Labels. Either personally or professionally, it’s how we’re often defined. I can be as precious as I want about being a free creative spirit untethered by brand or description, but many people search for or understand something or someone through a label, so here goes. I’m Neale James, I am, a documentary wedding photographer, or in popular parlance, a reportage photographer. I want to explain through some of my favourite wedding pictures what that label means, how it defines what I do, and how it’s been adapted slightly to meet my vision of wedding photography in 2014. Let me start with one of the most precious bridal preparation photographs.
The time was approaching for the ceremony, calm descended in the bridal suite and mum found time to present a family heirloom to her daughter. I was capturing some simple portraits at the time, not what the purists would label wedding photojournalism, but then these are often times when the unexpected happens. I look at this picture and it’s simply palpable. I can still feel the occasion, the reaction, the beautiful tension of a truly emotional exchange between two people. Ask me why I shoot weddings, and I’ll show you a picture such as this. This is someone being honest and vulnerable. It’s human capture. It’s what drives an essentially soft hearted person such as I to consider that capturing weddings well is my contribution to the World. It’s what I do. And the more I do it, the more I seek this kind of moment.
A decade ago I became a photographer, professionally. I ‘retired’ from radio broadcasting, which had been my life for some fifteen years, my love for a lot longer. I’d had a fifteen year party and met some incredible people, including my wife. It certainly felt strange not to be a part of the industry of words that had fuelled my creative enthusiasm for as long as I could remember. In complete honesty, wedding photography as a photographic genre was not a loud blip on my radar, yet these days I often comment with wry humour when asked about why I photograph weddings, that life leads you down aisles, literally in my case, that you otherwise weren’t planning.
The picture above describes documentary wedding photography perfectly to me. I’d only just arrived at Church and was scouting a best position for the day. I walked past this lad and noticed his eyes follow my every movement. Nothing about him though moved, except that is for his eyes. He’s a lad not much older than my eldest, who chewing the pew, would rather be anywhere but here right now. It’s a scene that does so much more than simply show a young lad waiting. It depicts the environment, and that’s what makes this a simple documentary photograph. Seconds later someone instructed him to; “Smile for the man.” So this frame, this frame, this is the real moment. And that’s what documenting a wedding is about. For me it’s not necessarily about being a hidden entity that nobody sees or recognises as the photographer, neither is about orchestrating some kind of photoshoot. It’s about capturing real character in real time, as naturally as possible.
“I bet this digital lark has made your job easier eh?” If I had a penny for every time I hear that. Digital photography has been one of the most important cross cultural and cross society inventions of the past couple of decades. Billions of people have a pictorial voice like never before. In some ways that’s devalued what photographic skill means. Everyone around us seems to have a camera. Doesn’t that make us all photographers then? Well, no. Having a camera doesn’t make you a photographer, it makes you a camera owner, just as having a saucepan doesn’t make you a chef, it just makes you a saucepan owner. The wedding photograph above captures several facets of a wedding before it’s even begun. It’s a split composition, it tells a story in two parts. The excitement of bridesmaids arriving, the tension of a groom waiting for his bride. It’s a scene setter. It’s seeing life differently.
Capturing natural unorchestrated moments from a wedding day defines wedding photojournalism, documentary or reportage wedding photography; all labels that probably most closely describe my style. Weddings are also about family and friends. If you’re building the documentary of a day as a photographer, part of that is the history of the people who attended. If it were possible to have an informal formal, that’s what I try to champion when it comes to family pictures. I believe that formals should be a subtle, small part of the day. It’s not my wedding day, it’s yours. This is not photoshoot, it’s part of a timeline in the heritage of your family’s history. So I don’t subscribe to 90 minute long portrait sessions, where in Columbo like fashion, there’s always ‘just one more thing.’
Documentary and reportage style wedding photography is more than simply snapshots from a day. It’s about having an instinct for what may happen, a grounded experience of the day itself. It’s still and always will be about composition. Lay a dozen prints side by side from a wedding photographer and a guest with camera and you should be able to tell immediately how engaged the professional is. That for me is the real difference.