The shape of rituals, happiness, and camera lenses

by on Monday, 01 July 2013 Comments


“A photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real”

~Susan Sontag

I like to shoot boring things; and this makes the act of photographing a wedding quite difficult, because I need to capture touching moments. This is not entirely my problem, but is rather related to the fact that emotions in weddings are always expressed in similar ways, so after attending two or three you become tired.

For example, when the bride-to-be is leaving the parents, the photographer has to arrange for her to look fixedly at them, while the grandmother joyously but also with sadness leads her away; the groom must very loudly greet the guests; the elders must constantly emphasize the need to have children; friends of the same age must be jovial and energetic. All of this is not devoid of emotion, and even if it were that wouldn’t necessarily be bad; the problem is: why do these emotions have to be expressed through these motions and rituals?

In my experience, I have come to realise people don’t actually believe these rituals are that important. It’s true that there are some newly-weds that take pleasure in them, but there are also some who don’t care in the slightest (one time I accidently tripped over a bride on the red carpet, and she didn’t get annoyed). More often, they get impatient with these actions, and quietly say: “I hope we can get this over with as soon as possible”. It seems like they “just” think that they “should” perform these actions and scenes. At times I even think that, as a wedding photographer, I am not a spectator to other people’s happiness, but rather to their suffering. But my question still remains: Why do we need to have these “shoulds” and “justs”?

I know that these actions all have classical origins, such as “stepping over the oven” and “throwing the fan”. Despite modern wedding ceremonies having become standardized and simplified, these rituals are still maintained in their traditional way, I don’t quite know why. Maybe they can be explained through a utilitarian lens; for example consolidating social networks or positions within a household through rituals, or maybe they stem from an abstract concept of “completeness”. With regards to this last point, I have seen it more clearly in the middle classes than in other social groups. I suppose it must be because interpersonal ties between the middle class are less strong than those between members of a village, and they also don’t have the economic and social status interconnection of the upper classes, which is why they need a ritual of “completeness” in order to make everything appear natural and meaningful. Wedding rituals are like a complete tea set, its value depends on being complete.

If we adhere to these explanations, and believe that the rites in weddings are a product of history or society, we accept them in the same way we accept evolutionary outcomes or tribal traditions, and see them as neither negative nor positive, as passive. From this, we can extrapolate that there are in fact some actions that have more substance and meaning, that we can choose, that are active. But, is this really the case? 


 I remember I received a few tourism photography cases. According to logic, one would think that tourists have no pressure, that they can be themselves. When taking pictures, therefore, it follows that they would freely come up with their own poses and things to capture. Even if they aren’t very arty, there shouldn’t be a trend towards standardization. The reality, however, is very different. In the process of the trip, people still carry out all sorts of “rituals”. For example, taking pictures in front of ugly signposts for scenic spots, releasing dazzling flashes in dark places, or changing the appearance of somewhere shabby and making it look pleasant… This is no different from the fixed ways of shooting wedding pictures, and if anything is even more standardized. If, even in the most memorable spots, the way of taking the picture is already determined, it is still ritualistic.

There is a very clear piece of evidence to support this: In the process of photographing a wedding, the photographer and his subjects are not victims, but rather conspirators. When I am in the process of photographing a wedding, I am often asked to present a strong image. For example it is desired that the photographer be very self-confident, even to the point of being coarse and rude. The photographer needs to interact with people in a lively manner, as if he was incomparably cordial and kind-hearted, but at times he must also not care about the feelings of those he is photographing. All of this makes me believe that people don’t actually need a tender observer; they want a cold-blooded director. My mission isn’t to capture beautiful images, it is to create them. In one of my past weddings I was even in charge of conducting the whole process! I was very shocked, but I realised later on that this was normal, even if there is a matchmaker situation, the wedding itself is generally conducted by the photographer. What I am trying to say is that in modern weddings, the photographer is an active creator, and what’s more, this role is expected by the subjects.

Therefore, it is not so much that the photographer passively captures various activities. If this was the case, some pictures would appear spontaneous, while others are more ritualistic. In reality, however, in Taiwan, other than artistic photography, most photographs look really similar, which might be an issue with the popular aesthetic. Another perspective on this is that this kind of aesthetic standard is dictated by the nature of photography itself. For example, a lot of people like taking pictures with very strong lighting and a shallow depth of field, and this is obviously related to the built-in sensitivity of cameras to light and to their preset depth of field. From the point of view of a professional photographer, it is true that this depth of field and lighting will be used if it suits the subject matter, but to the general population, these characteristics are the definition of aesthetics, with no concern for the subject matter. In other words, it is a priori. It’s similar to the way that no matter what the actual content of what you write with a Chinese calligraphy writing brush is, it will give people an old-fashioned feeling of cherishing the past; in a wedding, what photography moulds a priori is happiness. To put it another way, happiness needs to become something suitable to be filmed. Susan Sontag said: “Photography doesn’t merely record experience, it alters it”. If feelings are a form of experience, then wedding photography truly gives form to them.

I started to think about wedding receptions again, and realised just how important photography is. For example, new wedding reception halls are built with a very high ceiling, for the convenience of the photographer; old-fashioned hotels, no matter how high class, are missing this aspect, so the end result is very different. Wedding receptions are actually not very practical for the conveying of emotions; it is for the sake of creating a good moment that people perform actions such as offering tea, toasting, entering the room, and embracing. People might forget the origin of the tradition, but they won’t forget the camera lens in front of them. It goes without saying that, if the reason the bride is incessantly changing outfits isn’t for the camera, then, why is she doing it? Photography has become the sole ruler of the whole process of the wedding ceremony, it alone can decide the pace of the ceremony, decide what emotions are worthy of being preserved; the photographer decided what happiness should be like in the wedding. If you don’t believe this, look at who can wear the most casual clothing in an event, that is the person with the most power.

Musicians and food experts may disagree; perhaps for them the happiness of a wedding is based on the sounds and tastes. But as a photographer, I know that photography has an innate advantage: it’s automation and framing allows it to shape the feelings of happiness much better than any other medium and to cut off a piece of reality, and is this not a requisite for happiness? Another irreplaceable characteristic of photography is that, no matter how phony the picture, it still proves that there was something. In the words of Roland Barthes it proves that “this existed”. And is the point of the wedding not just to prove this? We didn’t just happen to be classmates, happened to have broken up and I be free, happened to work in the same supermarket, happened to both like badminton. The reason for us to be together wasn’t just chance. There is something more to us than just “happened to”, and we want people to come bear witness to it, and there is nothing better than a camera to express this.

If photography really participates in the shaping of happiness, it follows that modern-day happiness needs to be fast, unrelated to reality, and has to prove its existence. In a certain way, rituals encompass all of these traits. More importantly, rituals can be photographed, which is a requirement of happiness, if not its essence. Regarding the aforementioned standardization, the endless repetition that strangles the feeling of freedom in people is not caused by the people themselves, but is rather a consequence of the very nature of the camera itself.


As a wedding photographer, what makes one the happiest is that everybody wants to show their best side; but the saddest part is that those best sides are all very similar. For example, I photographed a newlywed couple in the past who interacted with each other in a very unfamiliar way, as if they had just met for the first time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, perhaps they had a shared contempt for the rituals. However, when they were under the gaze of my camera lens, they looked exactly like all the other newlyweds: looking at each other and smiling from ear to ear.

Perhaps trying to express oneself is a strange thing; true beautiful, meaningful and extraordinary moments are sometimes not necessarily related to the twists and turns in our life. But, because we don’t always have time or professional equipment to preserve these truly moving moments, we let professionals help us in specific moments. The irony is, perhaps in the end, the so-called beauty is being determined by the equipment designed to help us. It’s just like the way touch screens have defined convenience; even though pressing buttons is faster and more accurate, people are still willing to believe in the properties of this item, and to allow it to adjust our nature as human beings. But if what we are looking for is not accuracy, and we don’t believe there was anything before touch screen, then happiness can become one’s phone, and this isn’t a bad thing. As long as one sees a smiling photograph, people will believe that day was a happy one. As long as one sees the appearance of happiness, people will believe it was really there. As long as one sees.




Translated from the Chinese by Daniel Pagan Murphy




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