"I'm a wedding photographer," I told the woman sitting across from me. She clapped her hands eagerly and beamed at me. "I LOVE wedding photography!" she squealed.
This isn't an unusual response. It's typically followed by, "Have you heard of this photographer? Or that photographer? I look at their blogs and I just DIE. And PINTEREST. Don't even get me started on Pinterest!"
Yes, please. Let's not get started on Pinterest.
Because my dirty little secret is this: I hate wedding photography. I don't hate wedding photographers, and I certainly, truly don't hate photographing weddings. I just hate the compulsion to obsessively, gluttonously devour wedding photographs, as if looking at another wedding photographer's work will somehow make my own... what? Better? Prettier? More expensive?
I devoted more than a few years to pouring over other wedding photographers' pictures, hungrily seeking inspiration. And you know what it got me? Panic attacks.
Seriously. I used to have regular "wedding nightmares", dreams in which I'd arrive at a wedding and my camera would catch on fire. Like, flames, shooting out of my camera. I'm pretty sure this was an internalization of the general terror I had been storing up, a Pandora's Box of horrifying certainty that everything I was doing was wrong, and eventually my carefully-built career would spontaneously combust, just like my dream-camera.
I wish macro shots of wedding rings burned like fuel for my mind. I wish Lensbabied bouquets lit a fire in my soul.
But they don't. In fact, they do the opposite. They suck me dry; they weigh me down. They turn this work that I love into something heavy and hard.
So I stopped. I stopped looking at wedding photographs. I just gave it up, cold turkey, like cigarettes or booze.
Instead? I read books. I listened to music. I drank whiskey with my friends and had impromptu dance parties in my living room. I binge-watched TV shows and ate entire boxes of doughnuts. I took road trips, stayed up all night, slept in all day. I snuggled my husband, my sisters, my nephews. I wrote and drew and sewed and took pictures with my iPhone -- my iPhone, for heaven's sake!
In short: I lived. And I discovered that if I would just live my life and be a person, if I would commune with other people who live and love and ARE, inspiration grew. It blossomed out of me like herbs in the windowsill, taller overnight, greener by the hour.
And instead of incessantly reminding myself of all the ways in which I fell short -- the money I wasn't earning, the gear I wasn't acquiring, the pictures I didn't even know how to make -- I stepped back and saw that wedding photography -- this beautiful, terrible, exhausting, wonderful thing I called my job -- was really a direct path to communion.
Yes, a job.
Yes, my craft.
Yes, a priceless heirloom to the families I've photographed.
But even more, wedding photography is an opportunity for connection. A glimpse of life. A chance for celebration. And in dismissing "style" and "approach", I found myself embracing the soul of this work I do: the beauty and frustration and intensity of a wedding day.
Now, when someone asks me, "Do you know So-and-So, That Amazing Wedding Photographer?" chances are I'll say no. Not because I'm an obtuse jerk, but because I really don't know them. The people in my life now are people I love intimately, people who add something authentic to my conversation, something broader than wedding photography. They add fresh perspective, honesty and integrity, legitimate creativity.
They add life.
I don't know anyone in Rangefinder's list of "photographers to watch", but I know Emily and Tommy, who got married less than two weeks after Tommy's mother was paralyzed by a horrible neurological disease. I don't know who spoke at WPPI this year, but I know Jason and Jeff, who are flying all the way to New York this summer so they can officially, legally become husbands. I'm not sure how to make an award-winning print, but I knew how to photograph Betsy and Matt's wedding in the rain, my camera wrapped in a humongous garbage bag, while a tropical storm whirled around us on a Bahamian beach.
Has my work gotten better? Well, better than what? Better than it was before? You bet. Because my competition was never "them". My competition was, and has always been, me.
This is my life. This is all I've got. And I'm positive that I won't be wishing on my death bed that I'd spent a few more hours looking at another wedding photographer's pictures.
At the end, I just want to be grateful. Grateful for the moments I got to share, for the stories I got to tell, for the pictures I got to make. And for the people who opened their lives to me.
I hate wedding photography.
But damn, do I love my job.
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