Mike Riley on Saying Yes to Fully Documentary Wedding Photography

With regards to weddings I tell people that I’m a documentary wedding photographer. But really I’m just a photographer at a wedding. I resisted shooting weddings for so long, forever basically.

The truth is that I just dont like wedding photography. I have an aversion to cheese and I see a lot of it in wedding photography. Back lit umbrellas on a rainy night sky, small people in big landscapes, couples looking lost and soppy in the fields. Half the time the images aren’t even made at weddings it seems and another thing that blows my mind is the concept that any couple should give the photographer a couple of hours of their day for what becomes essentially a portfolio shoot. The whole concept is horrible. That’s not what a wedding looks like or feels like to me.

So I resisted shooting weddings, from time to time I would say no to people asking me to shoot their wedding and I would push back against friends who told me to get out of my fur lined rut and shoot weddings and then I had an epiphany. Wedding photography didn’t have to look like that other stuff I saw. I could take a different approach. I didn’t have to be a wedding photographer, but I could be a photographer at a wedding. Literally a week after that thought struck me a commercial client asked me to shoot his wedding and I said yes, on the proviso that I could shoot it how I wanted. It was very important that he and his wife to be understood that that would mean no soppy couples portraits, no family line ups and no posed anything. What it would be though is an honest account of the day, a document of the relationships between people and the story of the couple in that context. Luckily for me that commercial client said yes and became my first wedding client.

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There’s a certain leap of faith involved in hiring a documentary style photographer for a wedding. There are issues. Families may expect something else. The client has to let go of pre conceived notions of what a wedding should look like, notions instilled in them by the bridal media, wedding blogs and websites and the world around them. They also have to trust the photographer because what they’re buying into at the end of the day and what will be delivered to them is the photographer’s interpretation of their wedding. Trust is paramount in the relationship.

So as a documentary wedding photographer what am I trying to do? I’m looking to record the people as individuals and as a group, and I’m looking to document their interaction and emotion, or sometimes in cases where it doesn’t exist, the lack of interaction or emotion. I don’t have a rosy view of it – I want to show it how it is. I’m not there to flatter anyone, I am there to find and curate a story while at the same time looking for the elements that I want to see in pictures myself. In the words of Harold Evans, former editor of the Times and Sunday Times, I’m looking for animation, meaning and context , to which list I would add good light. Some times you can get several of them in one shot, rarely will you get all of them, but when that happens you have something special.

To achieve this I watch what’s happening, and I integrate with the crowd. I try to become just another guest. I wear the same clothes as they do, I talk to them and mingle and I don’t carry massive zoom lenses on huge cameras swinging from SWAT team style harnesses. Quite often I will just be walking around with a small Fuji Xpro2 and a 23mm lens. Looking for things happening, listening to conversations, anticipating reactions – theres a lot of waiting and anticipation. Patience is a virtue in a documentary wedding photographer.

I didn’t meet Ali and Aisha before their wedding. They live in London and I’m down in the west country, a couple of hundred miles away but we had a couple of telephone conversations and several emails back and forth before their big day at Polhawn Fort. Polhawn is an authentic Napoleonic gun battery built in 1886 to defend the coast line from hostile invasion. It was later found to be facing the wrong direction to be effective but thats another story. The fort is built into the cliff face overlooking a secluded beach at Polhawn Cove and it’s dark, very dark inside. The kind of dark that makes you work hard. Ali and Aisha had a two day wedding event. The first day was a traditional henna party and ceremony followed by a civil wedding on the second day. Both days were full of colour and joy and thats what I wanted to record and show the couple after the event was over. There was lots of music, lots of colour, traditional ceremonies from multiple cultures and lots and lots of dancing. The families and friends were clearly very close to each other. The bonds here were very tight and they weren’t afraid to be seen expressing that. It was a pleasant change for me to see a wedding quite like this blending cultures as it did but one that I thoroughly enjoyed covering.

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Guest post writing and images by Mike Riley.

All images shot with Fuji Xpro2, 23mm & 56mm & Nikon D810, 35mm & 85mm.

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About Mike Riley: Mike is award winning commercial and documentary wedding photographer based in the UK, serving commercial and wedding clients worldwide. Outside of work he maintains a personal photographic practice based around conceptual and still life photography and has been featured on the BBC’s “Show Me the Monet” program in 2012. His most recent feature was on the Fujifilm blog in an article about professional photographers who use their X system mirrorless cameras. Apart from making pictures his other great loves are motorcycles, cats and a good pint. The three dont necessarily mix.

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Author: Eboni Rivera
Fearless and Framed's Course and Community Ambassador + Self proclaimed "Memory Giver". Eboni is a Family Documentary Photographer and Film Artist at Luxe Art Images, LLC located in Long Island, NY. She provides emotive, heart-tugging, feel good photography and films for families who give a damn about the preservation of their memories. Her approach to photography allows families to leave behind a legacy of who they are, how much they love and just how awesome their lives truly are.

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