I am what I am – The La Cage aux Folles Effect
Documentary, reportage, observational, relaxed and informal wedding photography.
I think it’s pretty much common knowledge amongst my photographer friends that, for want of a better word, I consider myself a documentary wedding photographer. At least that’s what I used to consider myself to be.
If I were pressed to define the style of wedding photography by a couple who were considering me as their photographer I would use phrases that seem to be in common usage. Documentary, reportage, observation, relaxed, candid, informal – the list goes on. These are all phrases and terms that a couple will come across when they start their search for a wedding photographer. To some couples these phrases will mean something, to others they’ll just be buzzwords that they’ve picked up online that help give a name to the type of wedding photography they are hoping to have on the day.
If you’ve never hired a professional photographer before, or quite possibly never really given much though to photography at all, it’s easy to do a quick search around the internet. Find a few wedding photographers whose style you like and pick up on the terms they use to describe their work. You may find yourself before long using words like documentary, reportage, observational when it comes to talking about what you’d like on your wedding day. But what do they really mean?
Well, earlier this week I was privileged enough to share a room with some of the finest wedding photographers I know. We were all there to take part in a seminar on wedding photography which was being run by one of the top photographer teams in the UK (I’ve purposely not defined their style, for reasons which will become apparent). Some of the photographers I knew of and their work. Others, I’d not seen their work before, or knew anything about them. Obviously I got a chance to chat with them all over the course of the seminar. As the day went on, a thought started out in my mind. By the time we were looking at sample albums we’d all brought in of our work, that thought had crystallized into something. That something being – none of us really during the course of the day had put a label on our own photography. We weren’t photojournalists, vintage, reportage, modern, traditional or any other label, we were just wedding photographers. Plain and simple.
On the drive home I thought about this some more.
Why this need for labels? Sure, to couples like yourselves who have never had to hire a wedding photographer before, it’s helpful to have a term that describes what it is you’re looking for. It’s like buying a car for the first time. Do you want a sports car, a compact, a 4×4, a touring, a sedan or a people mover? Labels help us define what we want. But what happens when those labels are wrong?
You may want a sports car, but what happens if you find someone who calls all his cars sports cars because that happens to be a ‘trendy’ term, when in fact he sells people movers?
This is why I think labels are a bit of a bad thing in wedding photography*. You may want just informal wedding photography, but end up with a documentary wedding photographer and be unhappy that there weren’t group shots of everyone from your wedding. You may want documentary photography and then be annoyed when the photographer takes you away for a three hour photo session with his shiny new portable flash heads.
In the musical ‘La Cage aux Folles’ there is a song ‘I am What I am’ when one of the characters, who has been hiding behind a mask, proudly announces to the word that he is what he is – no more, no less. Take it or leave it.
If we, as wedding photographers simply ditched the labels and said – ‘this is what we do’, either it connects with you or it doesn’t, I think we would be doing everyone a great favour.
My wedding photography isn’t technically documentary, it’s not ‘reportage’ (hell, I don’t think anyone actually knows what reportage photography technically means!) It’s not ‘modern’, it’s not ‘vintage’, it’s not ‘observational’.
It just is what it is.
It’s not for everyone, but for those people who connect with it, it’s the most perfect wedding photography in the world. It doesn’t need a label.
*Alas, Google has decided that it’s convenient to shoe horn us all into tiny little niche groups and has propagated the use of labels which we’ll never throw off. So, I’m stuck playing this game of through necessity having to use labels to describe my work online.Google+