind, thankful at least for the year that they had together. Six years and a lot of life and experiences passed, they kept in touch but with a hollow feeling of loss deep within. Niki had moved again, this time to Uganda when Tom decided to visit – they were complete and neither wanted to let go again. Niki returned to the UK to take up a job where Tom, a few months later, taking a brave leap, left his life in Australia to join her. It was in the heat and dust of Africa that their love blossomed but under they grey skies of Manchester their life together began.
Niki is one of the best friends with my dear photographer friend Nikki – they both grew up in Scotland and went to high school together. Nikki with two k’s had asked me to photograph her wedding in Scotland in earlier this year and when Niki with one k found out that we would be in the UK when her and Tom’s wedding would be as well, it all became a possibility. She said to me “It is my close friend Nikki Leadbetter who brought your beautiful work to my attention. Nikki and I were an in separable terrible twosome growing up, and it is incredibly exciting that we are now organising our weddings at the same time. Nikki takes the most beautiful photographs I can imagine, so when she raved about your work I knew it would be something special. Having spent the weekend looking through them all, she is right. They are filled with love, light, warmth and intimacy – you feel like you are looking at pictures of people that you know, certainly not at pictures of strangers on the other side of the world.” I felt like Niki totally got me and we sent a few emails to each other working out whether it would be possible for Kristen and I to be part of their wedding day. Thankfully, it was.
Over the next few months, I got to know Niki and Tom and after spending time with them at their wedding as well as Nikki’s wedding, I could see how these two amazing people traveled the earth searching for contentment, yet came back to each other. And I’m so happy that I can count them as my friends now, wondrous at the fact that there are all of these amazing people all over the world that I get to meet because of what I do. But then again, knowing Tom and Niki’s story, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me at all that people can find others to connect with across the vast darkness of the oceans.
This wedding is truly one for the “pinch me” collection – never in a hundred years would I have expected to be shooting a wedding in Paris. I couldn’t believe it then and I think back to the experience and it still feels surreal. I know I was there but it feels like I was in auto-pilot or it’s just a fabricated memory.
Having visited Paris last year to spend time with my friends Joana and Marcio who run French Kiss the Bride, I was excited to be going back but with Kristen this time. We spent 3 wonderful weeks there and experienced a different Paris, one away from the tourists and crowds. We caught the Metro, went to the boulangerie and bought bread to eat with our cheese (who knew I could still remember French from when I studied it in year 7) and walked the quiet streets. We lived as Parisians and meeting Selim and Nawal was one of the highlights of our time there. Traveling for us is never about seeing stuff or doing things, it’s about glimpsing a part of a different culture and meeting its people to find out about them. To Selim and Nawal, we were total strangers but they very much welcomed us like old friends.
Both Selim and Nawal’s families are French-Algerian Muslims. As with tradition, there would be two weddings, one for the bride’s family and one for the groom’s. We weren’t able to make the first wedding which was held in Bordeaux a month earlier but honestly were nothing less than ecstatic to be part of the Paris celebration. We had been warned though, it would be a wedding with many outfit changes throughout the night which we needed to be prepared for and the friends and family would dance until 4am. I initially though Selim was joking about that last part, but I can assure you that as Kristen and my heads hit the pillow at 5.30am the morning following the wedding day after a 20 hours working, it was very much true. But we had just experienced a colourful, energetic and passion filled day with these two kind souls. I was in Paris with the woman I loved and sharing in the love of these beautiful people – I won’t ever forget it.
I think a lot about equality – I guess being a dark skinned person growing up in a predominantly white country, you’re kinda forced to. I’ve been fortunate to not experience discrimination in the same way that many others have but that doesn’t make me immune to it. Nor does it make me exempt from discriminating – I always try to think about how my behaviour impacts others. As such, when it comes to being a photographer and small business owner, maintaining equality is something at the forefront of my mind.
This month is the first of two columns on this very topic – equality, and why I think that it’s something all of us, even photographers, need to think about. You might not agree with everything in this article but I hope it at least starts a discussion.
The wedding industry is huge. People have access to information and inspiration like never before and resources such as Pinterest, wedding blogs and forums, photographer’s websites, magazines, etc. are driving the direction of the industry. But from what I see, this industry is in no way representative of society. I think it’s overly obsessed on the idea of beauty, and by that, I mean society’s convention of beauty. Some wedding resources are more representative than others but for the most part you’d think that it was only ever white, model-esque, wealthy heterosexual people that get married! I’m willing to predict that most of you can open up any of the well-known wedding magazines, scroll through every page of it and not see a single person who looks like you. And if you just happen to be a non-white person like me, or part of a same sex couple, your chances dropped just that bit more! It’s well known that societal norms which cause people to feel excluded create a lot of damage as time goes on. The number of people who suffer from body image issues, anxiety and depression as a result of everyday exclusion is staggering. Every day each of us are sent messages about how we ‘should’ look, and we’ve all had days where we aren’t happy with our appearance – we may not be ‘skinny enough’, or have ‘clear enough skin’, perhaps our ‘eyes are too close together’ or we’re ‘too short’. But you know what? It’s rubbish – we’re all unique and interesting and nothing should tell us otherwise!
Us wedding photographers unfortunately have figured out a way to contribute to this process of exclusion too through the process of selective blogging. I have many wedding photographers say that our websites should “show only the kind of weddings you want people to book you for.” It took me a while to figure out why this was bad but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that if I selectively blogged, I was actively participating in discrimination by supporting the idea of only showing what the industry views as the “best” weddings.
Kristen found out early on that most of wedding photographers we followed selectively blog and she was appalled. At the time I naïvely parroted to her in order to be successful you needed to be seen to shoot the “best” weddings, and you should only make public your “best” work. She bombarded me with questions – “who decides what weddings are best?”, “so photographers make money from couples and then don’t show their wedding publicly because they think it isn’t cool enough?” The one that really hurt was “how would you have felt if a photographer refused to blog our wedding because they didn’t think we were attractive enough or our wedding pretty enough?” I kept repeating “Well that’s just how the industry works!” Kristen said “I don’t care in the slightest what the industry does, this is about what YOU do – I thought you wanted a business where your work was about the uniqueness of the couple and about capturing that uniqueness with awesome photos.” It sounds harsh but it was the reality check that I needed. Kristen is a psychologist and deals on a day-to-day basis with the real impacts of people being excluded and she wanted no part in it. For her to think we were earning an income from discriminating against people was against her values and it was also against mine, but I was being pulled into the idea of what the ‘norm’ of the industry was.
I understand why us wedding photographers show off our best work and I also appreciate we are under no obligation to ever release work that we don’t love – but if we’re not releasing images based simply on our personal assessment of the people in the images or of the level of “details” in the wedding, we’re further reinforcing inequality and unrealistic norms. Basically, at the core of it, selective blogging encourages us to feature not our best images but only the “best looking” couples who have the “best looking” weddings, which all depend on current trends in broader society. It reduces each couple and their wedding day down to a personal, and dare I say it, prejudicial assessment. It even reeks a little of hypocrisy, the couple’s money is in your pocket but you can’t possibly be seen photographing people like “that”. The resources available in the wedding industry should inspire other couples that are planning their own weddings, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be creating unrealistic expectations for these couples about what they and their wedding should look like.
If you can get past the ethical issue of selective blogging, it’s also a pretty bad business decision as you’re potentially alienating a huge portion of your potential client base! Let’s just look at just one easily quantifiable element when measuring representation in the wedding industry, skin-colour (there aren’t statistics on ‘beauty’ or ‘cuteness of wedding details’!). The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that of 123173 marriages in 2012, 18.1% of males and 22.2% of females getting married were born in non-Caucasian countries. It’s probably also safe to also assume a fraction of the remaining 100 000 or so couples have one or both members who are the children of non-white migrants or of people of varied descent. That’s a damn lot of people who you can appeal to by making them feel included or represented in your work. I met a couple about 6 months ago who couldn’t believe that I blog every single wedding I photograph while also marveling the fact that I seemed to have such diverse and interesting weddings on my site. This isn’t just a coincidence, I think these two points are intrinsically linked in a cycle– if you represent everyone, you will be accessible to everyone and then you can represent everyone.
We are always battling uphill as ethical photographers but in order for greater society to change for the better, we need to first create change directly in front of us. Things are not automatically ok just because other people do it and you always have the choice to not be part of anything if it doesn’t fit in with your values – which is what all of this comes back to.