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The Wedding Industrial Complex Strikes Again: A Response to the New York Times Article on Elopements

In the bizarro world of the Wedding Industry™, I like to think I’m a little bit of an outlier. I have the, perhaps naive, notion that I get to live on an island of my own making while far away, the good guys and the bad guys (and yes, there are both – and I think you know who is in each category) of the wedding world compete for the hearts and minds of engaged couples. My clients, their elopements, and I were sheltered from all of that to a large extent. We created a place for ourselves separate from the Wedding Industry™, and all the wedding magazines and crazy expectations could not touch us. I run my business with the belief that it is the marriage that is the thing, and your wedding is not a photo shoot.

You may think that this is an incredibly hypocritical thing for a photographer to say, but it’s a core belief of my business. Yes – I photograph portraits, but I shoot them in a way that feels natural to my clients. I go into every single wedding thinking… “How can I best document this day for my clients?” Not… “How can I get this wedding published?” Go ahead – look around. You will not find couples standing in a field holding vintage suitcases, or lounging on a fainting sofa in a clearing in the woods, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I am a documentarian more than anything else, and I believe that comes across in my work – even the portraits. I will say it one more time… your wedding is not a photo shoot. Your wedding is your wedding.

Yesterday my husband and I were enjoying our lazy Sunday morning, reading the paper as we usually do. He passed me the Sunday Styles section excitedly, “An article on elopements!” “Oh good!” I thought. “Someone is interested in us.” Except… it wasn’t good. At all. It was really really bad. And it made me – someone who will have photographed over 100 elopements by the end of 2012 – feel a little dirty. Our happy, little island was invaded by the Wedding Industrial Complex. Maybe I should have realized it was only a matter of time. But, as I said, we are so sheltered here… I never saw it coming.

First things first, if you haven’t read the article go do that real quick: Elaborate Weddings, Minus the Guests. Hurry. I’ll wait.

Back? Ok.

Let me be very clear before I go any further… I am in favor of any way a person chooses to marry, so long as it is the commitment itself that remains central throughout everything. I did not elope. I had a “big wedding.” I spent most of last year photographing what one would consider “big weddings.” And I will spend most of this summer doing the same. My last “big wedding” will be in October of this year, and then I will turn my focus solely on elopements from there on out. And my “big wedding” couples are no less in love and no less focused on the marriage, just because they’re having “big weddings.” I think that I am just fortunate enough to attract the type of people that don’t get caught up in the WIC madness. I am not here to shame or judge anyone for the way they get married – have whatever kind of wedding you want to have. But there’s a huge difference between having what you want, what’s important to you, and doing something because the Wedding Industry™ says YOU MUST. This isn’t elopements versus WEDDINGS or budget affairs versus elaborate affairs. And I need you to understand that. It’s not the “elaborate” part that I necessarily have a problem with. It’s ok to want certain things on your wedding day, no matter how you’re marrying. My discontent today is directed solely at the sinister force that has invaded my home turf… and that force has more to do with the expectation of style and perfection perpetuated by wedding blogs and wedding magazines than anything else.

What left a great distaste in my mouth in this article was not so much the elopements themselves (with one notable exception), but the purveying attitude that big or small, your wedding must be a production. The Wedding Industry™ realized we were getting away with something over here, and they just can’t have that. They remind us over and over and over in the article: “Why shell out for another rubber chicken dinner… when what really matters are the luscious photos capturing the style and pageantry, which can be ‘liked’ or ‘pinned’ by users of social media sites?” “It was almost a glorified photo shoot for the two of us.” “…arrange an elopement with all the production values of a fairy tale wedding.” “The more spectacular the setting the better.” And most vomit inducing of all, “To be considered for such [wedding] blogs, however, design matters. That means styling an elopement as ambitiously as any other wedding.”

This isn’t about bonding your life with another’s! This isn’t about making a commitment! This is about showing everyone how fabulous you are, and what excellent taste you have. This is about designing your wedding for publication. Read that again. Designing your wedding for publication. Is that really what we should all be doing? The whole thing makes me a little queasy. And It’s something that I don’t want a part of any longer.

Do what you want to do and have what you want to have, because those things are important to you deep down in your soul. It’s okay to want the pretty. But not just for the sake of hopefully getting your wedding published in the end. That’s not why you got married, that’s not why you had (or didn’t have) a party. Right? Details are fun. I enjoy photographing them, sure. But not as much as I enjoy photographing two people as they emerge from City Hall moments after making it legal; or the look on someone’s face as their partner says “I do.”

Some would say despite my protestations and belief that I am something of a Wedding Industry™ deviant, I am just as guilty as the fancy planner who helps you style your elopement with the end goal of having it published in The Knot. I don’t photograph elopements for free, after all. (Although I would if I had millions of dollars.) Maybe there’s no way to escape that somehow I am still part of this horrible machine. This machine that is designed solely to convince you that you need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to truly be happy on your wedding day. But I like to think that I’m not. And I have friends who I believe are not. I will never try to upsell you into getting something you just don’t need, and I have talked people out of hiring me who were on the fence about whether they really needed a photographer or not. (Spoiler alert: You don’t.)

There is one last thing in the article that must be addressed. The final couple interviewed who eloped in Vietnam “hired local children to carry the posts for the ceremonial canopy. Flower girls in cream-colored traditional dresses… carried crocheted lace lanterns.” I’m sorry, but there’s something terribly wrong with that. The native residents of the country where you are eloping should not be props in your fairy tale wedding. End of story.

I no longer want any part of the wedding blog or wedding magazine nonsense. I am no longer interested in having weddings published, and I don’t think I’m going to play their game anymore. I shoot for YOU. Not for Style Me Pretty.

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  • A-freaking-men.

  • **wild applause**

  • Jacque

    Thank you for articulating this so perfectly!

  • “I shoot for YOU, not Style Me Pretty”. I love you for this!!

  • YES, THIS! Times one million! Well said.

  • This is fantastically enlightening.. That article was HORRIBLE and I applaud you for doing what you do because you LOVE IT! Not because magazines or other blogs love it! Go Katie!

  • wow. wow. wow. — I cannot believe some of the things I just read in the Times. That part about planning a wedding solely for the purpose of being published is downright absurd! Surly everyday women can’t really be that vain. :( Thank you for saying what many of us are thinking Katie. I’m still in disbelief!

  • I could kiss you I love you so much right now! Sharing immediately.

  • Jen

    Thank you so much for articulating everything that I felt about the article, too. And the final sentiment — that you no longer want to be a part of it, that you’re shooting for the couple — is also exactly what I felt too. I’ve had it. I just unsubscribed from all my wedding design blog feeds. Phew!!! Thanks, New York Times :)

  • YESSSSS!

  • UGH!!!!! That article was so icky, and the idea that a wedding is a chance for couples to one-up each other with their pageantry is abhorrent!!!!!

    Thanks for writing from the sane photographer’s perspective! I have to give this a GIANT Amen!

  • *love*

    and thank you for saving the rest of us the trouble of writing a response!

  • Thank you. Gods, that makes my stomach churn, especially the flower girl thing. Colonialism is the BEST part of a wedding ceremony.

  • Also…I love that picture. Yes, that definitely needed to be said as well.

  • Brava!

  • Joanna Gianni Murphy

    You Rock!!!!!!!

  • LOVE that last line!!!!

  • I have been stalking your blog for the better part of six months and this is the first time I’ve commented but I just had to say AMEN! This is exactly how I feel and largely why I stopped photographing weddings entirely. I dreamed of doing something like you – photographing elopements or very small backyard affairs but the WIC terrified me frankly, and I didn’t think I stood a chance against it. This weekend my disgust reached an all time high as I tuned into a live online photography workshop and found the subject was the making of an editorial wedding – three days shoved full of how to shoot a wedding for a wedding blog rather than the couple. I am newly inspired to pursue photographing people in a way that focuses exclusively on THEM and nothing else. Very well written, Katie. Thank you so much.