Documenting Weddings in the Age of Social Distancing

April 27, 2020

By Shannon Collins

© Shannon Collins

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested that it might be time to permanently retire the handshake, I started to wonder what weddings might look like in the future. While the repercussions for the modern wedding industry may pale in comparison to the overall threat of the virus in the height of a global pandemic, the ripple effects have spread worldwide. 

The handshake is already a thing of the past in this day of COVID-19 and social distancing.
Photos © Shannon Collins

Consequences of coronavirus in the events industry range from a halt in weddings to an uptick in postponements in the form of downscaling large celebrations to elopements and micro-weddings. Venues and vendors who are privileged enough to be in business after months of cash flow constraint will have to deal with the unprecedented domino effect this has on our calendars well past 2020. 

Putting Things on Pause

Most people are still indoors and most cities still in lockdown.

The scope of the damage caused by COVID-19 is still hard to measure, as is our ability to predict when working conditions may return to “normal.” This is not to ignore the fact that many workers are putting their lives on the line every day and that the coronavirus has exacerbated every racial and economic divide. Low-income and marginalized communities continue to bear the brunt of this health crisis, from suffering job loss to the illness itself. I can’t express enough how privileged I am, in that I am able to put a pause on my work as a non-essential small-business owner and figure out a game plan amidst the uncertainty. 

As spring clients postpone to fall 2020, growing concerns of uncertainty lead to wondering whether or not those dates will happen. While weddings are typically sold as the “perfect day,” more and more engaged folks are connecting on Reddit and Facebook groups to commiserate about how coronavirus has affected their plans. Large crowds and out-of-town guests may be a far-off future, but the value of human connection remains stronger than ever.

More than 97 percent of the U.S. population is under a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order, according to CNN. But as the government works toward the goal of “reopening,” it’s essential for us to continue to implement social distancing if we want to avoid a major resurgence. 

In Pennsylvania—where I run my business as a Philadelphia-based wedding photographer—our government has joined a coalition with the Northeastern states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to coordinate this reopening. Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccinologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recently shared with The New York Times that the record of vaccine production is four years (for the mumps vaccine), so we will have to do a lot as a society to protect each other. 

Documenting Intimacy From a Distance

social distancing will also affect the wedding industry greatly and how wedding photographers do their job.

Societal norms, from handshakes and hugs, to the simple act of opening a door, have shifted at an understandably fast pace during the coronavirus pandemic. What will documenting weddings look like as we adapt as a culture? 

Weddings typically represent the antithesis of social distancing, with an average number of 131 guests in 2019, according to WeddingWire. Luckily, a large majority of my booked weddings range from intimate backyard celebrations to City Hall elopements. But even as an already hesitant handshaker, who always asks for verbal consent before hugs, there are still a lot of intimate interactions during a typical day as a wedding photographer:

  • During the getting-ready process, I can often be found capturing detail shots between candids. I will artfully hang attire or position family heirlooms beneath wedding rings while passing them back to my client. You can also find me adjusting boutonnieres on people’s lapels. 
  • As portraits take place, I offer subtle adjustments or playfully suggest an idea while closely working alongside my clients. 
  • When there is a wedding party, I almost always have everyone wrap their arms around each other for a friendly group shot. One of my favorite shots is having the wedding party closely walk together toward me, while talking to each other. 
  • During the ceremony, I sneak in and out of a tight aisle between rows and rows of guests, to quietly get shots from a variety of angles. I watch as the officiant holds out the rings, leading up to the signing of a marriage license, typically between five people. The couple walks down the aisle during the recessional, high-fiving their friends along the way. 
  • Hundreds of handshakes, hugs and kisses take place during cocktail hour. Children blow bubbles and play yard games. Catering staff swarm through the crowd, passing hors d’oeuvres as guests take turns leaving signatures in a guestbook or sharing an instant film camera to snap selfies. 
  • And then there’s the reception, where there is no shortage of sweat as guests belt out the words to favorite songs while holding each other close.
  • At the end of the evening, when I’ve packed up my gear, I typically try to physically express my gratitude to my clients in some way (usually a handshake or hug), since we can’t usually can’t hear each other on the packed dance floor.

So Many Questions

Is this the new look of wedding coverage during social distancing?

It’s hard to imagine a post-pandemic life where everyone is exchanging air high-fives and peace signs down the aisle. What will documenting intimacy in its many forms look like when the dust has settled a bit and we’re able to photograph weddings in person again? As a wedding photographer, I’ll have to use my patience and creativity to make sure that physical distancing doesn’t result in a visual disconnection. Not only will I have to keep the safety of my clients and their guests in mind, but myself as well, especially as an immunocompromised individual. What challenges will that bring and what lenses will become my new favorites in the process?

In the meantime, there’s a lot to learn from creative community responses to a pandemic when face masks and social distancing will likely be a new norm for a long time. Props to many of my peers who are embracing “Facetime” photo shoots or officiating ceremonies via video conference calls (Governor Cuomo signed an executive order on this new method of getting married in New York State up through May 18). 

Coming out of this, there will be an even stronger desire for professionals and clients alike to tell the challenging stories of resilience after mitigating such an emotional toll. At the end of the day, I’m hoping we will be able to navigate this newness together. By maintaining open conversations with our clients and each other, and taking care of ourselves and protecting our community in the process. 

Shannon Collins has been photographing documentary-style weddings in the Philadelphia area professionally for the past ten years. She loves capturing candid moments as they happen, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be there to keep everything running smoothly, help pose your family during formals, and assist in any way possible. She’s basically a fly on the wall (if flies wore glasses).