Thailand: Wedding in Tonsai

January 10th, 2009

I’m not sure I’ve shot a more perfect wedding, especially considering it was on a beach, a half a world away, in a developing country. Jenna and Dylan weren’t sure they could pull it off, but the place was significant: this is where they met. Nothing romantic happened then, but there was a connection. Months later, when she was back in Los Angeles (and single), he was traveling through and called her up.

“I must not have been a very promising prospect,” Dylan addressed Jenna’s father during the ceremony. “A climber on a road trip, no college degree, unemployed, and underage…” Several years younger than Jenna, when they met she had to buy the beer.

Now, several years later, he’s certainly a promising prospect; educated, well employed, one of the nicest guys, and an excellent climber. I’ve had the chance to watch the relationship, its ups and downs, and grow closer to each of them.

I think this intimacy always helps create better images; when I work as a photojournalist, I try to make a meaningful connection with my subject and, when I do, I believe the images are stronger. And so it was with the wedding, I couldn’t have had better conditions with respect to everything; location, weather, coordination, and knowing the couple.

I took the earlier longtail with the bride and had time to shoot her dressing behind sarongs on the beach, her modesty a contrast to the European bathers with g-string bikinis and pot-bellies hanging over their speedos. A second longtail brought the groom and groomsmen, a few of whom had just thrashed through the jungle in search of flowers to compliment the bouquet. Surprisingly traditional, Dylan insisted he not see the bride until the ceremony. So the men changed in the recently closed open-air restaurant, beers already in hand.

A third wave of boats brought the 40-50 guests, and another set of longtails waited in Ao Nang, for two couples were flying in that day, just in time for the wedding. We waited for them and for other tourists to clear the beach, their ranks thinning as rain clouds threatened the horizon. Hal and Roslyn, from Singapore, arrived first. Then, after more than 24 hours of travel, and just as the ceremony began, Forrest and Nuria appeared, leaping over the gunwales and running up the beach.

As unorthodox as the location, and with Marshall Balick as officiant, the ceremony held very loosely to time-honored tradition. Vows were said, rings exchanged, kisses made. Dylan’s brother played. Both mothers read poems. Steve Swenson, who has managed to blend family, a career, and cutting edge alpinism, blessed them with words of wisdom. Having recently returned from climbing with Dylan in China, a new route and their first expedition together, Chad Kellogg spoke to living fully and to community, those present and those not. Asking for a moment of silence and introspect, he quietly slipped back into the huddle of guests, leaving each person to open his or her eyes on their own.

Vows were touching and well written, something they spent hours on, conferring via an intermediary to ensure they were following similar themes, and editing up until the last moment. Surprisingly, Dylan was the one who choked up.

As a finale, they asked everyone to pair off in a line and join hands. They ran through the “bridge of love,” as Jenna playfully called it, theynheaded off to the waiting longtails. A reception dinner was planned at Railey West, where tables holding an impressive buffet were set in the sand. But first, I had a job to finish. The bride and groom were together and I could finish the portraits.

The clouds had only deepened during the ceremony; we could see sheets of rain drifting across the open water and the wind was picking up. If it grew too strong, we’d have some serious whitecaps. Quickly, I began orchestrating.

Time only allowed a few frames for each combination, but I was enjoying the enormous screen of the new Canon 5D Mark II, something I’d had brought over by one of the guests. The light was soft and moody, accented by the orange dresses and complimenting the men’s shirts. And then Jenna and Dylan had a brief, rather romantic, newlywed make-out session which had the wedding party hooting.

I’ve shot a few weddings by now, some complicated, some easy, many fun, most in great locations, and with wonderful couples. But I think this one, as a complete package, ranks as one of the best.

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