Jocelyn Voo: Photographing Orthodox Jewish Weddings in America

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All images by Jocelyn Voo. Used with permission. This is a post in a special series done with R/WeddingPhotography on ethnic weddings in America.

“Many of the weddings I shoot are ethnic, but I shoot quite frequently in the orthodox Jewish circuit, despite not being Jewish myself,” said photographer Jocelyn Voo in her initial email contact to us. Jocelyn runs Everly Studios–and got her start as a photojournalist and documentary photographer. Naturally, the skills learned there transitioned well into the wedding business for her.

Orthodox Jewish weddings tend to differ from the commonplace Christian weddings here in America–and as a result even many of the photographers are Orthodox Jews themselves since they already know and understand the culture. However, my time at B&H Photo Video Pro Audio taught me that there are many different tiers and each couple makes their own individual decisions on how they practice and their belief system.

I talked with Jocelyn about the rituals and what it’s like photographing these ceremonies.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Jocelyn: Years ago I was a career journalist and a documentary travel photographer on the side, so the connective thread was always an interest in storytelling. What I really enjoyed was probing the human condition, and words were great for examining the hows and whys of what we do. However, I increasingly turned to photography in an effort to try to tell less and show more. As much as I try to tell my own version of every travel adventure or wedding that I shoot, it’s just as interesting to hear what other people take away from it.

Phoblographer: What got you into weddings, engagements and portraits?

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Jocelyn: I’m drawn to human emotion, and capturing those special, candid moments: the groom’s overwhelmed expression when he sees his bride for the first time, the sly looks the couple sneaks at each other during the ceremony, the whiskey-tinged bliss on guests’ faces when the band is absolutely slaying the dance floor. That’s the good stuff. The emotion is palpable, and I want people to be able to re-live the night through my work.

The fact that I, a relative stranger, am invited to join this very special day for so many people? It’s not lost on me how lucky I am.

Phoblographer: How did you first get into photographing Orthodox Jewish weddings? What was the first one like for you? Were there any big moments that really stand out to you?

Jocelyn: My first Orthodox Jewish couple was serendipity. They found me through a referral, and like with all my couples, we met and just hit it off. They knew I didn’t specialize in Orthodox Jewish weddings, but there was good rapport, and they trusted me, and I trusted them. I’d like to think that they were more drawn to my aesthetic rather than my experience.

They gave me a day-of schedule, and I watched a lot of YouTube videos as part of my research. I wanted to make sure I knew the best way to capture all the traditions — for example, the tisch, when the groom gathers with male friends and family to sing songs and prayers; the badeken, the traditional bridal veiling ritual; the signing of the ketubah; the bride circling the groom three or seven times under the chuppah, depending on the community. Sometimes there are additional elements, like sounding the shofar (someone blowing a ram’s horn). All of these are very special and particular to orthodox weddings.

“I’m drawn to human emotion, and capturing those special, candid moments: the groom’s overwhelmed expression when he sees his bride for the first time, the sly looks the couple sneaks at each other during the ceremony, the whiskey-tinged bliss on guests’ faces when the band is absolutely slaying the dance floor…”

But going from watching 2D videos into an actual 3D orthodox Jewish wedding — well, that was an experience. There’s so many amazing things going on simultaneously, but my second shooter and I were prepared and had no problem elbowing our way into the hora to get the shot. It was exciting and exhausting and had a lot of precise elements. I definitely get my cardio in for the day when I shoot an Orthodox Jewish wedding.

Phoblographer: One of the biggest parts of an Orthodox Jewish wedding has to do with the celebration afterward where the men and women are totally separated. But your second shooter is a female; so how do you go about gaining trust in order to capture the moments?

Jocelyn: When I first meet a couple, this is the time for us to both make sure it’s a good match. There’s a lot of chatting, a lot of getting to know one another, a lot of hearing about what they’re envisioning for the day and seeing if this is something I can deliver well. They’ve always seen my work beforehand, so I already know they appreciate my aesthetic, but with weddings, it’s just as much about personality. I’m sensitive to the fact that the photographer is the only vendor who will be with the couple the entire day, so it’s important they trust my vision and enjoy being around me (and vice versa). They know they can reach out to me at any point leading up to the big day.

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Knowing that gender segregation is part of the ceremony, I simply ask upfront if they feel comfortable with potentially having a female second shooter. If they say no, I have male second shooters that can join me for the day. I’ve yet to have a couple say no to a female second shooter, but I’d completely respect their decision if they had preference for a male.

Phoblographer: How do you feel that an Orthodox wedding differs from a traditional Christian wedding that we’re so used to seeing in popular culture?

Jocelyn: For me, the main difference is the gender segregation, and the simultaneous goings-on, which means myself and my second shooter are responsible for covering completely different elements. There’s also more rituals involved with an Orthodox wedding, with more steps leading up to the actual ceremony, like the aforementioned tisch and badeken. Other than that, though, the underlying feeling of celebration is consistent with any other wedding.

Phoblographer: How does your shot list differ? That is, what are some of the biggest and most important things to capture at an Orthodox wedding?

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Jocelyn: Regardless of whether it’s an orthodox Jewish wedding or otherwise, I always ask for three things: a day-of schedule, a group portrait list and a family or friend to help corral groups and call out names. For an orthodox wedding that has so many components (not to mention family members), this is even more critical in helping keep things organized and efficient.

The aforementioned rituals are all key moments, and it’s important to know when these things occur so you don’t miss it. I also always ask my couples if there are any additional elements that they’re adding. Some have done a twist on tradition, like having a women-only tisch the same time the males are having theirs, and some have added more modern, secular touches, like having their beloved pet Pomeranian walk down the aisle.

Phoblographer: How have you gone about marketing your work to the community?

Jocelyn: The current generation that’s making up the bulk of newlyweds happens to be my own generation, so I focus on our specific, natural behaviors: namely, using the Internet. Having a great online presence is key, and this includes social media. Besides referrals, the majority of my clients find me through Google, but I’ve also had quite a few couples find me through Instagram.

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In addition to that, continuity counts. After I shoot a wedding, the relationship with the couple isn’t done. We tend to follow each other on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s nice to keep up with them. I genuinely do care about my couples and what they’re up to. I like think that this trust has helped dovetail into wedding referrals — not to mention other things, like family photos and birthday parties, once they start having children.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Jocelyn: I prefer a minimalist route, so my workhorses are two Nikon D810s, a 24-70mm lens and 70-200mm lens, a 50mm for some portraits and an SB-800 speedlight with Gary Fong lightsphere. I have the 24-70mm on me at all times, and sling the 70-200mm for the ceremony and the initial parts of the reception. However, when it comes to the reception, I’m more of a fully immersive photographer on the dance floor, and just use my 24-70mm and speedlight. I’ve found that the best way to get organic shots is to just enjoy myself and be part of the celebration. Even better, I’ve never met a dance party that I didn’t like.

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