Aaron Spagnolo: Photographing Armenian Weddings in America

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All photos by Aaron Spagnolo. Used with permission. This is part of a collaborative series that we’re doing with the sub-reddit R/WeddingPhotography

“Their weddings are simple and respectful of their people’s traditions, also looking at their history quite possibly the first form of Christian wedding,” says photographer Aaron Spagnolo when talking about Armenian weddings. He’s familiar with their customs and has photographed many of them.

As a kid, Aaron had mild dyslexia and was more geared towards the visual side of storytelling instead of the written side. Because of this, he feels that it comes to him more naturally.

Aaron is a full-time photographer, and he doesn’t only shoot weddings. He’s photographed rock stars like System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Aerosmith, world leaders and politicians, Emmy winning companies and directors. His work even put him on the staff at M.I.T. as a photographer and designer. But these days, Aaron focuses on telling the stories of people saying “I do.”

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

Aaron: When I was a kid, photography would have been my future career of choice. I didn’t think I could take that path, but I would have loved to. I loved flipping through National Geographic magazines and illustrated books on animals—it was the pictures, not the texts that captured my attention. Reflecting back on it now, I suppose photography appealed to me because I was—and still am—a touch dyslexic. It didn’t really affect me other than some poor grammar, but I do think it pushed me to look to more visual forms of storytelling, rather than the written forms.

Phoblographer: What got you into wedding photography?

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Aaron: My first experience with wedding photography was as a second shooter at a Martha Stewart wedding for a pair of television actors. I hadn’t yet started to focus on portraits at that point in my career, and I don’t think I even had a website, but I jumped on the opportunity to try it out. After that, acquaintances began to request my coverage.  Once I had built up my portfolio, I went for it.

Phoblographer: As a wedding photographer, you’ve photographed lots of weddings including Armenian weddings. You told us that they are the very first forms of Christian weddings. How do they differ from the more typical Christian weddings that we’re used to seeing?

Aaron: Well, Armenians will tell you that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as a state religion. The traditions of the Armenian Orthodox Church have been carefully passed down for generations. Most modern-day weddings—no matter the denomination—are a bit streamlined to go along with modern living. Compared to other marriage services I’ve covered, the Armenian Orthodox service is longer, and it very much feels spiritually in touch with that long tradition.

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Like most ceremonies, they have the standards: the couple stands up front before the altar; the Reverend Father prays; and rings are exchanged. The Armenians use myrrh and frankincense in their church services and the smell lingers in the church—it gives it that old feel; it’s quite nice. At one point the priest places crowns on the heads of the marrying couple; the couple puts their heads together, as the best man holds the cross over them. Of course, the language used is mainly Armenian. It’s really a pleasure to be a part of it.

Phoblographer: As a photographer, how do you mentally prepare yourself for the differences?

Aaron: For me, there is no real difference, other than language, perhaps dress styles and venues. Essentially, they’re all about two people vowing to love each other in front of the community. My job is simply to document that. No matter the ceremony, I easily go with the flow.

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Phoblographer: Is there a special or different type of “must have” shot list for Armenian weddings?

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Aaron: As with every wedding, it’s good to know what’s coming ahead of time. So make sure you know what to expect. If you can, visit the church beforehand, and speak with the priest. There are some areas that you can’t go beyond. And be prepared for “the kiss” as the couple exits the church, and not before the altar—at least that’s been my experience. I once had an uncle of the bride give me a long list of shots he thought I should get—I have to say, it was helpful. I still have it saved just in case I need some ideas. So if you’re lucky, you’ll have an uncle approach you.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use and why you chose it.

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Aaron: I use Canon cameras—maybe it has to do with the ads I saw in Nat-Geo as a kid. My first real camera was a Canon—and I really liked the way it felt in my hands. At this point, I’m just so used to and comfortable with Canons that I wouldn’t want to switch just for that reason. As a renegade photojournalist, I amassed a collection of lenses that I still use. I have a few primes for close-ups and candid, a good wide-angle, the rest are for really zooming in so I can be less intrusive.  I recently purchased an instant camera, I reach for it once-in-a-while, just to send guests home with a photo (it also makes a good business card).

Phoblographer: What was the biggest difference or the most difficult part about your first Armenian wedding vs the traditional Christian weddings?

Aaron: It was mostly the language and timing. I had no clue what’s going to happen until it was already happening. While some of it may be in English, most isn’t—it keeps me on the ball.

Phoblographer: Let’s talk business here: how do you go about targeting this market and getting repeat business?

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Aaron: No one will hire you if they can’t find you, no matter how good you are.  Marketing and networking are most important, as is search optimization (many hours of fun here).

I personally go about it a few different ways. I place some ads here and there, like adwords (although that’s more for name recognition, it can give good leads). I can put 14-hour-days into my website alone just to make sure it’s up to par, easily findable, and of course good to look at and easy to use. If you’re thinking of going to school for photography, consider taking marketing or web development courses as well, it will help the most in the long run.

Repeat clients and referrals are of course very important. It’s not only about giving the client a good photo, but also giving them a good experience. If you make the whole shoot fun, get to know them, make them feel at ease, they’ll have a great time. Engagements make a great date night if it’s a good experience: lots of kissing, holding hands, and making them feel special. It’s also important to be honest with it all. I’ve covered a few train-wreck weddings. In one recent wedding, I got all the mishaps along the way—you have to see the humor in life; and in my case, I have to capture it. It made the bride’s day—she had the memories of it all, and that was a great thing.

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