LIVERPOOL: Those of you who have read previous commentaries I have penned for CNA will know that much of what I say is based on my research in two areas – wedding rituals, and death and spirituality.
So when I read news about how bridal photographs were being taken in a cemetery in Kluang, Malaysia (hence stirring up controversy), I figured I must have hit some kind of sociological, analytical jackpot.
READ: Terence Heng's commentary: Cemeteries should be more than where the dead reside
NOT SO DIFFERENT
To be clear, in no way am I advocating that you do the same or that you should make light of what sensitivities were ignored in that attempt to get a unique bridal shot. Feelings were hurt, the bridal shop owner herself has come out to issue an apology video, and forgiveness was given.
But the news surely gives us pause for reflection. After all, weddings and death are not all that dissimilar – they are both rites of passage and as such demand commemoration, celebration, commiseration, or a combination of the three.
Although weddings evoke ideas of new beginnings, more often than not, they are also an opportunity for remembrance – honouring family members both present and absent in speeches and rituals alike.
But that’s another topic for another commentary.
THIS OBSESSION WITH PRE-WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHIES
Although the news was about a bridal shop photoshoot, it reminded me of the lengths we go to for weddings, particularly pre-wedding photoshoots, or sometimes also known as engagement photography.
For the uninitiated, these are the kinds of photos taken before one gets married to display on huge screens during the wedding dinner.
This type of wedding photography has grown significantly in popularity over the last 20 years. Where couples used to pose for a few images in a studio, on-location pre-wedding photography has become a global phenomenon.
What used to be an hour or two spent indoors looking lovingly at each other (or the photographer) has been replaced by day-long shoots in exotic and increasingly outlandish locations.
If the 1990s in Singapore saw photoshoots at the Chinese and Japanese gardens, or that tree nook on Sentosa Island, today we see a reflection of globalisation and increasing GDP per capita in The Eiffel Tower, glaciers in New Zealand, Las Vegas or “Winter Sonata” Korea.
Nothing is safe from bride/groom/photographer-zilla.
This should not be surprising to anyone who has had to go through a wedding. Weddings are intensely consumptive and performative events, as I pointed out in a previous commentary about people overspending on nuptials.
They are an opportunity to display all kinds of capital – economic, social and cultural – how much money one has, what social connections one possesses, or what levels of taste one can invoke. All these are all fair game in a wedding.
To extend that performance in pre-wedding photography is only logical.
The act of travelling overseas to have your photographs taken satisfies a number of performances – it shows that one can afford to travel overseas, and that one is “cosmopolitan”, even if neither of these were the conscious intention of the individuals involved.
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But with cheaper airfare, and even cheaper photography packages in some places like Taiwan and Malaysia, couples must increasingly find other ways to differentiate themselves.
It is not enough to pose in front of a famous landmark, because there are probably 16 other couples doing exactly the same thing there.
Instead, photographs must continuously be “something else” – a unique or at least a differentiating aesthetic.
To paraphrase Thorstein Veblen’s notions of conspicuous consumption – when one sets the trend, and others emulate that trend, then one is no longer a trend-setter, and must find new trends.
AN ARMS RACE
What we then have is an arms race of performed uniqueness, an ever-escalating series of actions that attempt to make one wedding different from another. (But to be honest, if you have photographed as many weddings as I have, they do tend to begin to look the same, no thanks to increasing commercialisation.)
This arms race manifests itself all around the world. Goaded on by social media and the wedding industry, couples spend both money and time trying to create a unique selling point in their wedding.
READ: Would you pay thousands for professional help to ask ‘Will you marry me’? Some people say ‘I do'
So yes, you can have a zombie-themed wedding if you want. More brains for you sir?
Let’s be fair – there is nothing wrong with making your special day different in whichever way you want.
But the advice I used to give to couples (as the obnoxious know-it-all photographer) was always this – do the things and go to the places that have meaning and history to you. So when you show others the photographs of those things and places, there’s a story to tell, a connection to be made.
A STORY, A MEMORY
More than a decade ago, I photographed a Singaporean couple who had spent a number of years working in London. We went all around the city, and finished the shoot at a pub. Over dinner, the groom made mention that their old home was just down the street.
It was nothing special, but it was certainly something memorable. “Come on, let’s go!” I roared, ignoring the bemused looks from my client-friends.
We strolled over to the low-rise terraced house converted into flats, but a large rubbish bin was parked square in front of the house.
“I don’t care, you need this photograph to show your grandchildren”.
I took what was my favourite image of the day, a happy couple in wedding gown and suit, smiling (and holding their breath) in front of a non-descript building with a green rubbish bin.
So when you do take those wedding photographs, or think about the arrangements for your wedding, do the things and go to the places that have meaning and history to you.
Terence Heng is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts. He studies the changing identities of Chinese Singaporeans through ritual, religion and place-making.