Industry News

As Coronavirus Upends Wedding Industry, Photographers Brace For New Reality

March 24, 2020

By Libby Peterson

Illustration by Sharon Ber for Rangefinder/WPPI

Recently, luxury-wedding photographer Ruben Gorjian developed a cough, then a fever. The next day, he was still clocking 101.5 degrees. He had heard that the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, a global pandemic. In the photo industry alone, manufacturers were beginning to take stock of gear delays, photo shows were shutting down and photographers were starting to take stock of what this meant for their future.

At 46 years old, Gorjian is not considered high risk for COVID-19, but just to be cautious, he drove to an urgent care on Long Island, in New York, to get tested. At the front desk, Gorjian was given a mask. Upon hearing his symptoms, the staff asked him to wait in his car. He obliged, and after a half hour, Gorjian was called back inside. He got his vitals checked and was tested for COVID-19. It was about 7:30 p.m. Then he drove home to his wife and four teenagers.

A few days later, at about 6 p.m., Gorjian received a call with the results: He tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus. For the next 14 days, he was to be quarantined at home with his family. If he felt short of breath, or if his health took a turn for the worse, he was to call his doctor immediately.

Gorjian began to contact his wedding clients. All agreed to postpone their plans.

Legal Take: Wedding Cancellations During the Outbreak

He also posted publicly about his coronavirus results on Facebook, clarifying that his exposure had been at a temple out on Long Island: “I would like to ask from anyone that was in close proximity with me to please, please, please, self-quarantine regardless of symptoms. My wife, my children and I are all doing well at this time and would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for the outpour of love and support.”

Now, Gorjian, who tends to book clients four-to-six months in advance, is left wondering how he’ll make money this year. His commercial photography gigs have completely dried up too. “All of this will crash my cash flow and business,” he says, “while bills won’t stop piling up.”

Globally, the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus approaches 400,000. So far, it has claimed more than 17,000 lives. In the U.S., where testing increased in the past week following shortages and delays, at least 46,000 people have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus in the country. New York accounts for over half of those cases.

[See our COVID-19 resource page for business information and creative inspiration that will help you rise to the occasion.]

These are the numbers as of today. Over the period I worked on this story, they tripled. They’ll likely be much higher by the time you’re reading this.

Earlier this month, Quyn Duong, a photographer based in Brooklyn who was chosen as one of Rf‘s 30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography in 2019, was hanging out in Vietnam, having planned a month-long break with a hop over to India while she was there to shoot a wedding. Attempting to keep up with the dizzying developments of the spread of the coronavirus, she was nervous when she saw that India had instituted mandatory quarantine for anyone traveling into the country from South Korea, among other locations. She was to have a layover there out of Vietnam—did a three-hour pitstop at the airport really count as “traveling from” South Korea?

With one wedding under her belt in 2020 so far, and postponements pending because of COVID-19, Duong was determined to make this wedding in India.

Then she got a call from her second shooter: She wasn’t comfortable traveling. It was understandable, Duong says, given how quickly the coronavirus and ensuing panic were spreading. Five days before flying to India, and ten days before the couple was to exchange vows, she scrambled to find a backup shooter. But even the photographers she contacted who are based in India didn’t feel safe traveling within the country.

In the nick of time, it seemed, she heard back from a photographer friend in Spain who was willing to fly out and shoot with her. They got the travel process started only to find out within hours that India was suspending Visas from a list of countries—including Spain. 

It was looking like she’d shoot the wedding alone. Meanwhile, she got word that another wedding that was to take place in Mexico was postponed. Duong looked at the clock: 3 a.m. Exhausted, she shut her laptop to get some rest before figuring out what to do next. Before she went to bed, she took one last peek at her phone. There was a text from the couple: India shut down the border. It was over.

The wedding in India got postponed to February 2021. Duong was second-shooting the wedding in Mexico, and without being the lead on it, she can only hope she’ll be available for the gig in the future. 

Duong flew back to New York. When she had landed in Vietnam days earlier, she was issued a health check by airport officials and was asked for her contact information. A couple days later, someone visited her to check up, ask how she was feeling and give her information about COVID-19.

Now, back in the States, she noticed something strange: She was cruising through the airport. There were no questions, no delays, no coronavirus checks. A half hour after touching down, she was in a cab headed home.


Destination wedding photographers might be hit hardest as more borders shut down. Jasmin Neidhart (a 30 Rising Star in 2018) is based in Germany, a country that just announced its closures and where confirmed cases tripled in the last week, to over 30,000. She says most of her clients travel there for weddings, so “everything is messy right now.” Thankfully, in her case, “all the couples definitely want to rebook the date with us and don’t completely cancel their wedding,” she says, but, “there are also some inquiries on hold who wanted to book with us but don’t know what to do right now.”

In March, Neidhart had an elopement from the U.S. to Austria. They postponed their plans, as did a commercial shoot that was to take place in Rome for a London-based fashion designer. Another American couple was to marry in Germany in April; they postponed. So did a branding shoot for a German floral designer in France.

When clients have wanted to cancel, Neidhart says she offers an opportunity to rebook at no extra cost and at the same price that was agreed upon from the start. “As there are already deposits paid whenever they sign the contract, there have already been some payments made that are protecting us as photographers.”

The global pandemic has left wedding photographers wondering how they can make up the money that they would and will have made in the coming months. Some book out a year in advance and, barring extraneous circumstances, had already been expecting a planned income and budget. With Duong’s weddings in India and Mexico gone, “that was my income for April,” she says, “so it sucks a lot.” 

She has been telling her couples not to worry, that she won’t be charging rescheduling fees because of the outbreak. She’ll lose more in the short-term without collecting those fees, but with the way things are now, offering anything other than compassion seems unthinkable. A gesture like that has ways of paying off down the road.

For now, she’s taking things day by day, talking to her May and June clients about postponements. In the last few days, Neidhart watched her weddings get postponed that had booked beyond June. She says she knows some wedding photographers who have lost all of their bookings for the year.

“We have our cancellation policies,” Duong says, “but that’s just meant for one wedding, maybe once a year. No one anticipates having cancellations. Now we’re moving an entire wedding season. All vendors, everywhere. It’s so insane.”

As cases rise, more couples prefer to push their nuptials to 2021 rather than later in 2020, which will make this year an even tougher one to recover from financially. (Some report more couples downsizing their plans and opting for smaller, more intimate weddings, begging the theory that perhaps elopement photographers won’t suffer as much as a result.) It’s hard to prepare business for something like this, especially without a close reference point. The last, most widely comparable epidemic happened over a century ago, when the Spanish flu infected 500 million people over a two-year period.

“This is the biggest, most unexpected, globally diffused issue we have ever experienced since we started this job,” say Laura and Tommy of Lato Photography, a 30 Rising Star wedding duo based in Italy, where the coronavirus has infected over 60,000 people.

They had originally gauged their danger levels to be fairly low when COVID-19 first appeared in China. “Being quite far away, we felt safe and we never imagined ourselves in the same or worse situation just a few weeks after,” they say. Today, Italy is second only to China in the number of total cases of infected individuals, and it is the most impacted country in terms of deaths caused by the coronavirus, at over 6,000 people. “This is one of the things you never feel can happen to you until it’s right next door.”

Where work is lost, people have experienced a stronger, if not stranger, sense of connection. “We’re gaining community,” Duong says, “and honestly, that’s a huge gain.”

The night before we spoke, she threw together a group video chat on Zoom—which, these days, is hosting many virtual birthday parties, happy hours and gym classes. This one was for two different couples that had booked her for weddings in late summer and early fall. Both were big planners; both were already worried. They had messaged her with anxieties about what COVID-19 might mean for their nuptials: Is it time to freak out yet? Are they allowed to freak out at all? Should they continue on with their plans? What if that comes back to bite them as the day approaches? 

“People are not planning weddings at the same time as their friends,” Duong notes, so they wouldn’t otherwise have someone close to speak with who can understand exactly what they’re going through. “It’s such a specific stress and anxiety to have right now,” Duong says, “like, ‘people are dying and we’re worried about our wedding?’” Connecting the two couples let them talk out their fears, validate their concerns and comfort each other. “It’s not something I had thought about before. I’ve thought of couples who would get along well after I shot their weddings, but you can also have support during this process.”

Connecting has allowed photographers to be up front with clients about their own losses, too. Soon-to-be-newlyweds juggle so many pieces of a wedding that it’s easy to lose sight of the ripple effect that’s happening around them. “Being able to tell them, ‘We don’t know what’s going on, and our businesses and livelihoods are at risk here, too,” Duong explains, “it was nice on my end to just be able to say that directly to my clients. They understand that no one wins in this without losing a lot of money and going through a ton of stress.”


Like most New Yorkers, Duong is working from home. She takes occasional breaks to walk her dog. After her adventures in Vietnam, it seems like a return to relative normalcy, she says, “but ask me again how I’m doing in three days.”

On the one hand, there is plenty for photographers to do in quarantine. They can catch up on the dreaded admin, editing and albums, for instance. While he’s in isolation, Gorjian is occupying his time with posts on social media, including Facebook Live and YouTube. He’s updating his website and planning the logistics for his future workshops.

But on the other hand, as Gorjian notes, “I am totally stuck at home, I can’t really do any type of work, and have no income at all.” Without new work coming in, catching up only goes so far. Time will tell how business plays out in the coming months.

For the moment, Neidhart says it’s important to set fears aside for the sake of clients—to show them empathy when they need it most. “We absolutely understand that they don’t want to keep on planning a wedding that a) can’t take place because no one is allowed to travel into this country and b) their guests have to risk their health for this celebration,” she says. “They had planned the best day of their lives and were looking forward to a day full of joy, surrounded by all the people they love. It’s all very different now from what they dreamed of, and it’s just beyond our control.”

Service industries of all kinds have come up with ways to be productive and occupy their unplanned free time, with chefs contributing meals for food banks and tattoo artists creating coloring books to be downloaded online. In the photo world, Duong finds herself facing a more existential question about her work: How can photographers truly share their profession with people right now? 

“You’re around images all the time” in the digital age, especially with platforms like Instagram, she says, “and it’s hard to differentiate between all of that. Now, in this time, I feel so helpless; I can’t create or share my work with people. You can sell prints, but there’s no live-stream for photography other than, ‘Let me teach you what I’m doing,’ or, ‘Watch me do this.’”

That might mean throwing out the rule book on sharing work and trying new things. As Neidhart says, “Everything that’s happening right now shouldn’t be the end of business but the start of new ideas for everyone.”

Duong has decided to hire a freelancer to create an illustration that will coincide with her upcoming book of wedding photography, Til Death Do Us Party. She wants to print it onto totes and fill those with coronavirus care kits to send to vendors—rubber gloves, toilet paper, “just stuff to keep things light right now.”

“Everything is possible, and no one is alone,” Neidhart says. The scariest part of a global pandemic, after all, might also be the sole consolation: Everybody is going through this together.