The Business Of Making People Happy

Leanne + Peter's wedding

I’m firmly ensconced in post-production these days and fighting a bug since last week. I don’t know who’s winning — the bug or me. I’m in a holding pattern right now, neither better nor worse than after the Terry Fox Run last Sunday. I probably sound worse — coughing and a bit croaky — but I don’t feel worse, except my energy levels are lower than normal. That’s the immune system for you: it goes on vacation after the adrenaline rush is over, when the stressors subside even just a tiny bit. If this is as bad as it gets, I have no reason to complain.

Anyway, the title “The Business Of Making People Happy” is the basis of what I tell photography assistants before the weddings as a way to keep us all focused (pun intended). There are things you learn only through experience from photographing brides and grooms for an entire day, when the stress of this Big Event, the culmination of extensive planning for a year or more can take its toll on everyone. You aren’t just photographing people from a distance, you are with them for many hours, up close and personal.

Photography is a creative business, and photographers have to be problem-solvers. I believe you have to be that sort of person in the first place, otherwise this industry will send you on a one-way trip to a nervous breakdown. There is never much time to think about anything, you have to act on short notice (if any) or you lose opportunities and people lose faith in you.

Wedding photographers are part journalist, part stage manager, part director, part fashion photographer, and the person who shows the guys how to pin a boutonniere because it’s something that nobody ever seems to know how to do (without drawing blood). Much of that takes place even before the ceremony begins.

But before all of that, a wedding photographer has to learn how to read people, and read people quickly. All the little (and not-so-little) insecurities bubble to the surface when it comes to photos, everything to do with self-image and body issues, things you don’t think people worry about, but they do — everything from bald spots to “old-lady hands” to “fang”-y teeth. You have to downplay those, and concentrate on things they like about themselves. Sometimes it’s unclear what those are, either, but you have to find out asap.

Personality, social behaviour, peer pressure, relationships with family, relationships with friends… it all comes out at weddings, positive and negative. We see every single emotion in the spectrum, front and centre. Somehow you have to rise above all that high emotion and learn how to manage situations and turn them around if they start heading south. There’s always the challenge of maintaining high energy for pictures. You have to manage boredom, too, which is even harder because timing is really out of the photographer’s control. The simple question of “How do I make these people happy?” becomes very complicated when unfavourable circumstances crop up and people become fixated with problems.

That is before dealing with anything technical, anything about equipment malfunctioning or the myriad ways in which things can go wrong photographically. There’s that, too. I’m responsible for more than just me. In Mexico the wind blew over the light stand on the beach and broke the umbrella. The assistant’s equipment malfunctioned before the wedding in New York City and so did the equipment on the day, the other assistant’s equipment from the last wedding malfunctioned a couple of days before, and at the wedding in mid-July I knocked over a light stand, sending the flash plus transceiver crashing to the ground. Nothing can stop, though, you have to try to forget that nauseating sound of parts shattering and keep on with the mission of capturing an event. Your own (un)happiness is contagious, too.

I bring a portable photo printer or two to weddings, and after backing up the photos to the laptop during the reception (usually while eating at the same time), I search for an image or two to print out and send home with the elderly folk, parents, and people from out-of-town. In April a DJ told me that in 15 years he has never seen a photographer do this before, and he thought it was a great idea.

father of the bride with a print

I love to see the reactions on people’s faces at weddings — it’s like a bulb turning on. Grandparents tend to head home early and generally don’t use computers (at least to the extent the rest of us do), so when I run over and hand them a print to take with them their faces light up. I’ve been using these printers for nine years, and the instant gratification they provide is quite amazing. Pictures have tremendous power to bring people joy, which reinforces my underlying belief that we are doing much more than taking snapshots of things around us, that we have opportunities to make people happy on the day, and in the future when they see the photos of their happy selves.