Group dynamics, mean priests, photography and you

Yesterday, I agreed to help shoot a wedding in St. Charles, which is a westerly suburb of  Chicago.

The wedding was at St. John Neumann’s Catholic Church. I’ll get to the church a little further into my story, but St. John Neumann is hands-down the worst, most uninviting, unpleasant church I’ve ever photographed a wedding.

Between video and photography, I’ve shot weddings since 1998. After shooting so many weddings, you get a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. Every church and every priest or pastor has their own set of rules. St. John’s is in a league of their own.

First, let’s talk about group dynamics

As far as moving people and coordinating photo ops, some weddings have coordinators who make my job much simpler. They help wrangle family and move people where they need to go.

But more often than not, there are no wedding coordinators.

You’d be surprised how much direction a group needs. This may sound evil or mean, but groups of people are sheep. It’s just the way it is.

I learned this back when I played bass in a band while in high school. If people were sitting along the periphery of a bar who never saw you before, all I needed to do was go to a mic and ask them to come up to the front. “Come closer, closer …” And then you’ve got 10 whole people dancing who weren’t before.


Ask and you shall receive.

The same works for big groups, especially weddings. To accomplish moving people around, you have to use a very unnatural muscle that people like me were not born with.  I was the reason Kajagoogoo wrote that Too shy to shy song. No kidding.

When people are leaving the church, if you want them to group up and start blowing bubbles for the couple to walk through, you must use a bullhorn voice to tell them to do so.

If you want some people to go get photos and others to go to the reception hall and wait, you — yes you — must use a bullhorn voice to tell them.

If you want a photograph of a group, you have to tell them how to stand, how not to stand, where to put their hands, etc. If you want a group to pose at the reception who are engaged in conversation and drinks, you need to politely ask for one. I say things like, “I’d like to respectfully interrupt your conversation to ask for a photograph of your [lovely, handsome, beautiful, fun-loving] group.”

You’d be surprised at how much dissent or negativity you are met with as a photographer asking for things, or maybe you wouldn’t. Without a toughened skin, you would likely walk off many wedding locations within 10 minutes. People, in general, can be real assholes. Not on purpose, but because they are in groups, and the dynamic of struggling for dominance or coolness is part of the formula working against direction from the dumbass with the camera.

Second, let’s talk about the priest at St. Neumann Catholic Church. 

I didn’t get the priest’s name yesterday. I don’t think he’s the regular, head guy with a robe and an attitude. I think he was a guy who came to perform the wedding. There was also a little elderly lady who was coordinating the event at the church only. She made sure the group was in and out in the specified time that the family paid for.

At the church, we were handed photography rules to abide by. We never met the couple before, and were never in this church, so we had to read them just before the wedding. Usually you get that way in advance. The rules were standard. We could use flash during the procession and recessional, but not during the ceremony. We couldn’t pass the first pew of the church. We couldn’t move too much to distract the ceremony.

Catholic churches are stricter than protestant ones. Catholics don’t care that wedding photography is usually lusted over by many couples because the nervousness and the emotions can be captured. It’s the vulnerability that can be captured.


Before we entered the church and while reading the rules, the priest walked up to us and barked, “Did you guys changed the lighting in the church?”

“No,” we said.

“That’s weird. We need to find out who did it,” he spoke sharply.

We walked into the church, which was a very poorly lighted space. There was a HUGE window and halogen lights blaring from the ceiling. Anyone who knows anything about lighting, knows that is the WORST lighting. Halogens cast sharp nasty shadows that make people look yellow and ugly, but then the mixture of blue light from outside casts unwelcome tones across the skin.

The funny thing is that the photography rules from the church reads that the lighting is sufficient natural and electrical lighting, so no flash. Yes, there is sufficient natural and electrical lighting to make photography look like absolute crap!

Thanks, St. Neumann.

The ceremony begins!

I positioned myself on the right side of the church and Bill on the left. I found a place that was on the correct side of the pews, but to get out of that spot, I might have to pass in front for a second. Bill positioned himself by the first pew.

The priest walked over to Bill and shooed him away citing the first pew rule.

He then walked over to me and with a long arm and moving fingers said, “You can’t pass the first pew.” I motioned that I was past the first pew, and he said again, “You can’t pass the first pew.”

I gave them an I surrender face, and moved to accommodate him. When he looked back, I smiled to gesture solidarity to his rules. He must have walked away, and thought, that punk is disrespecting me by smiling. I must go back and ream him a new asshole. 

He walked back and stood about 10 inches from my nose and said, “Do you understand?”

“Do I understand what?” I responded.

“Do you un-der-stand?” He repeated. Emphasis on “un” then “der” then “stand”.

I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head in complete ignorance, “Do I understand … what?”

He raised his voice to a loud whisper loud enough for almost everyone in the church to hear, “Do you understand that you can’t go past the first pew?” His delivery was muffled machine gun staccato  As he spoke, spit hit my face. A unified gasp went out from the folks surrounding me.

“Yes!” I whispered with furrowed brow. “Why are you being so mean?”

He turned and stomped off. And again, I smiled to try to ease the minds of the people who were all staring at me after getting scolded by his highness the priest.

After the ceremony, I hoped to talk to him and apologize, but he stormed out as fast as he could (as seen below).

Mind you, there are priests and pastors who don’t act like this one. And if I knew his name, I would publish it, and let others know not to use this guy, and never go to this church. Its leadership is some of the worst I’ve seen. They don’t want you. They don’t want to be ambassadors for goodness and grace.

Experiences like this are contrasted with say Luis and Becky’s wedding, who both read this blog. Their officient integrated me into the wedding. He told me that my job was as important as anyone’s and said I could get as close as I wanted during the ceremony.

We shot a wedding recently in which the pastor said things like, “And if the photographer is ready for the important moment of the kiss, I’ll proceed.” He was the kindest guy I’ve ever worked with. Genuine. Concerned. Observant.

He even organized an amazing photo op for us.

Now that’s how you officiate a wedding.

St. Neumann’s should be embarrassed and ashamed of its public persona that was diminished by two people with great responsibly to represent not only the church, but Christianity as a whole.

At the reception, several people approached me and said, “Wow, that priest was such a jerk, huh?” And, “He had no right to yell at you like that.”

I nodded my head and tried to deflect it. “He’s doing his job” and “Every church has rules.” Negativity from the hired hands is not good etiquette.

But in the back of my mind, I was writing this post.

And now you know, and I hope other people with similar stories about St. John Neumann Catholic Church of St. Charles can share similar stories. Or stories of redemption.

Or let me know what a jerk I am for writing this.

Either way, the world should know.

6 thoughts on “Group dynamics, mean priests, photography and you

  1. Why on earth did you make excuses for the guy? I would have just smiled and agreed, “yes, he was a jerk”.

    The bounds of good etiquette had long since been broken.

  2. I wish I could agree with you that this priest was an exception. Having grown up Catholic I can tell you it is fairly common. Pretty much every Catholic wedding I ever went to the priests seem to have a stick up their collective asses about photographers during weddings or other events. I have vivid recollection on more than a couple of weddings of priests scolding the photographer in one way or another.

    Are you a jerk for writing this post? Not at all!

    Churches charge money for hosting ceremonies and I believe if you charge for a service you are not immune from patron’s reviews. This sounds like a fair assessment of a situation and if the priest or anyone from the church catches this post and doesn’t like it, oh well, too bad so sad!

  3. I wouldn’t take any further action on this. You’ve already said your peace.

    I would however, keep the name of the priest in mind and remind any client who may wish to get married there by the same guy that he doesn’t work well with photographers and that the quality of the shots during the ceremony may not be optimal.

  4. No point in following up – they probably don’t care.

    For all you know, Mr. Federspiel might be the only one that read your complaint. He’s not likely to do anything about it.

  5. I’ll take it. Thanks.

    In the very least, I will throw the priest’s name in the tag data. The church is already there.

    It may become like the Wyndham post that gets tons of hits a couple years later.

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