The handwritten note that wedding photographer Richard Esposito received from his client was obviously heartfelt: “Our wedding photos are truly amazing. Not only did you capture our day, but you captured all the emotions. Every photo brings us back to that exact moment, letting us relive our day again.”
It’s clear from sentiments like these that wedding photojournalism is more than just pictures, or even telling a story. At the heart of what WPJA members do is touching the heart—capturing those moments that will forever resonate deeply with the wedding couple, their family and their friends. WPJA professionals are spurred on by the heartfelt thanks they consistently receive from their clients after the big day, in the form of emails, phone calls and tears. These responses, a confirmation of the deep meaning in what wedding photojournalists do, make it all worthwhile.
RELIVING THE DAY
A glance at any accomplished wedding photojournalist’s collection of testimonial notes shows that their clients’ sentiments tend to go far beyond a perfunctory, polite acknowledgement of a professional service well performed. They typically rave about “…so many beautiful moments…,” “…pictures that will forever be lasting memories…,” “…great working chemistry…,” “…your ability to see things few others can…,” and how “…you captured our personalities…,” or “…captured the pure beauty of the day and touched us….” Clearly, personality and moments are major themes of thanks, as they should be for an experienced wedding photojournalist.
As the note to Esposito illustrates, most of these expressions of gratitude stem from the client’s experience of seeing the pictures and remembering the day—maybe even experiencing aspects of it for the first time.
There’s a universal reason for this: During the myriad of festivities, the couple of honor are in the proverbial eye of the hurricane—so much so that they often can’t really appreciate all that is going on around them.
“When the couple goes back and looks at the photos they kind of relive the experience,” says WPJA photographer Michelle Frankfurter, who is based outside of Washington D.C. “Most of them talk about how the day just went in a blur, and before they knew it, it was all over. They realize what they experienced but didn’t really see. It really brings all of that back to them.”
“The bride and groom eat the cake, smell the flowers, listen to the music, and ride in the limo, but they don’t see the images,” notes New York’s Malgorzata Woszczyna, who for 16 years has covered weddings with her husband and fellow WPJA member, Jack. “Afterward, when they see the pictures, they realize ‘this was the wedding,’ and that we captured the things they missed on their wedding day. This is the time they say thank you.”
Esposito says that many times couples or members of their wedding party don’t really know that he’s there around them getting the pictures, covering everything that happened—at least not until they get their proofs. “A lot of times I sneak up on the action that’s happening and they don’t know that at the time. They’ll typically say they didn’t really notice that I was there, but that I still got everything that they wanted and more.”
ESTABLISHING PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
Thank you notes such as these result not only from your innate skill as a visual storyteller, but also often stem from some kind of personal connection with the clients. People who feel that they know you better are more likely to write these notes. Says Esposito, “I’ll do one wedding [for a couple] and then I’ll do their friends’ wedding, and then one of their bridesmaids’ weddings. After a few of these you get to be like part of the family, and that’s the kind of situation where you get thank-you’s more, as opposed to clients who saw me online and just booked me.”
Frankfurter notes that she usually takes her client relationships pretty seriously. In fact, “I crave it,” she admits. “For me it really means a lot, because it’s so different from working for an editorial or commercial client. That’s much more of a detached relationship. With this it’s a lot easier to get much more personally involved with it, and you really are seeking that praise.”
She explains that she comes from a small family that immigrated to the United States when she was very young. “I think there’s a part of me that wants these people’s lives – seeing the cousins, the aunts and the uncles,” she confides. “I didn’t grow up with any of that.”
Often Frankfurter even reciprocates by writing back, building further on the relationships she has forged. She talks about a wedding she shot this past June—one that generated a thank you email that went on for pages. The client lives in California, but had visited with Frankfurter before the wedding. “She’s a botanist, so we spent about two hours talking about symbiotic relationships among plants rather than the wedding,” Frankfurter remembers. “So there’s this definite intellectual connection.” So when she recently packed up all of her proofs to ship out to the client, she included a photo of two plants. Says Frankfurter, “It had nothing to do with the wedding, but I figured she’ll appreciate it.”
To say that thank you notes are simply feel-good acknowledgements for services performed would be an understatement. In fact, for many wedding photojournalists they are a critical motivation to keep shooting and doing their best—a validation of their career, and sometimes even more.
“Once you get a thank you note, you want to go and shoot [another] wedding,” says Woszczyna. “Sometimes [as a professional photographer] you may get overwhelmed with the business issues, but once you get those thank you notes, it’s all worthwhile. They keep you excited about what you’re doing.”
Esposito says that getting notes like these means that he not only fulfilled what the couple wanted, but gave them more. “I love it when people say that they can tell that I worked really hard on their wedding day,” he states. “If I didn’t get a couple of thank-you’s now and then I’d probably be wondering ‘am I doing this right?’”
Frankfurter adds that these notes tell her she didn’t just go through the motions or punch a clock. “I’m hoping that the photos are going to be very meaningful; that they’re going to age really well. Something that will be in their family. They make my day. So the notes are truly inspirational.”
GOING EVEN DEEPER
The value of receiving thanks doesn’t always end with professional satisfaction. Sometimes they go straight to the heart of your humanity, and what value you’re bringing to the world around you.
Frankfurter recalls a wedding she photographed last October—one that generated a series of bittersweet notes from the bride. She notes that the wedding day was gorgeous, and everything was just about perfect. But the bride’s mother was terminally ill. She was in a hospice and it was really touch-and-go whether she was going to make it to the wedding at all.
“On the wedding day, you’re juggling all of these different things and trying to make sure you’re covering all of your bases. When I saw that the mother was at the ceremony I was thinking that the one thing I wanted to make sure I had at the end of the day was something strong with her,” she remembers. “So it just so happened that while I was taking shots of the groom and the groomsmen, I happened to look behind me, and the bride was kind of kneeling in front of her mother…and the mother was in a wheelchair with the hospice worker in the background.”
She got the shot, and indeed it was a powerful photograph. A few weeks afterward the mother died, so Frankfurter rushed the photo to the bride to use in the memorial service. The bride subsequently sent Frankfurter a series of heartfelt thank you notes that she describes as “really moving.”
“It was one of those rare situations where you realize that this is more than a wedding photo, and more than just a job,” she says. “It’s that ability to empathize and figure out what’s really going to be important to this individual. And that’s basically what I’m trying to do with every wedding: Look at each group of people as individuals, and capture how they interact.”
Indeed, the expressions of thanks from clients can confirm and expand your role not only as a photographer, but in the world at large. Says Woszczyna, “The checks we receive keep us in business, but the thank you notes push us forward and expand our horizons. Without them we could not go on. You just can’t go for the money. You have to go with your heart.”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association