Of all the expenses that make up the wedding industrial complex — now worth more than $50 billion annually — the engagement photo shoot is the one I most loathe. My objections aren’t over aesthetics: The piggybacks in fields of wildflowers or the kissing on abandoned train tracks don’t bother me. Rather, my concern is that the engagement photo shoot has become a compulsory part of getting married. It’s yet another expensive, performative tradition (about $300 to $500) on top of what can often be a very expensive, image-conscious affair. For single people, couples’ engagement photos can create the impression that this is what getting married looks like: perfect hair and gorgeous natural light. This is how you’ll be expected to look and act, if and when you get engaged.
Engagement photo shoots are not new, but the rise of Facebook and other social media has made these photos public in an unprecedented way. Before social media, few people would see your engagement photos. Now, your fourth-grade best friend and that guy you met at a conference in Tucson three years ago can peruse them on their morning commutes.
An engagement shoot is almost “a must-have now,” says, Julie Morici, a wedding photographer working in the Washington area. The sense that everyone’s getting them done has grown in the past five years, says Scott Michaels, a photographer at Life Gallery Studios in Virginia. “Social media is no different to seeing a shiny new car in your neighbor’s driveway,” he says. “You want what other people have.”
Sometimes, photographers themselves enforce the notion that the engagement photo shoot is necessary. A friend of mine, in the midst of planning her wedding, says that though many photographers include engagement shots as part of the wedding package, some recommend an engagement shoot (at an additional fee), so that couples can get comfortable with being photographed on the day, or so that they are aware of their best angles. The notion that millennials — the Selfie Generation — aren’t comfortable being photographed is hard to believe.
Morici believes the engagement shoot is a chance for the couple and the photographer to get to know each other, and for the photographer to brief them on how to get the best possible wedding photos. For example, she tells couples to hold their first married kiss for three seconds, to maximize the chances of getting a good shot.
Which is great advice from a photographer and a perfect example of the spectacle weddings have become. From viral-video proposals to bachelorette parties parading around in “Team Bride” tank tops to wedding-day hashtags, getting hitched has become increasingly public and performative. The wedding industrial complex has long told women that on the “big day,” you get to be the star. But now, with social media, you get many more days and many more ways to be a mini-celebrity.
Now that everyone has the freedom to marry — and the chance to spend enormous amounts of money on a wedding — I wonder if same-sex marriage might reshape our notions of what weddings look like. Kathryn Hamm, Publisher of GayWeddings.com and author of “The New Art of Capturing Love: The Essential Guide to Lesbian & Gay Wedding Photography” says that same-sex couples are used to rewriting marriage traditions. With further assimilation into the wedding industry, gay couples could end up “losing what’s special about our community,” she says, “so that everyone ends up having cookie-cutter ceremonies.” And photographers say they’re working with more and more same-sex couples who want engagement shots as well as wedding photos.
If and when I get engaged, I’d want our love, in all its imperfect glory, to be celebrated by the people closest to us. I’m not interested in paying for an airbrushed, photogenic fairy tale to show off to friends of friends of friends.
I’m delighted for my soon-to-be married friends, of course — even the ones who have flooded my news feeds with shots of them canoodling in twilight while wearing matching plaid shirts. I wish them every happiness, and I’m excited to celebrate the merging of their lives and families. Marriage is a milestone that merits recognition — in the presence of their loved ones and in the eyes of the law — and celebration. Still, it’s worth remembering that social pressure is real, and you don’t need to give in to it.
So kiss each other on a crowded train platform while the camera captures your good angles, if you want. But know that doing so won’t make you any more married, and skipping it won’t make your vows any less meaningful.