Phillip Blume – Bridging the Cultural Gap: Ethnic Weddings 101
Regardless of what genre of photography you specialize in, to operate as an artist outside your cultural comfort zone is a challenge. Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve lived or traveled extensively in at least 20 countries across five continents. The frustrations are real. The high-stakes, time-crunched game of wedding photography only magnifies the tension.
The widely varied reactions people have toward photography and the expectations they place on photographers are deeply influenced by culture. (In other words, it’s nothing personal.) Now ask yourself this: What human event is more imbued in culture and tradition than a wedding? None. So if you’re interested in enriching your portfolio with the beauty of ethnically diverse weddings, you’ll want to understand and adapt to their special demands.
I cringe to think how we as wedding photographers have watered down the term photojournalism to the point that it’s come to mean, “I take pictures of whatever events occur near my camera.” As a photographer who holds a professional degree in journalism, I believe we owe it to ourselves and our clients to correct this photojournalistic malpractice. We have to predict where the “story” will happen and go to it, rather than wait for it to come to us. Research ought to be an ongoing part of our work in creating a satisfying experience. After all, client satisfaction is the key that unlocks word-of-mouth publicity and momentum in your business. Yes, many aspects of Western weddings have become predictable to me over time, which can make me lazy. But shooting a different kind of wedding really gets the creative juices flowing.
To research, avoid the temptation to look at other photographers’ websites, at least at first. For one thing, photographers who specialize in one brand of “ethnic” wedding fall victim to the same laziness that threatens photographers of Western weddings. Playing the imitation game won’t get you the creative storytelling images you’re capable of. Also keep in mind that ethnic wedding bloggers don’t always post their pictures in chronological order. The complex litany of Indian wedding ceremonies is often simplified for publication—multiday events blending ceremonies and dancing pictures for ease of viewing. Don’t trust your eyes and then show up unprepared for the true order of events.
Instead, start your research on Wikipedia. For our first-ever Indian wedding, I exhaustively explored a labyrinth of links related to the ceremonies our couple listed for us: Mehndi, Ganesh Sthapan or Puja, Garba, etc. All of these are distinct from the actual “wedding ceremony,” which itself included a number of microceremonies we didn’t want to miss. Without research, would you recognize the significance of a family member tweaking the groom’s nose? Or might you let it pass as a random joke? Would you know to crawl under the surrounding crowd when the groom arrives for the marriage, ready to capture the moment he crushes a small memento underfoot? Would you be focused on his big toe as he circled for the umpteenth time around the altar, prepared to photograph the men who discreetly pinch his toe against a coin at floor level? Many of these moments are over in a flash, but your client expects you to be ready for them.
Throughout the research process, keep an ongoing list of questions that arise. Next, call a friend who is familiar with the culture, or post your remaining questions on social media. Once you’ve received some general advice, make a final phone call to your couple. They’ll appreciate the work you’ve done, and will help clarify any confusion. Your research may even remind them about rituals they had taken for granted or forgot to mention.
What is considered sentimentally important internationally may surprise you, especially when the culture seems similar to your own. British photographers reading this magazine already know the signing of the marriage document is a lengthy and important part of weddings within the Church of England. (For most U.S. marriages, documents are signed before the wedding day without ceremony.) The first time I photographed a wedding in London, I was set up in the balcony for the signing ceremony. After 15 minutes, I had some great shots and was convinced I’d picked the perfect angle. Then it happened. The couple and their minister rose from the table regally, the groom holding the pen out for display, and they stood there like statues. It looked so unnatural to me. Then I heard them whispering as their eyes grew concerned: “Where’s the photographer?” If I’d asked better questions, I could have better met my couple’s expectations.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
No matter how much you learn in preparation for your first ethnic wedding, never assume you’re an expert when the next one comes around. It’s a special challenge for us Americans, who live in such a young and culturally uniform country, to grasp the diversity prevalent in older civilizations. For instance, the Indian ceremonies I mentioned earlier were common for Hindu weddings in the region our couple was from. Yet Hindu weddings in other regions (or from other levels of the caste system) are often distinct, with different traditions or other names for ceremonies that are similar. In other words, there’s really no such thing as a “typical Indian wedding.”
This is where humility and candor become crucial. Your initial consultation with a couple shouldn’t be used to convince them you already know it all. Instead, use the time to express your genuine interest and enthusiasm for their unique wedding. If anything, let your couples know you take great care in learning about and preparing for every event. Get excited and take notes as they describe their customs. Know exactly who they are. Otherwise, your research will get stuck in a quagmire of information overload.
ADJUST YOUR WORKFLOW
Make a special point to confirm every desired grouping for family formals. For many cultures, the joining of families is as important as the joining of bride and groom, so our standard list of family groupings doesn’t always cut it. Once you have the perfect list, you still may find it more frustrating than usual to organize and direct groups. The language barrier may be an issue, or the families may come from a culture with a completely different concept of punctuality. In these cases, remember that many cultures are more conservative and strongly hierarchical. Many times, the best solution is to designate one older male representative from either side of the family to call everyone together. You’ll be amazed how much more quickly people respond to their direction.
Many cultures have strict rules regarding photography. Everyone’s familiar with the church that doesn’t allow flash photography. Others don’t allow photography of the ceremony at all. Don’t gripe. Do the best you can. You aren’t accountable for what’s outside your control. During Buddhist ceremonies, the doors are open on a small shrine that contains a scroll. That sacred scroll may not be photographed under any circumstances. My first experience shooting this ceremony was difficult because I had to avoid the scroll on display right in front of the couple. Even though I didn’t photograph it, I did make the monks nervous every time I pointed my camera in its direction. I learned to get my wide shots early and focus on close-ups of the couple later.
Any photographer who’s experienced a BlumeEDU workshop knows I’m serious about setting prices and sticking to them. Properly structured packages are highly strategic and require no apology. When it comes to ethnic weddings, though, a change may be in order. Remember, your packages may be perfect for your usual audience; but when the logistics of a wedding are wildly different, a new strategy is required. Be ready with that strategy when the inquiry comes in.
Our usual eight-hour package works fine for some ethnic weddings. When we got an inquiry for a second wedding in London, however, we needed to make some adjustments. Offering “unlimited” wedding-day coverage and a free day-after Encore Session to our destination clients helps clinch the booking, while also allowing us to expand our portfolio with images at iconic locations. It’s a win-win.
Charging an hourly rate is completely impractical for multiday weddings, especially when long delays exist between events. In this case, you’ll need to offer a flat rate that sets a clear expectation for your client. We still set reasonable hours for each day of a multiday affair (e.g., six coverage hours per day), but we break with our usual policy in that coverage hours can be split up and “down time” doesn’t count against the clock. Almost inevitably, we still exceed the allotted time; then we have a choice of whether to add hours to the invoice or simply exceed client expectations by gifting the extra coverage.
Indian families generally expect two albums as part of a package, one for each family rather than just one for the couple. We deal in very high-quality wedding books, not the lower-end albums often associated with multibook packages. So to prevent the sticker shock that results from adding another valuable album to our package, we simply offer very special pricing on any book duplicates, especially for our Indian clients. This is both reassuring and valuable to them. It also allows us to ensure the quality of our couple’s album—and likely an extra album sale.
SET STYLE EXPECTATIONS
As much as you work to prepare yourself for a culturally unique wedding, don’t forget to prepare your couple (and their parents) for what to expect from you. Although some of the best contemporary wedding photographers in the world shoot non-Western weddings, people from these cultures are often accustomed to more traditional styles that we photographers might consider outdated.
One client’s parents, who were very pleased with us and the images we had created, were nonetheless deeply disappointed we did not capture more pictures of them interacting with guests. This shocked us since we actually ended up with more pictures of them than we’d ever taken of anyone’s parents before. We’re accustomed to parents who feign modesty and ask us to delete pictures of themselves. But because of the honor associated with arranging and hosting a wedding in their culture, too few pictures of the parents was almost equivalent to too few pictures of the bride and groom. This mother and father also happened to be the sweetest parents of any client we’ve worked with. So we gifted them a follow-up family session to make it right.
Our contract includes language asserting we aren’t liable for any specific images, as a wedding is an uncontrolled event. But to meet cultural expectations and serve clients, we recommend communicating with both your couple and their parents. Here’s how we explain it to them:
“Our style is [photojournalistic, fine art, etc.]. The images we create will be our personal, artistic interpretation of your day. If you want any specific shots, we’re happy to take requests, so be sure to let us know. If you want a lot of simple snapshots with your guests, which is understandable, you should also feel free to allow anyone with a point-and-shoot camera to take these for you while we concentrate our talents on creating more-demanding storytelling images.”
However you handle such situations, do so with respect and cultural sensitivity. Sure, many photographers have big egos and the talent to back it up. But when it comes to weddings, we are servants first.
Shooting weddings outside your cultural norm is a challenge. But the results can be much more than pretty pictures for your portfolio. Like traveling abroad, these are life-enriching, mind-expanding experiences. From the generosity of Chinese couples who have showered us with gifts to the friendship of a Vietnamese-Filipino couple who made us godparents to their child, nothing compares to these experiences that fill our hearts.
When serving couples and their families, honor them with that kind of experience. Remember, your smiling face speaks a universal language.