Witnessing a wedding photography revolution

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I have just returned from the Snap Photography Festival in the gorgeous location of fforest farm just outside of Cardigan, Wales. This was a week long festival dedicated but not exclusive to wedding photography. I was one of a guest speakers asked to talk about photography, not about the wedding image industry per sé, but creating assets that kickstart creativity as one aims to pursue that allusive personal approach. Although my workshop was the last one on Thursday evening I made the decision to travel to Wales and spend the week living and breathing workshop fever (albeit I had my own fever going on and my chest infection meant the breathing was not going to be that easy). I have been to expos, participated and spoke at various conferences and photography and design festivals, so although this was wedding biased, I thought it would be interesting to meet a group of folks and form new relationships around what we all shared – a admiration for communicating visually. What I eventually  discovered is what I wanted to speak about here. I wanted to describe an aura, the vibe of the festival that floated amongst the woodsmoke, that warmed hearts like the evening sunsets, and created an surprising impressionable image that I think a majority of participants will carry away with them for a very long time.

To begin I’d like to be upfront and say I used to be a wedding photographer. In those old school days where to shoot the black and white option did not mean flipping a VSCO app but carrying an extra body dedicated to T-max 400 film. In fact, long before the digital revolution, it was not uncommon for me to be seen with about six to eight cameras of various formats loaded with different films and fixed lenses, all part of my usual wedding artillery. I’ve shot internationally, been published in magazines, and had the highs and lows that come with creating memories for clients that will be handed down through generations. I’ve even taught classes to photographers looking to hang their own wedding photography shingle. So I know a thing or two of the approach, the methodology, workflow and professional demographic which is part and parcel of the wedding photography industry. But what I witnessed in these five days at fforest was something dramatically unique. A revolution of sorts which seemed to leave no stone unturned. If ever I felt I was in the middle of a zeitgeist this was it. While my own lecture was about investing in your own paradigm shift, coincidentally, now as I reflect on the week while back at the office, I feel that was happening organically in the fields, the speaker’s tent and the fireside chats throughout the week at fforest farm.

Wedding photography is one of the most easily accessible photographic career options for any aspiring photographer. For anyone jumping into the photography pool this constant feed of quantifiable work means anyone confident enough to sign up to the task of pushing a shutter button and be paid to record one of life’s most treasured memories can start earning straight out of the starting blocks. But the wedding photographer has to beware – like food and fashion blogs, wedding blogging has equally excelled in gaining mass appeal and audience. Social media has made that even easier, transforming styles, approaches and various philosophies and etiquette into a visual language unlike anything we have seen before. Collaborative mood boards for a bride can be built using Pinterest and/ or Instagram and she can carry it with her everywhere in the form of a smartphone. In any given year the lead up to a wedding can include countless wedding shows around the country, blogs, books, magazines, podcasts, Youtube videos, curated imagery, personal imagery, shared imagery, television reality shows, tweets, Instagram hashtags, Facebook groups and followings, forum discussions, and much, much more contributing to a Roman orgy of choice that even the healthiest of brides can suffer from image overdose. Technology created the gate for which all this may pass. Pre-web having an over enthusiastic aunt or mother would have been crisis enough. Now we can have a countless number of ‘cyber-style’ grating family members in our pockets 24/7. This wedding image frenzy can mean that if not careful, the young and not so young photographer can be pulled into an industry contrail, locked into a client-side performance, servicing a heavily saturated wedding ‘aesthetic’ at the expense of a personal voice. Effort on the visual rather than the visionary.

So if that sets the scene for what the wedding client is going through as they plan their wedding what struck me about what Google dragged in for the Snap Photography festival was a crowd of shooters and speakers that seem to be shaking a stick at this approach. These folks have yet to reach the toe of the diffusion of innovation curve. Forget Innovator – more like Dreamer – and this is a very good thing. At Snap I was seeing an event that was gathering momentum around a handful of visionaries – young, creative photographers, raised on a diet of the beta years of social media and now applying their craft comfortably as meta-photographers.  There was something definitively unique about not only their commitment to making imagery, but a philosophy towards their clients. These artists were a unique collection of parts – part hipster, part humanist, part designer, part artist, part braveheart, part systemic, part craftsperson, part family – these brand savvy young guns were folks on a transformative journey seriously committed to redefining not only the aesthetic of wedding imagery, but the lexicon around it.

(For those sensitive to the f- word look away now).

“Fucking love your clients” is not your usual branding speak nor is “Just find what you love to shoot and fucking embrace it” … “Don’t let anyone else fucking tell you different” and “Find your fucking tribe and surround yourself with them”. Yes, yes …these were some of the lecture sound bites which stung ears not accustomed to such colourfully verbose language in a professional setting. But I found the sting lay not in the language but beneath the rawness of the expletives where there lay hugs, lots of tears and a supportive colony of industry professionals doing pep talks and workshopping in a manner hard to find anywhere else in the wedding photography industry. This wasn’t about chasing money and building package add-ons and upsells, it wasn’t about one speaker ego tripping another, this wasn’t about portfolio gloss and kit building, no … this was something very different. Having a few days to digest what I witnessed I came to this conclusion – this was about leading by example. Workshop leaders became mentors creating the atmosphere for individual spiritual alignment – connecting brand, audience, and self in an altruistic art form. There existed an aura of ‘quest’ and ‘journey’ in the air. In fact, throughout all the colourful language it seemed that only ‘branding’ was the odd word out. Branding was something which needed to be redefined, yes it is a commercial spine connecting all the moving parts of a business – but it seemed an unjust word. Branding was stifling, suffocating the organic ethos, the ultrusim which radiated from the hearts of these professionals. Branding was having to speak a language because nothing else had been thought of yet. And I left thinking that these folks are onto something -that they are on a quest to unhook Social Media 1.0 in terms of the wedding photography industry and all the industry vernacular and turn it into a direction we know not yet where.

On the night before my presentation a group of us collected around a warm fire in the workshop lodge. We spoke about the industry and we spoke about something quite fresh and interesting – the energy that it draws from the practitioners. And one thing stood out from that talk which in over my twenty years in the photography industry I have never heard as clear as I heard on this night – these photographers were tired. Not because of the industry. Not because of politics or continuous moving posts as we shift from one technology to another. They were tired from the falling in love with their clients. Because in order to do this it means an emotional investment far beyond any wedding photography How To book or YouTube video on lighting and technique. This was further supported by my visit from workshop to workshop where I witnessed photographers showing lovely aesthetics yes – but there were stories behind the images that went so deep that each speaker knew that they were not only image makers.  It bothered me for a time that I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then I realised that for these folks who attended this festival at fforest farm what made them so unique was that they were memory makers and they truly felt a privilege in that. The commitment to deliver from a point of privilege was an emotionally invested act. And through all the clamour we may have come to associate with the wedding photography industry here was this rising heartbeat in a forest in Wales.

 

Words and Image by Karl Grupe © 2015

Karl graduated from Goldsmiths with Distinction with a Masters of Research in Design where he researched the shifting landscape of professional practice in photography with the advent of smartphone photography and social media streams.