Digital Manners: Is It a Faux Pas to Snap Cell-Phone Pics at Weddings?

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Feb. 21 2012 3:01 PM

Amateur Wedding Paparazzi (Transcript)

Should guests snap cell-phone photos at weddings and post them online?

Emily Yoffe:  I hereby pronounce you husband and wife. You may now take out your cell phones and photograph the bride.

 Farhad Manjoo:  I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

Emily:  I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Today’s question is from a woman who wonders whether it’s rude to whip out a cell phone during a wedding ceremony to take snapshots of the happy couple. She writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, at the weddings I’ve been to recently, including my own, I’ve noticed a trend: cell phone photos. As soon as the attendants and the bride come walking down the aisle, guests pull out their phones and begin snapping photos. Am I being oversensitive to think that people’s eyes should be on the bride, not their phones? It’s not like there aren’t professional photos being taken, so I’m not sure I understand the point. After my own recent wedding, there were photos posted on Facebook that had been taken not only while I was walking down the aisle, but also during the ceremony. Is this as rude as I think it is or am I just behind the new trend of amateur cell phone wedding photography?” Signed, Don’t Say Cheese.

Okay, Farhad, you were married pretty recently. Were there amateur paparazzi there, and what did you think about it if there were?

Farhad:  There were amateur paparazzi. Actually, right after our ceremony, I took a picture of us and I posted it to my Twitter.

Emily:  Whoa, whoa, wait. This was in real time?

Farhad:  In real time, right from the wedding.

Emily:  And you’re still married?

Farhad:  It’s true. I think my wife was… She was amused. I don’t think she was angry, but I don’t think she loved it. But I post everything else on Twitter, so why not photos of this big event?

Emily:  Okay. So your reaction is…

Farhad:  I think this is fine. I think this woman is behind on the new trend, as she says. I actually should say that we also had professional photographers at our wedding who took amazing photos, but the amateur photos are really good and they capture a more intimate portrait of the wedding and special moments that I think the professional photographers didn’t capture, because the amateur ones are taken by friends and family who know the people and who know what’s going on. And there are just more of them. They can capture more stuff.

Emily:  This makes me think why actually should you have this whole ceremony? Just take pictures of each other. This is worse than the fight we had over the taking the photos at the kid’s birthday and posting them all on Facebook and parents saying, “I don’t want my kids’ photos being posted,” because this means that the people who are observing this event, which is often a religious ceremony, and now I hear from you, Farhad, the people actually participating in it are not really taking part in the moment. They’re turning it into a virtual event.

I think keep your phones in your pocket during the ceremony. As this bride said, you have hired someone to capture this for you. Of course that person is not going to capture all the images that hundreds of people snapping their cell phones could, but if you’re so busy with your cell phone trying to get the most clever shot, you’re not really paying attention. You have divided attention.

We’re all constantly told when you’re going into a lecture, a religious event, a movie, turn off your cell phones. I don’t even think you should think twice when you’re going in to observe a wedding ceremony. Your phone should be off in your pocket or your purse. We know, because you have a one-year-old, that your marriage did survive this. But I’m against it.

Farhad:  Are you reacting to the fact that they’re cell phones? Would you have said this ten years ago when we had disposable cameras?

Emily:  Yes. If 20, 50, or 100 people are going to pull out cameras and start snapping, you have an entirely different experience. They’re involved in their recording of it, their artistic statement. They’re capturing the moment. They’re not experiencing the moment. There’s sound distraction.

If you’re up there having one of the most important moments of your life and people are twisting and turning and jockeying and snapping, that would just put me off. Not everything needs to be recorded.

And then also these people are taking your wedding photos and putting them on their own page. It’s not a gift to you. I’m all in favor of handing out disposable cameras at the reception and saying, “Hey, people, go ahead,” and then you collect the photos and the photos are kind of a gift to you.

They’re turning it into “This is my own photographic statement about this event I was at.” You don’t see people going to the pew or the seat – wherever it is – and pulling out cameras. There aren’t 50 people with actual cameras taking pictures.

Cameras have been around forever and there’s never been a problem with, “Oh, my gosh, people starting photographing the ceremony.” So there is something holding people back from that. I think this new technology is so ubiquitous and easy that it’s broken down that barrier. You don’t have to tell people, “Please don’t bring a camera to the ceremony.”

Farhad:  Emily, I disagree. I’ve seen people pull out cameras at wedding ceremonies for a long time. I’m pretty sure I’ve done it myself. Not a phone. A camera.

I think what’s different here is the fact it wasn’t a distraction because the photos weren’t instantly on Facebook, but now that the photos are being taken and posted, I think that’s the difference.

I think I recognize that worry that people go to event these days. It’s not just weddings. This happens at music concerts all the time. I notice that instead of enjoying the music, people will pull out their cell phones and either video record or audio record the thing that they’re watching.  The worry is you’re not enjoying the moment or experiencing the moment. You’re spending your time capturing the moment.

I actually don’t think it’s as big of a distraction as you say it is. It’s not loud. It’s not hurting the ceremony. I just don’t think that’s happening. I also think, for many people, the act of capturing is their way of enjoying it. When they see something that touches them, that moves them, that they want to remember, the way we do that now is to record it.

You’re right. Those pictures aren’t a gift to the couple, but I think they’re the way that people experience events these days. In the old days, you might have whistled at a concert when you loved something or put up your lighter. But nowadays, you record it. I think it’s just an automatic response to great things happening.

Emily:  Yeah, but when you hired the wedding photographer, there are tons of photographs and you get the proofs and you go through them and you choose the ones. You actually edit what your recorded memory will be of the experience. You don’t have 1,000 photographs in your wedding album; you’ve chosen the ones that best describe the moment. That’s lost when everyone there is creating their own album and disseminating it and turning your event into their event.

This is like recording your kid’s piano recital where everyone is standing in the way and jockeying each other. I used to record my daughter’s piano recitals. I’ve enjoyed them so much more since I’ve said, “You know what? This just going to be an event I experience now and I’m really going to sit here an experience it.” It’s fleeting. There are fleeting things that just exist in your memory.

How often are you going to be looking back at someone else’s wedding photos? It’s silly. Just experience this event.

Farhad:  I agree with you. I actually don’t record people’s wedding ceremonies. It’s funny to me that you see several people taking a photo – people who know each other – taking a photo of the same thing. People hand their own cameras to someone to take a portrait of a family or something.

It’s weird because they’re taking the same photo. With digital photography, there’s no ownership of the photo. If you take one photo, you can share it with everyone. There’s no “your photo” and “my photo.”

People still want the sense of ownership over pictures, I think. Even if digital photography allows us to pass pictures around easily, you want a sense that “this is my photo of your event.” Even if you’re not going to look at that photo again, I think it’s just people’s way of enjoying it.

If you think about it, if you pause and wonder why you’re pulling out your cell phone to record this event when so many other people are recording it, and when you’re probably not going to go back and care in five years time about this event, then it seems silly as you say.

Perhaps maybe people should pause before they pull out their cell phones and think about why they’re doing it. But I think people don’t think about it and I don’t think that’s so bad. It’s just their way of responding to a positive event.

Emily:  But I think it is bad. What our series is about is how technology crashes up against etiquette. You’re absolutely right. Before people pull out their cell phones and start taking pictures, you have this group go, “Oh, okay.” Then everyone is.

I think there are places you have to enforce certain norms. Your phone, you’re not going to text, you’re not going to talk, you’re not going to take photos. You are going to sit quietly and observe this event. You don’t have to capture everything.

Farhad:  You said another thing that I disagree with. You think this event your event – the happy couple’s event. But I guess I disagree that a wedding is that. It’s also the way that people remember that event. It’s part of their lives, too, and I think they’re entitled to try to remember your ceremony with their own documentation.

If you’re getting married, you can enforce a “no cell phone during the ceremony” rule. But I think a lot of your guests will feel offended by that, because I think that for them trying to be part of your ceremony is recording it.

Emily:  I think because this person has experienced what clearly is a shifting norm, I think people now should have, as people are being seated, when you go into a church – I’ve been to funerals where there are people as you’re walking in say, “Please make sure your phones are off.” I think at weddings, as you’re being walked to your seat, people should say, “And please turn off your phone and keep it away.” That’s it. You don’t have to make explanations. It’s obvious you don’t want phones to be ringing.

My bottom line is I’m against this. Turn off the electronics. Just let an experience wash over you. At the reception, it’s fine. Or ask the bride and groom, “Look, I’d love to take some amateur photos.” That’s okay. Not the ceremony.

Farhad:  My bottom line is it’s fine. You should be able to pull out your cell phone during a ceremony and record everything you see. It’s your memories. I think a bride and groom can ask their guests not to record the event. But I think they should know that people might be offended by that and might not have as good a time.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week.  Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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