On Being an Orthodox Jewish Wedding Photographer

February 18, 2019

By Zalmy Berkowitz

Photos © Zalmy Berkowitz

It was sometime in 2011, maybe 2012. I had my big boy camera, a couple of lenses, and I was going to make money. Big money. But first, I needed a logo. It had to be exactly right. A clean, modern font, but friendly. Colorful, but understated. Fun, but easily legible. I spent so much time worrying about that logo. It’s now 2019 and I still don’t have a logo—I’m also still not making that big money, so… Somewhere along the way, I heard some drops of wisdom: “Your brand is how people think of you and your work.” It’s how we present ourselves, how people see us, which is hopefully how we presented ourselves.

Like many, I fell into photography. I was doing graphic design and picked up a fancy Canon Rebel to take some stock photos. I never had a real goal or style I was after. I was lucky enough to be starting before Facebook groups were a thing, and I just let photography take me for a ride. I started with photographing families and then eventually stumbled into weddings.

Connecting the dots of where I’ve been to where I am is tricky—some moves were my choices, others were made for me.

I’m an observant Jew. While my family and I are very religious, we don’t live in a very Jewish area. I can’t work on Saturdays, so I’m pretty much limited to photographing Orthodox Jewish couples. In the beginning, while I did shoot a wedding here and there, it took a while for me to become a wedding photographer.

This was annoying to me at the time, but I think it really let me grow as a photographer without having previous clientele or work hold me back from evolving and trying new things. Most of my photographic energy was spent photographing my family and personal life, which allowed me to grow in a very, “what work do I care about?” way, instead of, “what will bring me more work?” and, “what will my potential clients want?” What I wanted, eventually, wasn’t pretty photos of my kids in pretty places, but photos of actual memories.

In the Orthodox Jewish world, especially in my own community (where I have the most access), weddings are pretty large events. My average wedding client has 400 to 500 guests, and the majority are held in large halls or hotels in big cities. While I was a bit miffed by the lack of backlit mason jars on beautiful mountaintops starting out, I quickly grew to appreciate the world I was born into (maybe not all that quickly). I was forced to shoot differently than what I saw in others’ work; my work became much more focused on moments and people than location and light. I found myself really enjoying the richness of the traditions, not to mention the visual smorgasbord of the Orthodox Jewish world, and I grew to love focusing on the people and interactions.

For a long time, I was much more “known” to the extent that I am in the photographic world for my personal work. From the beginning, I always had that featured pretty prominently on my website and social media. It allowed me to write about myself, my life, my thoughts and questions (so many questions!), much more than client work would. Maybe it’s an outcome of having a large family and a hectic life, but I started photographing and sharing more and more of my chaos: the mess and craziness of having a whole gaggle of kids that we are crazy enough to homeschool. I find chaos to be beautiful in its own right, and I wanted a kind of counterbalance to all of the perfect and happy photos we see of other people’s lives. As cheesy as it sounds, I know that (for most of us, at least) it’s hard to see all of those awesome photos of clean kids in clean spaces without feeling like somehow, we’re screwing up this whole “life” thing. As it were, there’s an element of humor in my work, too. The world is a pretty funny place, especially when kids are in it, and while I don’t think I look for humor, it’s what I feel when I’m looking through my work.

It was a combination of these ideas and circumstances that dictated the direction of my brand. There’s no flashiness or pretentiousness in my work, not much posing or pretty things in pretty places. It is what it is. The photos are never more important than the moment as it presented itself. My body of work has always been honest like this, and often messy. Many don’t relate to that visual—or they do aesthetically but not personally. And that’s great, actually. I say it’s better to have 1,000 passionate followers than 100,000 that just happen to like your photos also.

You have to really know yourself, though. There are so many people producing such amazing work in all different styles, and it’s hard not to want to copy all of it. There was a time when I tried “doing everything”—the epic shots, the stylized, the wide, the long, the bokeh, the f/16, dark and moody, light and airy. I still have to fight that occasionally, but I always come back to documentary photography. For me, the beauty and power of photography is in its ability to point at a photo and say, “This actually happened like this.” Everything else is for other people. (I’m also blessed with a healthy dose of laziness, and learning new stuff is hard!)

There are a lot of documentary photographers shooting weddings, who, I’m sure, are much better than I am, but within my world of Jewish Orthodox, there really isn’t that much. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Like in other tight-knit communities, it’s more common to “do what others do.” Tradition, even outside of religion, is quite strong, and presenting a different option doesn’t lead to a parade. You hire who your friend hires, who hired who their friend hired, and if you find someone new to hire, they should look like your friend’s son’s wedding photos—which, honestly, were 50 percent formals. On top of that, most people in the Orthodox Jewish community marry quite young—most brides are between 20 and 25 years old—and their parents are taking care of and paying for the wedding. And as we know, most parents are more tradition-minded.

These are the curses of my situation. I was left with this small but very defined niche within a very small subset of clients, and as I was building my business, I was just hoping that enough would want it and make their way to me. It took a lot of time. I wasn’t jumping into business with something that potential clients knew already since most of the community had a very predefined definition of what wedding photography looked like. But slowly, the ball got rolling, and, well, it’s still picking up speed.

One of the things I found to be very interesting along the way is that many of my clients liked what I wrote on my blog, usually things that have nothing to do with the wedding. They liked my outlook, how honest I was, and they liked my and my wife’s method of parenting. I thought that was odd: What does that have to do with wedding photography? But a brand really is an extension of oneself, or how one is perceived.

A wonderful aspect of having a strong brand is getting clients who generally want what you produce. They understand how you work and why you work that way, and they let you do your thing. They want you to do your thing. They’ll protect you from wary parents or the odd uncle. I read so many horror stories of crazy clients, or just mismatched ideas, and I’ve been very blessed in that department.

In the photography industry at large, I’ve been blessed with work and clients that look different and have different types of weddings. It was fairly easy for me to make headway there; different gets noticed. I’d love to say it’s because I shoot differently or have some sort of artistic genius, but I think it has more to do with the types of weddings I shoot.

Zalmy Berkowitz is a wedding and family photographer based in southern California. He was chosen as a 30 Rising Star in 2017.

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