If the dark of winter is getting you down, today’s Photographer Spotlight Interview with Julian Abram Wainwright of Wainwright Weddings is sure to be the perfect pick-me-up! Photographing weddings all over South East Asia, Julian’s photos overflow with luscious color, emotional moments and clever composition. He started his photographic career in photojournalism, and after having shot for TIME Magazine, The New York Times, and at the Beijing Olympics, he sees the beauty in chaos and creates stunning photos, no matter the restraints or pressure.
What do you find unique about weddings in Thailand? Thailand has a great balance of traditional culture and Western convenience that is great for destination weddings. Many of the destination weddings I shoot here incorporate elements of Thai traditions into their ceremonies, like a water ceremony or monk blessing. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate your wedding and pay tribute to the country hosting you.
Also, the food is ridiculously amazing.
What is your favorite moment or tradition at weddings? I love the different traditions at the Asian weddings I photograph, but the most fun is definitely the wedding door games at Chinese weddings. The groom and his entourage head to the bride’s parent’s house in the morning, and have to pass a series of tests from her bridesmaids to enter the house. These range from silly dances to downing wasabi/tabasco shots…all great fun and very photogenic. Everyone is laughing and having a great time. It’s a great moment in the day.
How has your photojournalism background influenced your wedding photography? I’ve been a working photojournalist for over a decade, and I studied journalism in university, so my preference is for classic documentary photography over any trends. My job as a photographer boils down to simple storytelling, and that’s no different when I am documenting a wedding day. As a photojournalist you learn to read situations quickly and anticipate moments well. You improvise. You learn how to work in difficult situations (wading chest-deep in typhoon flood waters or jostling with hundreds of other photographers at the Olympics). You learn how to make good pictures no matter the circumstances. You also learn that good photography is often more about good people skills than good camera skills. This is all essential for good documentary wedding photography.
Also, I think one of the roles of a photojournalist is to find beauty in the unexpected, in places where the average person would never expect to find it. So when I’m shooting a wedding I really enjoy documenting those little magical moments away from the main action. For portrait sessions I love taking my clients to a morning wet market in, say, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok. At first they can’t understand why I’d want to shoot in such a messy location. But where they see chaos, I see colour and texture and beauty. Then they see the pictures afterwards and go, “Ah! We get it now!”
Your photographic work is so bright and colorful. Has it always been this way? Absolutely. When I was young I was a huge fan of National Geographic, and the amazing colour photography in its pages. I respect great black and white photography, but I think great colour photography is more difficult to produce – not only are you trying to hit the sweet spot of the moment-composition-light trifecta, but you’re adding another variable of colour to it. But it’s a high risk / high reward proposition. I like that challenge. And I’m lucky to live in a really colourful, vibrant part of the world – there is incredible light and colour in places like Thailand and Vietnam. I couldn’t imagine making pictures in Southeast Asia that weren’t primarily in colour.
What really gets to you at weddings? Makes you cry? Makes you laugh? I really love the first and last moments bookending a wedding – the nervous energy before the ceremony and the messy mayhem on the dance floor.
And I love a good tearful father-of-the-bride speech. Gets me every time.
What albums do you offer? Although my clients tend to share a commonality in being adventurous, they don’t all necessarily share the same budget. And although I’m running a business and of course want to maximize my profits, I really don’t think couples should be forced to mortgage their future by overspending on their weddings. So I offer both a sexy high end album from Renaissance Albums and a more affordable portfolio book from Blurb and Artifact Uprising. I like offering the book option so that my clients who don’t have a lot of money can still print a beautiful, professional book of their wedding day photography. And I can keep my production costs down since the layout is a simple portfolio style, not an intricate wedding album style.
What are your favorite wedding locations in your area? My area is pretty wide, as I’m a destination wedding specialist – I consider all of Southeast Asia my service region. I lived in Vietnam for 10 years, and I love going back there to photograph weddings. It’s still a little more “off the map” as a destination wedding location than, say, Thailand, and it tends to attract really fun, adventurous couples – the kind of people I love to work with.
Although I love heading down to the beaches in Phuket and Koh Samui for tropical destination weddings, I think Bangkok is actually my favorite place to shoot in Thailand. I like the chaotic urban energy and vibrant colours. And I love taking my clients out to the morning markets to shoot portraits, it gives their images a real sense of place that a beach can’t match.
Next February I’m photographing a destination wedding for the second time in Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s an old French colonial town on the banks of the upper Mekong River, with lots of temples, great colour and light and amazing food. Other favourites in the region are Palawan, in the Philippines and Bali, Indonesia.
Where do you want to shoot next? I just booked a wedding in Guam, where I’ve never been before. I’m a traveller by nature, so I’m always excited to book weddings in new places. I was in Iran 15 years ago and would love to return to document a traditional Persian wedding there. In fact I’d love to document more Asian wedding traditions around the region, from a Shinto ceremony in Japan to a highland tribal wedding in Papua New Guinea or three-day Hindu wedding in India. It would be great to work on a project documenting different wedding traditions around Asia, I think that would really satisfy both the wedding photographer and the photojournalist in me.
What gets you up in the morning? Usually my 4 year old son and 3 year old daughter. Very, very, very early.
Favorite wedding location? I’m pretty spoiled in that I get to work regularly in some pretty spectacular locations around Asia. But it would be hard to beat Miniloc Island in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines. My couple rented out the entire resort, so it became a completely private island. We had to charter a private plane and boat to get there, but totally worth the journey. The great thing about destination weddings is that the journey kind of bonds all the guests, this shared experience of “getting there” is a big part of it. And this was a really special journey for a really special day.
A tip or two for couples who are looking for their perfect wedding photographer? Spend the time to try to get to know your short list of photographers. A compatible personality is very important, as your photographer is going to be the one person you spend the most time with on your wedding day (maybe that’s sad, but it is true). For destination weddings its usually not possible to meet your photographer in person before the wedding, but a video call on Skype is the next best thing. Ask to see entire wedding edits, not just their “greatest hits” portfolio. Anyone can put together 20-30 great images in a portfolio, it takes a professional to construct a full visual narrative of your wedding story.
A tip or two for couples on how to look amazing and feel comfortable in their photographs? Again, choosing the right photographer for you is a good step in that direction. Wear comfortable clothes/shoes. Do something fun: I always encourage couples who hire me for portrait sessions to plan on doing something that they like doing, and I’ll photograph it – instead of just going somewhere pretty and making portraits. When I get to document a couple doing something they enjoy – be it walking their dog or exploring a cooking class – I think we’re creating images that will have lasting meaning for them.
What makes you give yourself a mental high five? If there’s beautiful natural light I get really excited. I may even give myself a high ten.
One thing you’d like every bride and groom to know before their wedding? That their wedding day will go by in a flash, so be sure you’ve done all the hard yards beforehand so that you can relax and soak it all in on the day. That also means being sure to take some time to themselves to embrace the moment together – you can easily go through your entire wedding day without having a private moment with your new spouse.
Also, don’t skimp on the booze. The secret to a good wedding is a well-stocked open bar.
How has being a wedding photographer made you a stronger photographer over all? Good photography is about interaction, it’s about people skills. As a documentary photographer sometimes you don’t want to interact for fear of affecting the story that’s developing in front of you. Documenting weddings has vastly improved my ability to interact with people without really interfering with the pictures. Also, I’m mostly a natural light guy, but I’ve started adding off-camera lighting to some of my wedding day portraits, and I’ve used these techniques for some of my corporate and commercial work.
Do you have a favorite wedding story? The time I was picked up by a bunch of naked rugby players and thrown in the pool at 3am. They were kind enough to relieve me of my cameras first. I narrowly avoided a $15,000 dip in the pool.
With so much great talent in the wedding industry, can you name five professionals you adore working with right now? Jeanette Skelton at Luxury Events Phuket is the best wedding planner in Thailand. She’s the go to person for luxury weddings there, really world-class.
Nadine Ziegeldorf at Hoi An Events is easily my favorite wedding planner in Vietnam. She plans most of the destination weddings in Hoi An and Danang, the most popular area for destination weddings in Vietnam.
As a photographer, working alongside video teams at weddings can sometimes be challenging, but I work frequently with Tika and Na at A Creative Weddings Films, and they are fantastic. They are a creative videography team based in Bangkok. I always recommend them.
I work with some great hair and makeup teams, but there’s no one quite like Lisa Allen in Phuket. She’s not only great at her job, but she’s hilarious, and keeps brides in stitches while she works. She’s the perfect wingman for the nervous bride.
It can be really challenging to find a good celebrant/MC for your destination wedding. In Vietnam, Peter Mahomet is the man. He brings a dry, quick-witted Australian sense of humour to the proceedings, but is also polished and professional – something many celebrants in this region are lacking.
How has witnessing so many weddings impacted your life/outlook? It’s definitely made me realize that a wedding is, at its core, simply a celebration of friendship and family. The rest is filling. Same goes for life in general.