Saturday, October 03, 2009


Before I got married I was both surprised and confused to learn that my girlfriend and I would be having our wedding photographs taken about four weeks before of the actual date. Unlike Westerners there are evidently no superstitions involving any bad luck which comes from seeing the bride in her dress before wedding ceremony begins, and unfortunately Koreans also don't really have the tradition of not turning up to church on the day leaving your intended standing at the alter, or at least, the tradition of considering it a possibility. Hence, while a Westerner might see taking pre-emptive wedding shots as rather presumptuous, in Korea it is simply the way things are done.

I recall the day our wedding photographs were taken as being a somewhat arduous and confusing affair, with frequent changes of costumes, oversized boots, square metal belts, and photographs taken against a series of increasingly disturbing backdrops, including what resembled a girl's bedroom and a dungeon. Admittedly, we had gone for a cheap package but it wasn't specifically a foreigner stereotype one.

Now the boot's on the other foot, because my wife's best friend is getting married soon. Last Saturday it was her turn for the day-long photo-shoot, so she wanted us to come along to provide moral support and capture the more casual images of the big occasion. I'd gathered it was common to designate a close friend to be there in that function, but we hadn't bothered for ours, in part because we wanted a low-key affair and I felt our arrangements were spiralling out of control and threatening to turn into a circus - well, as far as I could tell behind the impenetrable language barrier.

We were out of our apartment at 11am to eat with Korean Best Friend and her future husband, with the shoot scheduled to begin at 3pm and finish at 9. But before the shoot could begin, clothing and backdrops had to be chosen from a wedding album featuring unfortunate English which - if our experience is anything to go by - will appear in the final album and can make showing them to family back home unintentionally amusing or awkward depending on exactly what appears in large lettering next to your treasured memories. In everyday life, you usually accept this kind of broken English as part of the backdrop, but believe me, it doesn't look pretty in a wedding album. Given that quite often the English is ripped straight out of pop songs, it's almost inexplicable how Ben E. King's "Just as long as you stand, stand by me" became "hust as ling" in the picture below. In Korea, even cut-and-paste doesn't cut it. And the less said about the palpitations and the fist the better. This is a country in which a great deal of money is spent on English education, but the results are rather sad to see sometimes.

In fact the wedding album from which maybe six or seven sets will be chosen from twenty reveals a great truth about Korean wedding shoots - at some level they are supposed to be individual, but really they are a mass-produced product. You look through an album of pages showing these pre-packaged outfits, stances and backdrops, so that later it can be you in exactly that shot, with that outfit, stance and backdrop, on the same page with the same badly translated English. If you pay more, you might be able to work in something of your own choosing, but mostly you'll be treading a very worn path made by thousands of couples who have gone before you.

Our friend had paid more so the shoot was a little different - enough so that while we may have been fortunate enough to not be the principle actors this time, I soon discovered we would be called upon to play a supporting role in one of the shots rather than sitting back in the audience, dressed in our t-shirts and jeans. If we ever get invited to such an affair again, we'll remember to dress up, just in case. On the other hand, the prospective groom clearly hadn't felt compelled to go the extra mile in the preparatory department either - closer inspection over lunch revealed the suggestion of an impending 5 o'clock shadow above his upper lip. He was asked about it - "I haven't shaved for weeks" he replied sheepishly, though it was impossible to tell whether his reticence to discuss the subject was provoked by the general absence of facial hair or by his failure to break with his tradition and find a razor before the shoot. The conversation drifted away but it didn't take me with it - I was too busy working out how much time each week I was losing to this guy standing in front of the bathroom mirror scrubbing the stubble from my face every morning - over an hour, as it turned out. I'll never be able to compete with the Koreans with this disadvantage.

Not that anyone is going to notice the groom's grooming - as our disturbingly exuberant photographer frequently exclaimed during his frantic shots - "Don't worry, it's all going to be Photoshopped!" And judging by the photographs of the two people who appeared in my own shoot two years ago, it will be too. Five years from now Koreans won't even bother turning up to their photo shoots, it will all just be faked. Five years after that, you'll have the option of appearing with your future children in the photographs, based on your combined genetic profiles.

In any case, grooms are merely extras and in many ways the event really revolves around the prospective brides - the dress changes, hair changes and cosmetic repairs can consume huge quantities of time relative to the actual shots themselves, while often the man involved will merely change jackets, depending on what sets have been chosen.

Two hours into the shoot, family members arrived with food, and everyone - including the photographer and resident stylist - ate communally. This seemed to speed the affair along because we actually managed to finish by 7pm. After a short delay a DVD with around 500 raw photographs was handed over - over which the prospective bride and groom subsequently agonised over at some length to select a handful to be 'Photoshopped!' and appear in their album. Along with the 170 photographs I culled from the 400 I took, this will ultimately give our couple several hundred images of the day - and that's before the wedding has even begun.

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