As a wedding industry leader, frequent DJ industry speaker at national conferences, and highly sought after teacher of wedding DJs in Colorado, I am often asked to write for leading trade publications. On one such occasion, I was asked to write a feature article in Mobile Beat (the leading publication for the DJ industry) about “The Unplugged Wedding and Reception” phenomena impacting wedding DJs in Colorado, and throughout the United States.
The Unplugged Wedding and Reception…
Yes, it’s long, but well worth the read to: understand the history of how this phenomena started; the economic incentive to force unplugged weddings; the problems it really creates; the realities involved; several Colorado wedding photographer comments; and lastly, how I, a professional Fort Collins wedding DJ, addresses it. Here is the full article below as printed in Issue 163 of Mobile Beat:
Technology at weddings: phones, cameras and gadgets oh my! People either love it or hate it. Over the last five years, society has rapidly changed and phone technology has made the taking and sharing of photos much easier. It’s “the” way to instantly connect via social media. The simple truth is that people like taking pictures. People like sharing pictures, but…is it really the MC or DJ’s job to announce (and enforce) an “unplugged” mandate?
If you haven’t had to do this yet, I have multiple times. Trust me, it’s both awkward and “messy” to have to announce this over and over at a wedding. I’ve had guests yell at me. Swear at me. I’ve had multiple guests stomp off and leave in disgust…simply because I made the announcement as instructed. As the MC / DJ, we are the sole person presumed responsible for everything that happens from the guests’ perspective from the moment they arrive until the last dance. The reality is, we are the only consistent and visible “face” representing the bride and groom at their celebration. So, as you already know, guests come to us for everything! I mean everything: “It’s too hot in here. It’s too cold. Where are the bathrooms? Where can I smoke? Where can I nurse my son? Can you call me a cab? How do I get a ride to my car? Can I get some salt?” The biggie I hear about 6 to 15 times each wedding: “Why is the buffet line taking so long or when do we get to eat?” You name it…people will always come to the MC/DJ for every question, comment, concern or criticism. This new trend is no different: “What do you mean I can’t take pictures of my niece today for her wedding?” If this isn’t happening to you yet, it will.
In an effort to understand the unplugged wedding trend more, I’ve carefully studied this from every angle: the tech side in an interview with the National Consumer Electronic Show producer, Gary Shaprio; Denver wedding officiant, Ed Ward with over 800 ceremonies performed; several wedding documentarians (Colorado wedding photographers and a wedding cinematographer); and lastly, the brilliant intellectual property attorney (and artist) Kevin Houchin. Each perspective has been very intriguing, enlightening and compelling along the journey.
Let’s face it…some brides encourage guests to use their phone, iPads, cameras and photo booths to take as many photos as possible hoping they will be freely shared instantly on every social media platform complete with a clever, bride pre-empted wedding hashtag. These brides view the taking and sharing of photos as a community expression. This adds interaction to the actual wedding celebration. She authentically embraces (and appreciates) the variation of differing perspectives and viewpoints to “document” her celebration. So yes, it’s official! We’re in the era of documenting everything.
On the flip side, there is now a huge push for a completely “unplugged” wedding celebration. In fact, about twenty percent of our weddings (and receptions) were unplugged last year. That’s a problem because it puts us in a very awkward position to repeatedly announce, and be expected to, enforce, an unplugged mandate.
The idea of a “phone check” at a wedding is celebrity inspired. This concept moved to the forefront about five years ago with the wedding of Chelsea Clinton. There, guests were “forced to hand over cameras and cell phones for the evening to ensure no photos were taken” according to Glamour Magazine (August 2, 2010). Numerous celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Michael Jordan, Matt Damon and many others have also forced guests to unplug. Being true celebrities, this makes sense; especially at Chelsea’s wedding with the secret service, etc. It was also about controlling their image and public perception by limiting access at the event. They wanted to restrict guests’ ability to take photos. It was about privacy and keeping certain images off TMZ and the National Enquirer.
So, how did the concept of the unplugged wedding make its’ way to the every day couple? Who’s encouraging it?
It appears to be being perpetuated by wedding planners / coordinators and photographers.
Bryan Rafanelli, a luxury event planner in Boston (the wedding planner for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding) said in an interview with the New York Times, “when we told our non-celebrity clients that it worked, they got turned on. It makes them feel special.” From there, it quickly spread across America.
The unplugged wedding and reception – the common arguments:
It’s fueled with comments like: “we want your guests to be there in the moment with you,” and “we want them to fully experience the event” or “it’s your special day and you need to be the focus.” All true, but nobody can ever control a guest’s behavior or what they are thinking.
Consumer Electronic Show Producer, Gary Shapiro, says it best in an interview for this article, “phones are a tool, and can and should, be viewed as a tool – not as a person with their own set of rights.”
The phone is a tool…an electronic device. It’s that simple. It’s no different than all the Kodak disposable cameras featured at every wedding just a few years ago.
Behavior is nothing more than a reflection of what guests really believe. Behavior is demonstrated by actions. It’s entirely possible to have a mandatory phone check (like a coat check) often seen at my weddings, yet, easily have guests mentally wandering about the big game, his last stock trade or her sick mother. They’re not “in the moment” either; phone or no phone.
What about: “it makes uninvited guests feel even more excluded when they see immediate posts about your wedding on social media.” Guess what? They weren’t invited for a reason – right? I doubt they are clinging to every social media thread looking for updates about a wedding they didn’t know about or weren’t invited to. Conversely, what about guests who were invited but are unable to attend due to work scheduling, an emergency, or illness? They genuinely want to be included this way.
My favorite, “you want your guests to enjoy their day and not feel like they have to take pictures. Doing so as a profession and casually taking a couple of pics are two very different perspectives. Experienced Denver wedding officiant, Ed Ward, with over 800 wedding ceremonies performed says:
“Aside from the bride and groom, the most important people at a wedding are the guests. After all, they have given to the bride and groom a day of the lives. Guests need to be treated with utmost respect, for after all is said and done, it is the guests, the community of people who love the bride and groom, it is the guests who change the status of the couple from unmarried to married. It is family and friends who ‘seal the deal’ or ‘tie the knot,’ not the photographer or wedding planner. A ceremony is not a ceremony without engaged guests. Upset guests do not make for a great wedding or spiritual human ritual. People bring cameras to weddings for the same reason they bring them to reunions: to take photos!”
Lastly, “you don’t want your guests in the way of the photographer do you?” Okay, this last one is legitimate for the ceremony and post ceremony formal photos. The last thing a photographer wants is somebody standing in the aisle during the first kiss, or impeding their ability to do their work. Having a cast of amateur photographers distracting formal photos after a ceremony is one thing, but to insist on an unplugged reception is something else. Attorney and artist Kevin Houchin says, “I can see a balance by a professional wedding photographer politely asking in a cooperative manner that others refrain from taking candid shots during formals, because it’s distracting and the time is usually limited.”
Here are a few other comments I’ve heard this past year from unplugged photographers and coordinators:
“I don’t want people to confuse somebody else’s images as my images.” (How could an amateur with a cell phone take a better photo than a professional wedding photographer with professional gear? Attorney Kevin Houchin commented, “if a photographer, with all their professional training and education, experience, expensive lights and fancy equipment is threatened by an amateur with a cell phone, then they probably aren’t as professional as their fee might suggest.”
“My contract says I am the only person allowed to take photos for the day.” (According to attorney, Kevin Houchin, legally, it’s unenforceable no matter their contract may say. Guests will do what they want.)
“I own that shot because I set it up.” (The fact is, only the person that took the photo, owns the photo they took. DJs be prepared for an insightful follow up article about photos of lighting you set up but did not take.)
“I don’t want anyone to reveal the day’s photos to the bride and groom, or put up photos of the wedding before I do. I want their first look photos to be from me.” (A photographer cannot control other people’s behavior. Nobody can.)
“I own all the photos taken that day by anyone else.” (This is my favorite, simply because it’s just plain wrong.)
“The phone’s flash or the flash from another camera will ruin all my photos.” (The wedding documentarians I interviewed simply said, “take more photos then.” The reality? Most photographers said they average a minimum of 50 to 100 album print ready images per hour of coverage with their average wedding 8 to 12 hours; so 400 to 800 photos to choose from. Some often shoot 5,000 to 6,500 raw images per wedding. So, “finding an image without a flash isn’t that big of a deal. It’s just a matter of experience to recognize that moment to capture that moment.”)
Over the last year, I’ve heard it all. I even worked with a wedding photographer from Denver this past August who is notorious for insisting her weddings are 100% unplugged…or she won’t take any photos at all. She literally threw a fit in public in front of everyone. Really!?!
By keeping other people (and images) out of the way, it limits the guests’ ability, and the freedom to take, and distribute photos. The photographer knows that all the images she takes becomes her property with the ability to sell, license, or transfer those rights upon her choosing. This obviously helps the photographer’s checkbook, and simultaneously, bolsters the coordinator’s credibility, status and credentials (and as a referral source) because these professional images become the only images distributed about her work as a planner too.
What about shots the photographer misses? (The photographer simply can’t be everywhere all the time – even if they bring a second shooter, or leave early.)
What about equipment malfunctions, wrong settings or errors in post production? (Yes, it happens!)
What about capturing different views or perspectives of the day? (Critical to get different perspectives.)
What about “the story” the people in the photos tell? (In the very same way clothes, trends, fads, and styles tell a story, so will the technology and things in the photo too.)
So, attorney Kevin Houchin said is really comes down to an effort to “limit access.” That’s what it’s about.
According to a personal interview with Kevin Houchin, intellectual property attorney and artist,
“here’s the reality: a wedding is a semi private event. Not public, not completely private either. The last time I checked, there isn’t a contract on a wedding invitation that says something like, ‘by sending this back, you agree to leave your cell phone, camera, ipad or ipod in your car at my wedding and not take any photos.’ Additionally, the couple does not own the photos a guest takes at an event, so the couple has no power to transfer ownership of a guest’s photo to anyone, including the photographer. Therefore, any clause claiming the photographer owns photos taken by guests is unenforceable.”
Do all wedding photographers see it this way? Thank God, no!
Here’s how some of my favorite (and cool to work with) wedding photographers see this emerging trend:
“We honestly love both ‘plugged’ and ‘unplugged’ weddings. We see the benefit to both. As photographers, we obviously can’t deny the joy and excitement in capturing a beautiful moment on a wedding day. We think guest should be able to enjoy taking photos if it is fun for them! We try to let as many people as possible know that they will have full access to our photos, so they shouldn’t feel the need to document with photos if they don’t want to. The most ideal situations we have been in, is when the ceremony is unplugged, and the rest of the day is a free for all. ” KJ – KJ & Rob Photography
“Digital photography has changed the way people take photos. It has become extremely easy to take photos because everyone has a cell phone it their pocket. When we used film cameras, things were different. Film and processing cost money. So, it made people think about taking a photo. Is this worthy of a photograph? There was also a delay of time after taking the picture. Now it is instant gratification on seeing the image and receiving feedback from the image. Society has changed and the technology has made it easy. The simple truth is people like taking pictures. Just because someone has a camera in their phone does not make them a professional photographer. I don’t consider myself a chef because I can make a pretty good peanut butter and jelly sandwich either.” Sherri Barber with Sherri Barber Photography
“Honestly, it’s a heart thing. I personally don’t press the issue and move around avoiding those devices so they aren’t in the shots. I have had couples who are convicted by how much technology has affected us, that they desire phones aren’t present on their day or to don’t want them to be seen in their wedding photos. These couples then also choose locations with no cell service too.” Austyn Elizabeth – Austyn Elizabeth Photography
“Personal cameras have been around for a long time, yet people STILL hire professional photographers and videographers for those special events. Granted – the advent of cameras on cell phones makes it possible for nearly everyone to carry a camera all the time. However, people STILL hire professional photographers and videographers…and I believe it will always be this way because taking nonstop photos/videos throughout an event is (and will always be) WORK. While guests at an event may take a few random photos or videos to give them later, they won’t be diligently capturing every important moment. After the wedding, will those guests want to spend time editing those photos and video to give you a polished album/DVD? Not likely. For those reasons, I don’t feel threatened by cell phones at all. In the end, if a client wants a video or photos that capture their day in a way that they can comfortably watch and proudly display, I feel confident that they won’t rely solely on their friend’s cell phone. So, bring on the cell phones!” Angie Sickler – Signature Story Films
My favorite photographer interview quote comes from Jackie Nuxol, owner of Selah Photography. She says,
“I am big on documenting weddings authentically. I love capturing photographs that tell what life was really like on the couple’s wedding day. As long as people who are using their mobile devices don’t get in the way of what I need to do as a photographer, I happily see it as part of the story. Imagine what the photos of a couple dancing their first dance with 10 of their best friends holding up their phone in the background will look like in 50 years. It will tell a story of this era. Professional photographers should never see it as competition.”
Finally, attorney and artist Kevin Houchin says,
“if a photographer is there to truly serve the bride and groom, then they genuinely want the bride and groom to have the best photos possible; even if the photographer didn’t capture them.”
Bravo! Well said all!
So, what do I think?
As an experienced wedding MC / DJ with nearly 1,500 weddings in Estes Park, Fort Collins, and throughout Colorado, I say, let as many people as possible take as many photos as they want with an understanding to please be respectful and tasteful of what they take and distribute. It’s the photographer’s ability to see, recognize and capture those moments and emotions that tell a story of their day. A lifestyle or photojournalistic wedding photographer sees this as part of the story. So should a coordinator or planer. It’s common sense. I say, let guests document their perspective of the wedding day however they wish. They chose to be there and celebrate, and this moment is equally as important to them too. It’s why they came and they want to always remember it with a photo they took a day out of their life to celebrate it as they saw it from their perspective. Encourage them to share. It’s simply a different view and version of what happened, from that particular guest’s perspective. This not only helps capture those special moments that a photographer didn’t capture or simply didn’t see (ie. an impromptu hug from grandma to the bride, but the photographer already left, is in the restroom or changing batteries, etc) but this tells a different story of how guests experienced the wedding celebration too.
From the MC / DJ side, I believe it’s both unfair and unprofessional to expect the MC/DJ to serve as the mouth piece (and the muscle) to enforce an unplugged mandate. A bride should clearly communicate her authentic, realistic and untainted wishes well in advance so guests know what to expect before they arrive. Even if guests know what to expect, the question then becomes, who will announce and enforce it? I’ve seen time and time again that the pinterest-worthy sign will only be taken as a suggestion. It will be completely disregarded. A modest notice in the invitation will be forgotten or outright ignored too. For an unplugged mandate to be effective, the bride has two choices: either the bride has to choose a venue with no cell service, or there has to be a “bouncer.”
Who is the best person to announce and enforce this?
It’s not the officiant, not planner, photographer or the MC/DJ. As much as I’ve humbly asked planners and photographers to make their own announcement regarding an unplugged wedding, 100 percent have refused handing (or tossing) my mic back to me. They know HOW the message will be received.
I have my take on this…
In the end, it’s about love and respect. It’s about why guests are there. It’s about celebrating with the couple they came to be with. So, instead of the MC/DJ making this awkward and messy announcement that always will negatively impact the necessary rapport with guests and poorly taint the overall mood of the day, this message should come directly from the groom at the very start of the ceremony.
Guests will listen to him. Guests will respect the couple’s wishes far more than hearing it from anyone else.
…and for God’s sake…the bride, groom, wedding party and parents need to stay off their phones and refrain from taking pictures; especially if they expect guests to do the same!
Make a statement or tell your story.
Showcase your own style.
Brand your wedding.
CREATE memories together!
Matt Martindale – Amore’ DJ Entertainment, Wedding Lighting & Décor, Interactive Photo Booth
*Professional Wedding MC / 13 Time Award Winning Colorado Wedding DJ Expert™
*WeddingWire Bride’s Choice Award Winner (Top 5 percent of all Wedding Professionals Nationally)