I was speaking to a dear friend this week about my love for photographing weddings. It’s not only because I love documenting rites of passage or pretty things, but because weddings put pressure on normal relationships, and while this sounds like a negative it gives opportunity for those relationships to shine. Deep roots are revealed that are normally hidden under bustle of everyday life, and while it is cliche, true colors are shown. There is always the friend who becomes the ride or die bridesmaid, the one that usually is in the background. But not today. Today, she is on mission and it shines bright. There’s the family member who is stressed about the schedule, the Uncle who brought along his camera and inevitably jumps in front of me during a crucial moment, and of course the wedding coordinator who is either best friend or foe. And then there is the bride looking her best on what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. But my first glimpse of her is before that. I arrive when hair and makeup isn’t complete, before the layers of lace and finishing spritzes of hairspray. I need to arrive early but even if I didn’t I would want to, because at that moment the bride is simply herself. A transformation is about to happen, but seeing each bride before this occurs reminds me that this is a person who today is a bride, but tomorrow will be a wife. She won’t look like a bride or wear her wedding dress everyday, her character is what will make her truly lovely for years to come.
All of the above describes a typical wedding day, but Jessica and Tyler’s was anything but typical. Rarely have I gotten to walk beside a family so closely in the months leading up to the wedding as I have with Jessica’s family.
Last August my dear friends Jessica and Jeremiah’s sister, Mikela reached out to me about photographing a birthday party. Their mother Jana was turning 60 and all nine of her children were going to be in the same place for the first time in five years and they wanted to document it. Being from a family of ten kids, I loved the idea of capturing such a special day. It was set for September 3 and although I was going to be in Texas that weekend, we came back early to make it work. The birthday party came, and I met Jana that evening. I was immediately touched by her warmth. She graduated with her BSN at 55, and we spoke about my husband Elvis discouragement after failing a nursing school class, and she, laughing, told me how of all the classes she took the one she failed was Obstetrics, after having nine children! I immediately knew she was a kindred spirit. That evening I watched those who loved her most, and saw why. She sat holding various grandkids throughout the evening, but all of the little people there were like magnets to her. She seemed to be the kind of person who treated children like people, and they in turn respected and loved her for it.
We took photos in the garden during golden hour and it was perfect. Such a fitting backdrop as the fruit of Jana’s life gave testimony in her children. I stayed long after the session was over, watching her open her birthday gifts. I observed the way she paused after each gift to thank the giver and knew that was her way of making each of her children know they were special to her. I visited with Jeremiah’s sister Jessica, was planning her wedding for April, and we chatted about the possibility of me coming to Atlanta to photograph it. When I left they were pulling out the card table for a family game night. I hadn’t ever heard of that game and sent my family group text a quick message on the way home to tell them about it. I remember the drive home vividly. My heart sang all the way as I thought about just how rich that family was and how sweet it was to watch them cherish each other. I told Elvis all about it, and how much they reminded me of my family. We both had six boys, they had three sisters, and we had four.
Two weeks and four days later, I got a call from Jess. I knew something was wrong right away, and I’ll never forget her taking a deep breath and just starting in with, “There’s no easy way to say this...” She went on to tell me that Jana had suddenly passed away. They were working on plans for a service and needed the birthday photos if possible for a slideshow. I was stunned. I got off the phone in tears and went right to the computer. I went back to my original cards and looked at every single one while blinking back tears and thinking about how if it were my mother I would have wanted to see every moment, blurry, or imperfect.
I attended Jana's memorial service that week and watched her children respond in faith. They worshipped despite their grief, and loved well despite pain. I left feeling even more connected with the family. I was pregnant and expecting a baby in late January, Jessica’s wedding date was late April, exactly three months after my fourth born would arrive, and my husband was not sure if I should sign up for it. It would be a lot, flying to Atlanta, taking a newborn, he would be in nursing school finals—there were a lot of unknowns. But in the end I could not rest with the thought of not being there for that wedding. I prayed and prayed and was so thankful to be able to commit to Jessica and Tyler’s day.
I say all of this to communicate the context for these photos. Had I simply waltzed in that morning, having not walked through the above last fall I would have missed so much. I wouldn’t have known that the bride’s sister in law and brother were the officiants. I would have overlooked the significance of her older sister and Jana’s sister giving her away. I wouldn’t have been watching for the emotion in these relationships, and I would have been unsure sure how to respond to the joy and the tears that flooded the entire day. I wouldn’t have known the reason behind the butterflies tucked into the flowers. Seeing them there wouldn’t have brought back memories of the memorial where I listened to an original song written by Jana’s daughter-in-law in memory of her. I wouldn’t have thought to take a photo of the siblings as each of them came up in birth order to dance with the bride in lieu of her parents. But I did know, and I cried with them.
When I arrived that day to begin photographing, Jessica was fresh faced, hugging her maternal grandmother while clutching a box of tissues. I’ve seen many brides on many wedding day mornings, but she was truly radiant in character. She faced the day with strength and selflessness. She loved fiercely and all of the relationships that are normally highlighted on a wedding day were brought to light through tears and laughter—grief coupled with great joy.
"O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.”
Jessica and Tyler, I pray that these photos be a reminder to you throughout your marriage, of the strong foundation it was built upon, that they encourage you to keep building upon it, through each storm and each joy. Thank you for the honor of photographing it. Tyler, your love for your sweet family and your care for those around you was so evident, I am so happy for you both. May God bless you both.