The Privilege of Bearing Witness

By Jessie Parker

There’s an odd thing about being a wedding photographer. You find yourself in a strangely intimate position with people you barely know. There are a lot of very personal things that happen on a wedding day and there you are with a front row seat for all of it- whether you like it or not!

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When you’re tired and stressed and it’s been a long weekend, it’s easy to forget that a wedding day is literally a day the entire family will never forget. It’s like a nexus in the middle of the web of their lives. So many incidents, people, feelings- everything has lead to this one brief moment. As such, there’s a weird sort of power to that day. It’s an electric charge that lights it up more brightly in memory than the thousands of other days that came before and followed after. Being part of that experience literally hundreds of times has to have an effect on you. I’m not even completely positive what the total of that effect is, but sometimes we do get somewhat anesthetized to the intensity of other people’s emotions. You can’t keep doing this if you’re always feeling things the way your clients do. Even so, you have to respect the value of the emotions and the honor of being a part of them.

I have seen wonderful and sometimes, not so wonderful things happen on wedding days. Contrary to popular belief, true “bridezillas” are mercifully rare (or maybe I’m just so used to them I don’t really notice anymore). I enjoy seeing a new family formed that blends stepparents and stepchildren in a joyous way. Conversely, my heart still breaks remembering the time I saw a young girl tearfully hug her dad before his wedding ceremony and then leave the church sobbing, not to return for the rest of the day. I’ve seen brides, grooms, and many, many parents and grandparents struggle against physical disabilities to be able to miraculously walk down the aisle or enjoy a first dance or parent dance. I’ve also stood only a few feet away while a bride and groom literally split up during their own wedding reception.

More than once, I’ve been the sole witness to true heartbreak. It’s times like these that you have to carefully measure whether you should document what you’re seeing or just allow that moment to pass, unrecorded. I once watched as a bride’s father quietly wept at his table, as the reception went on around him. His wife, the bride’s mother, had been taken by cancer only five days before and at her insistence, they had gone on with the wedding in her honor. The whole family had thrown themselves into feeling joy on the wedding day with a determination and intensity that was piercing to watch. No one had cried all day, not even the bride, but her father had finally been overcome and allowed himself a quiet moment in a room full of boisterous celebration. No one else seemed to notice. I weighed the ethics of it. Should I ignore it out of respect for his grief (usually the way I would go) or take a photo just so the bride can know later? I decided on the more complicated option. I respectfully took one very, very careful photograph- no flash and with a long lens, so he wouldn’t know it was happening. I wanted to leave him to his grief, but I knew his daughter would want to see the the love in his eyes- at once crushed with sadness, but overwhelmed with gratitude for the friends and family that had made that day possible. I took the photograph and retreated before he noticed.

There’s real, raw beauty in genuine emotion, whether it’s joy, pain, or a mixture of both. Bearing witness to that rare beauty is a privilege; a curious fringe benefit/curse of the profession. I try to honor these moments and keep them in my heart. I think it’s part of the job.

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