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Wedding Photojournalism

Photojournalistic storytelling in wedding photography

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.

Margaret Atwood

Wedding photojournalism, documentary photography and reportage are all pretty interchangeable terms in the world of wedding photography. I’ve come to love the term wedding photojournalism more because I think the journalism aspect reminds me that it’s not just a stylistic consideration – it’s about the responsibility of documenting people’s lives and stories. Whether that’s at a wedding, or documenting families as they live, love and grow.

I’ve been documenting people’s weddings and lives for the last decade in a photojournalistic style. But way before this I studied as a creative writing graduate at The University of Derby. I like to think I bought a lot of what I learnt as a writer across to my photography (and am still learning new ways to use old skills)

If you’re a couple or layman here to find out more about Photojournalism, Documentary and Reportage, there’s an article here.

Photographers: I also have a Documentary Photography 101  & most of what it says is different.

So here goes. I’m hoping it’s all stuff you haven’t heard before. 

Wedding photojournalism is a hands-off approach to wedding photography that relies on observation to tell the story of the day and capture the guests an emotions. It’s a nonobtrusive way of photographing weddings. 

A wedding photojournalist will focus on natural moments and making the most out of the light, compositions and storytelling factors that emerge on the day. 

The idea of this post is to dig further into those storytelling factors – how do we find the stories, whose story are we telling anyway –  and what visual language do we have at our disposal to dig a bit deeper into those stories and create something unique and personal for our clients (and the generations that follow them!)

It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.

Patrick Rothfuss

It makes sense that if we’re going to retell people’s stories through the art of photography, then the first thing we need to do is listen to those stories, no?

I love meeting clients at their homes, their decor, the art on the walls, the books on the bookshelves (I always seem to attract clients with wonderful bookshelves)… all give clues about who people are. You don’t get this from zoom.

You also don’t get it from a questionnaire – and I really urge you to get in there and get to know your couples and families if you’re interested in photojournalism. Because people will mention things that bring up more questions and as you unravel you get to know more about the people you are photographing and the people surrounding them. 

All this stuff is absolute gold. It’s what the photos will actually be made of.

Because if you’re not telling their story, you’re reacting to what you think their story should be. Which is an entirely different story. 



Like all photographs, they are made of light, composition and the moment. These are all important elements, but to avoid getting sucked down a black hole where I write an entire book on the subject,  I’m going to have to assume you’re coming from a place where you’re already grappling to master these.

I think moment is very important in documentary photography. If composition is what holds the story together then moment is where it all comes together.

But all I can really say is that photojournalism is about being sensitive and alive and invested in the actual moment. It helps to keep equipment simple, light, easy to move and operate so you can be light on your feet and less intrusive (this is why I love fuji cameras)

They are also made of trust. If you don’t have the relationship and trust with your subject, it’s hard to have access to the moments in the same way.

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution -- more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.

Lisa Cron

This is going to hurt your head. There probably is no absolute truth. Especially in storytelling.  But there are truths and they are all important and valid.

The Subject’s Truth – Arguably the most important, if you’re making photos for other people, but also the hardest truth to access. You can help with this by doing your groundwork – You’ll probably never get 100% there though. Accept it.

Your Truth – This is an easy one to nail. And people are (hopefully) booking you for your take on things, the way you interpret the world. It’s still important, and a big part of your style.

Universal Truths – These are where there’s something in the photograph that resonates with everyone. It may not even be particular to the people in the photograph, and yet it speaks to everyone. 



These truths intermingle, cancel each other out, sometimes come together. But you have to balance them out in the same way you do shutter speed, aperture, ISO. Light, composition and moment. It’s a third triangle I always try to consider – and having it in consideration will affect your work. Trust me. 

Visual language is hard to talk about. It’s got no direct reference point. But whilst I tend to talk about light and aesthetics in musical terms – I think we can transcribe visual ideas over to grammar (or at least try, it is a bit like dancing about knitting)

I’m going to give it a go anyway. 

Nouns

Let’s start easy. Nouns are the things. A person, a dress, a shoe, a welly, the barbeque. Most people are really good at photographing Nouns because they tend to hold still, and we’ve seen loads of pictures of them before. If you go on Instagram or Pinterest right now, you will probably scroll through a thousand Nouns. That’s why I’m not going to talk about them much here, they’re pretty much primary school stuff.

What I will say though, is Nouns become more visually useful, especially in a storytelling way, if they are being interacted with. A shoe stepping out of a car. Guests walking towards or away from the church. A sea of umbrellas…. When they are used to tell a story or set a scene they become much more interesting. (This happens in books, too).

Laura Matt Dresses Preview

Verbs

I think of Verbs as anything that creates movement, whether that’s physical or emotional, within the photograph. Verbs are useful for pulling your viewer into the photograph and trying to express how it felt to be there. Or at least how the people in the photo are feeling. I love leaving shutter speeds a bit laggy to get that feeling of movement. Or moving into a position that makes you feel more involved in the photo (we’re back to composition here)

I think Verbs can also be added, or at least amplified through the post processing – which is often when we try to express how we felt when we clicked the shutter.

Guests dancing Whitworth Centre, Matlock

Adjectives

Big thanks to Zalmy Berkowitz on this one (his composition clinic is mind expanding)

Adjectives are those little bits of the image that we are often taught to remove, but often tell us more about the lives of the subjects and the space they inhabit.
 

I realised that we are all taught from the get go as photographers to remove these from the frame. We burn (darken) them, we remove them from the frame, or we set a wide aperture and bokeh blitz them out of existence.
And then what we end up with is a pretty picture, but through that loss of detail we loose a lot of story, we can loose meaning and feeling.

I’m going to have to use a specific example to explain. It’s from Larry Fink’s book about Composition (see further reading)

Larry Fink Boxing Photograph

I’d bet if Larry Fink had a dollar for every time another photographer told him to remove the corner of the table from this image he’d be a very rich man.

But without the table we see a boxer. With the tiniest hint of the table, we see a boxer caught in a tight corner. The space around him changes by that simplest inclusion of a visual Adjective



A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

Graham Greene

I think photographers often get in the habit of looking for the most aesthetically pleasing picture. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with that – I think the best image is usually the one that tells the story best. The one that has the most going on and keeps your eyes and mind busy whilst you look at it.

Sometimes when it comes to actual visual editing they can be a complete headache. Why spend ages editing something when there’s a pretty picture just to the left that you can bang a preset on and move on with your life.

 

Which is all justifiable. In fact, if you want to make good money as a wedding photographer, it may be the way to go. But I’ve got a weird commitment to photojournalism and storytelling and I’m always going to take the interesting, layered picture. Especially if it’s one that does the lifting of several pictures when it comes to narrative impact.  

The very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.

Zadie Smith

Should there be a conclusion? Hopefully I’ve opened up a lot of questions for you and you’ll be asking more questions on every photoshoot you do. Forever. I think it’s this endless curiosity and exploration that keeps photographers going. The ones that keep going, anyway. 

If you were here shopping for a photojournalistic wedding photographer, and have somehow read, engaged with and understood all that, props to you. And please drop me a line so we can talk about your plans. As Frasier Crane would say  – I’m listening

Most of my ideas come from reading hundreds of books. These are some that influenced this article.

The Photographer’s Vision – Michael Freeman
On Composition and Improvisation – Larry Fink
Is This Something? – York Place Studios
The Science of Storytelling – Will Storr
Photojournalism – Kenneth Kobe

Also of interest:
Jonas Peterson-  A Greater Story Workshop
Zalmy Berkowitz – Composition Clinic

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