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What is documentary photography, really? | My approach to photographing people and love

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

In the pursuit of a wedding photographer, you'll come across different descriptions of their photographic style; "editorial," "timeless," "moody," and something plastered all over my site: "documentary."


I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak to my approach for documentary-style photography, also known as “photojournalism,” “storytelling,” etc. In this blog post, I’ll share my two cents on the documentary photography approach as well as my ambition for my work going forward. Starting off talking through some backstory, sharing example images, and closing out with the 5 "pillars" of my approach that keep me centered in authentic coverage.

First, some backstory

 

This year was all about unlearning basically everything I had learned about not just wedding photography, but photographing people in general. In my work, I have always strived for an authentic feel and prioritize the moments > picture perfect poses. Easy to say, but in practice, not the easiest to evoke without some contemplation.

Over the years, I’ve worked for phenomenal photographers, each with their own approach and array of clientele. For those of you who aren’t wedding photographers, how most of us start out is by “second shooting” for others (i.e., covering a secondary perspective on wedding days, mostly following but sometimes leading for certain portraits). I began second shooting in 2018 and I still love it. It’s a fun way to support my friends’ businesses and continue to gain more experience.

So along the way, you pick up other’s tendencies and approaches, and maybe notice certain things that work well for them, but doesn't feel aligned to your work. Early on in your career, it's easiest to follow the crowd and do what's status quo, because you assume that's what clients expect. (Such as strict shot lists, allocating a certain amount of time for portraits, staging first looks, etc.) But, I had an ah-ha moment this year since stepping into the position of planning my own wedding; thinking about how I wanted to feel being photographed.



How it feels to be photographed

 

Thinking of our wedding day, I did not want it to feel like a photoshoot. So often, that's what it becomes and that really doesn't sit right with me. My fiancé and I want the time and the space to be present and mingle with our people. Sure, we want nice photographs, but in my profession, I know that can (!) be achieved in the moment: exchanging laughs at cocktail hour, a group hug after the ceremony, and everything in between.


Switching sides and being in front of the lens, I realized how important it is to give people space to (1) be themselves and (2) enjoy their celebration. This way, I'm able to capture authentic expressions and embraces, and you're able to just be you!


Being photographed, you should feel: light, celebrated, free, comfortable. Especially with your brand-spanking new spouse. Portraits with them is time to soak in the newlywed bliss and stare longingly into their eyes. Similarly to photos with your closest family and friends, it should feel celebratory and heart-wrenchingly emotional.


I honor that. I don't see it as my role to distort your day, but it is absolutely my role to be immersed in it with you and to bring a calm energy to allow you to feel at ease (light, celebrated, free, comfortable) being photographed. This results in a wedding gallery of images where you look back and remember how it felt to be there, not what pose I told you to do.


This is what documentary approach is all about.


And it completely changed how I photograph. Fabricating moments for photos or disrupting the flow of the day is a disservice to your experience. It's not that I avoid setting time for portraits, because they're important and you deserve your wedding attire glamour shots, as well as photos with those you love most.


There's a time and place for looking at the camera and smiling, and that doesn't have to be so stiff or regimented. During any set time for portraits, I encourage couples to take in the moment and I'll handle the rest; organizing folks and providing gentle direction. What I'm getting at, is that this doesn't have to be your *entire* wedding day, just pockets here and there versus abiding by a strict shot list and timeline for posed photos.


It's a mindset shift on both our parts, photographing/being photographed in the moments versus forcing a moment just to be photographed. Remember, I'll be by your side all day and each piece of the story is important to me.


My goal is always to photograph you as you are, without the fluff or fuss.

Ok, so then what does it look like?

 

I could go on and on attempting to convey what I mean, so I'll just go ahead and let these photos do the talking and share what happened behind the scenes.

Seconds after saying "I-do," their first private moment of the day. I snapped this one photo and stepped back to give them space to soak up these emotions and for their family to run over for a big group hug.


Shannon's first look with her father. He walked over, unprompted, and took over the role as photographer to preserve this moment of his daughter as a bride. They exchanged a hug and notes while I snapped photos at this distance.


Disassembling from a DJ-prompted group photo with all of your guests. I love the chaos and all of the expressions, including Evan's gratitude, captured on film.


Lexi giving Grammy a smooch in the middle of their packed dance floor after

busting moves together.


Groomsmen taking on Lawrenceville, scouting locations for their photos. I told them to pick a storefront that told a story about their friendship or spoke to their personalities. This was a camera shop, and this groom is a photographer!


Ananya & Tommy spotting me on the stairs after a group prayer with their

family before their ceremony.


Hannah & Zach cracking up at his nephew's commentary during the ceremony.


Holt pausing during portraits to give his bride, Lex, a kiss on her hand.


I handed Nicole & Richard a film camera to take photos of each other, creating an experience to be remembered versus me calling all the shots.


Three photos from portraits of Lexi & Derek. #1 is a formal, more traditional portrait. #2 is them, cuddled up and laughing uncontrollably. #3 features a surprise guest! These two pet parents were so excited we had a furry friend make a cameo.


Lilly leaning on Ian as his brother gives a toast during dinner. Everyone listening

closely and laughing hard.


A bridal party posed for a portrait, with room open for the bride & groom. Interacting while they wait and looking good while doing so.


3 generations of family seated by the dance floor.


Shannon's sister in the doorway, on standby to help her get in her dress.


A bride & groom looking at the camera and smiling, while strolling downtown. Absolutely nothing wrong with a classic portrait moment.




My 5 pillars for honest documentary coverage

 

My philosophy (also plastered all over my site) is that photos are forever. They freeze moments in time and transport you back to how a moment felt. What's especially cool about wedding photography, is that we can show you the excitement on your guests faces and other happenings that you may have not seen with your own eyes. All of this is important, and why I do things the way I do.


It’s not that everything I’ve learned is “wrong,” I was just ready to embrace change this wedding season. To do so, I dug deep and honed in on what “people-centered” really means to me.


It boiled down to these top 5 "pillars" that I hold close:

  1. Release control. It's not my day to orchestrate and I can only control what I can control, like my camera settings, attitude, and words. I can't control the weather or if people want to smile in group portraits. A big piece of authentic coverage is understanding that things don't always go as planned and honoring the outcome anyhow.

  2. Read the room. Watch body language, build an understanding of the relationships among the people I'm photographing. I'm noticing mannerisms and documenting interactions that help preserve the memory your people.

  3. Set the scene. Document the atmosphere, take photos of inanimate things that will help tell the story: a portrait in the hotel room or umbrellas soggy from the rain. I bounce around to take unique perspectives that encapsulate the energy and show off the venue/details that you hand picked for the occasion.

  4. Follow the action. The couple is the main subject, so I balance following them and how people are interacting with them. Especially during the reception, I'll watch how guests react to speeches and be sure the gallery includes a mix of the couple in the moment, as well as moments they may have missed.

  5. Be realistic. I step back and ask myself: would these people do this pose in real life? If the answer is no, I've stopped doing it. People hug, people dance, people hold hands, make eye contact and talk. People don't self-organize into a Flying V and pretend to cheer while their friends kiss.


Photos are forever

 

My approach to documentary photography is rooted in the fact that I care, a lot. I love this role and the honor of being a wedding documentarian. I'm there for you, not for my portfolio or a paycheck.


I wanted to put this blog post out there to reach potential clients, giving you a glimpse at what it's like to work with me. All weddings and couples are wildly different, and I'm adaptable, so I can be who you need me to be to be most comfortable in front of my lens. (So if that includes being posed, I'm by no means against it!) I'm just here to invite you to take a different perspective on what it's like to be photographed and to trust in my ability to balance observance and guidance.


2024 is going to be year FIVE (!!) of my business and what a joyous journey it has been. I've lost count of how many weddings I've photographed at this point but they've all been stepping stones for curating my approach and style. And I look forward to continue evolving.


Thank you to all the beautiful couples who trust me to capture their best day, to fellow photographers who invited me to work beside them, and to you - if you've made it all the way through this post!


<3 Ashley




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