Wedding photographers get a bad rap. Often the butt of jokes for professionals working in electronic media, wedding photographers are sometimes regarded as dilettantes or wannabes, people who simply didn't make it in the sexier, potentially more lucrative world of big budget commercial or corporate media. Wedding photographers shoot for small audiences. There’s no subscription model that works for this gig. Unless it’s stratospheric celebrity stuff, it's not the kind of work that has much of an outlet in syndicated magazines, carried on the web, or turned into large format billboards.
But guess what? When a wedding photographer shows up on the day of his or her assignment, the pressure is on. There are key moments that simply have to be recorded, usually with a high degree of artistry and flair. The photographer needs to disappear into the background, drift through the day with near invisibility, yet be capable of corralling other people at the right time to make a shot come together. Wedding photogs have to navigate hot hors d'oeuvres and precariously perched drinks, not to mention the relatives and guests who may have had one drink too many. The photographer needs to be a diplomat with those folks who might not want to be in the same photograph as other people. They might have to navigate mixed messages, challenging logistics, a relentless pace, and the biggest thing of all: moments that simply won't come around again. The audience may be small, but if a photographer wants to make his or her client happy, he or she only gets one chance to do it right.
Most people wouldn't consider wedding photography to be live performance, but that’s a narrow view. There's nothing more live than being at a one-time-only event and delivering the goods under pressure. Without a doubt many people in other fields phone in lots of their professional work, often delivering less-that-excellent results. But for those who face every work day as if it were a one-time opportunity know that excellence is always live. Life doesn't give you do-overs.
Periodically I travel with highly accomplished teams of scientists and aerospace designers on various missions around the country and around the world. My specific tasks may change, but the job is essentially the same thing every time, namely to tell a story efficiently and energetically, in ways that will communicate to people who had no idea what this whole enterprise was about before they encountered my tale. On these assignments I often work alone or with very small teams. On assignments like this, it’s common for my alarm clock to start the day at two in the morning, sometimes in an unfamiliar time zone. I often face significant security scrutiny, physical challenges, uncomfortable environments, and brutally long hours. I am often not allowed to bring the tools I wish I had to tell the story the way I might in different circumstances. I must travel light, adapt what I have to what arises, and fit in with highly focused teams who are often working on tight schedules. In the end, I need to deliver images or videos or essays or presentations that make outsiders feel like they were there and that they understand why it mattered.
All media jobs are about live performance. They may require weeks or even months of post-production, but fundamentally media is about creating content that will get very few performances. Think of it this way: most of us only see news reports or movies or television episodes one time—ever.) In the creation process of these media, things rarely go according to plan, but for the creators in the middle of the battle, those plans at least keep them aimed in the right direction.
When I travel to exotic engineering facilities where the future is taking shape, or remote launch pads as I try to chase rockets into space, I find myself reflecting on what it must be like as a wedding photographer. When I'm tired, cold, beat up, and rundown, I find myself thinking about how it’s the same at yet another suburban wedding in a rented hotel ballroom. Those photographers hustling for a paycheck know that no matter what happens, they can’t miss the big kiss. They can’t miss the kiss, and they can’t miss a million other details, large and small. The job is to tell a story, and the story only happens once. Their client doesn’t need to know, and certainly doesn’t need to care how the photographer’s job is going during the ceremony or the party afterwards, but when the final images get handed over, there will be a certain kind of revelation. Tell the story well? The photographer gets to continue working, and perhaps dream of other things, too. Tell the story poorly? Well, baby, it’s survival of the fittest, and you just became lunch.
It’s always live performance is when the work is happening. That means anything can happen, without warning, and how you approach the job is what separates the wannabes from the pros.