Why I am an elopement and adventure wedding photographer.
I went back and forth many, many times on if I should publish or even write this post. I’ve written it in my head dozens of times but putting it out there into the world seemed pretty vulnerable and didn’t seem, I don’t know, professional? But then I said to hell with it cause this is probably the most important story I have to tell. It’s a long one, and a difficult one. My hope is you go on this journey with me.
I talk a lot about how I so deeply, deeply believe that is important and essential to go after the things you most want to do. To actively chase and create your best days ever. I’ve believed this for a long time, even before I was a photographer.
I wasn’t always a photographer. But I’ve always been around photography. My dad was a photographer, a good one, and I was his unwitting subject and pupil for most of my life. “The best light is at sunrise and sunset, always face your subject towards the light, don’t shoot directly into the sun.” I was eight, and had no idea really what he was talking about, but I guess I listened because those lessons really stuck with me all the way to high school when I took my first (and only) photography class, and when I eventually was handed a camera on a trip to Italy by a friend twelve years later.
It was during this trip that photography officially hooked me. My husband gifted me my first DSLR camera a few months later, a little Rebel that I loved more than anything and took with me everywhere. And one of my absolute favorite things to do was to share my work with my dad. I would play this game, which picture would he like best. Which one would earn a raised eyebrow and a, “Oh, look at that!.” Right out of the gate he told me to build a portfolio, to get my work out there. Said I had “an eye” for it. And though a teeny party of me wished to be a real photographer very much, I shrugged him off, convinced his praise was nothing more than “dad goggles” and I was contented to just putter around on my little rebel and leave the real photography to him.
During this time I was in a lucky position to be able to travel a lot and had the ability to fly standby. I asked each of my parents what was the place they most wanted to go to in the world. I knew mine (Milford Sound in New Zealand) but I was curious what theirs was. Mom said Mont Saint Michel in France and my dad said Hawaii. He was an avid history buff and wanted to see Pearl Harbor more than anything. Even then, this idea of seeing the thing you long to see was so important to me, so being a sneaky bastard, I gifted both of my parents a trip to their top bucket list location. My dad was first. In late October 2016, I took my dad to Pearl Harbor.
It was a *wacky* day. It rained all day and I remember being pissed. “I’m taking my dad to his dream place and it’s freaking RAINING AND FOGGY?!” But then, on the ferry on the way to the memorial, the clouds parted, the sky turned a brilliant shade of blue, and a rainbow appeared. It was perfect and clear my dad and I both puttered around with our cameras, though admittedly while his camera was pointed at the sea, mine was focused on him.
Then on the ferry ride back to land the clouds closed in again and by the time our feet hit land it had started raining and didn’t let up the whole day. Wacky weather that day.
We arrived home on November 1st. The Chicago Cubs were in the playoffs. The Cubs wound up winning, and a month after that we learned my dad had cancer again, for the third time.
Three felt like a really, really bad number. One and two felt horrible enough, but three?
The next six months were excruciating. My dad got sicker and sicker, way worse than the other two times he’d been sick before. I went to New Zealand (though briefly considered not going) and it was the most wonderful, magical trip of my life. It served something as a lifeline for me over the next several months. When all there was was fear and sickness I clung to the memories of my friends and NZ’s crystal waters and stunning mountains . Rather than feel guilty that I went I felt grateful, because it helped me survive.
My dad took a very bad turn, then the doctors finally figured out what was causing him to be so SO sick, more sick than normal, and he started to get better. I could breath a little easier, I started hesitantly dreaming of places we may still yet get to see together.
And then on Father’s Day, he fell. Badly. And in a way that was stunning and shocking even though he had cancer and it seems silly to be surprised by this at all, he died.
It was awful in ways I can’t describe. I remember sitting on my couch the day after his funeral, feeling so hollow. Our upstairs neighbor and friend had eloped to city hall the day before (“I wish I could have taken their pictures” I remember thinking) and she was having her wedding reception in the basement below me. I listlessly scrolled through instagram, listening to the muffled sounds of the improbable and impromptu wedding reception, just… searching for beauty. Needing a little bit of light in the dark. And through the strange rabbit hole that is social media, I stumbled upon an image I remember to this day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
It was a couple in Joshua Tree, laughter and joy etched into every feature of their faces, their hair snatched by the wind and the sun splitting into a sphere behind them. Photographed by Anni Graham, it was breathtaking and real everything I ever wished I could do with a camera. I devoured her site, amazed, awestruck.
She called herself an adventure wedding and elopement photographer.
I had no idea such a thing existed until that moment but as soon as I saw those words I felt with absolute certainty that’s what I wanted to do.
“I wish I could do that,” I thought.
Then instantly after;
“I’m *going* to do that.”
Because my dad always thought I could. Because I’d already lost so much- I had nothing to lose from trying. Because he believed in me, from the start, and damnit, if he believed I could be a photographer then I could be a damn photographer.
And so I did. Starting the next day. Whole hog, every day, learning, growing, investing, chasing, moving across the country, getting after this thing that was was somehow less a job description and more of a mirror.
Because you see, you don’t always have an infinite amount of somedays to do the thing you want to do. My dad spent his whole life, his *whole life* wanting to see Pearl Harbor and if he or I had waited just one more month, one measly month, it would have been too late. He would have missed it.
Don’t miss it. Don’t “maybe later” your dreams. Grief is weird, loss is weird, and chasing after the things you want in life, the things that make your heart soar, is not just important, it’s essential. Take that trip, make that call, elope, have a massive wedding, go to New Zealand, whatever that dream is for you, please, please, do it.
The “why” of me being an elopement photographer is two-fold. It’s because it’s what I long to do. Wild places and in love couples and nature and beauty and honesty are all the things that make the world click into place for me. But more than that knowing first-hand how important those peak existence moments are for folks, all I want is to empower you to chase their own peak existence. It’s so worth it. It’s so worth it.
Do the thing you long to do.
This is my dad. He’s in every picture I take, so it seems right that there’s a picture of him here on my website.
— Ryan + Styhiln