The Strange Trend of Professional Marriage Proposal Photography - Pacific Standard
What's accounted for the recent explosion of this super-niche industry? And what does it have to do with 1990s NBA star Shawn Bradley?

The world is a festering stew, everything's getting worse, and nothing matters as we march into the cold embrace of the void. But in the meantime, social media is a great distraction! Unfortunately, unless intensely curated—which, let's be honest, means avoided—it's only making us more depressed. It seems as though everyone else is having a grand old time with their "attended events" and in "happy relationships."

The latest bit of promotional "happiness" that's been haunting my feed as of late is something called "proposal photos." These are photos that capture the moment Person A asks Person B to marry them, usually accompanied by a shifting in both parties' statuses from "in a relationship" to "engaged." To say the photos are a "hot new trend" isn't entirely accurate; Anna Holmes at Jezebel mocked the concept after reading a New York Times mention back in 2007. But the photos are seemingly worming their way into more feeds on a regular basis.

How, and why?

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"They've kinda overtaken cats on a sofa sleeping pictures that were bombarding Facebook," says James Ambler, the founder of the Paparazzi Proposals, a company that specializes in doing this exact thing. Five years ago, when they began, the company handled 60 proposals. In 2015, they snapped close to 700 "yes" moments. And they're simply one of the dozens of options in the wedding economy to choose from.

Ambler came from a paparazzi background, when it was the norm to lurk with a long lens and wait for celebrities, before the TMZ style of pestering-until-they-crack turned into the norm. "You had to be completely hidden," Ambler says. "Half of the cat-and-mouse game was trying to get in positions where you could get photographs but not be seen. If you got spotted, you'd go home." In the parlance of Liam Neeson memes ("Liam Memeson?"), this gave him a particular set of skills, but it wasn't until his own proposal occurred that he had an idea of what to do with them.

"Guys do this, a significant other sees it, and, well, when you propose to me, you have to have pictures. It's not one-upmanship, but the bar being set."

After he proposed to his now-wife with a picnic in Central Park, he was met with congratulations and, him being a photographer and all, a strange question: Have any photos? "It was like, that would've been really cool," he says. "But I didn't want someone three feet away furiously taking pictures as I got down on one knee." After the concept banged around in his head for a bit, he called some colleagues from his paparazzi days and coerced them to point their lenses away from people on tabloid covers and toward those reading them.

"When I started, I just wanted to be a photographer," Ambler says. "I didn't want to get into this whole wishy-washy, vomit-inducing, butterflies-everywhere, flower-petals thing." But the logistics that come with planning for what's essentially a hidden surveillance gig forced additional planning. "With guys, it's not like they can be watching the football game and come in at halftime and be like, I need ideas for how to propose. It's hard to get a lot of that advice, so, guys bounce ideas off us." (For the record, Ambler's never captured a "no" on camera, but has had folks back out between the consultation and the actual proposal.)

The standard Proposal Photography Package ($495) comes with a pre-consultation about the logistics of where everyone needs to be, and one hour on the day-of "to capture the build up, the proposal moment, and take portraits and ring shots after you pop the question." There are bumps in cost if you want to make your friends jealous with a proposal in front of the Times Square big screen ($1,550) or on a San Francisco Cable Car ($1,360). Those aren't cheap prices, even when you're dealing with the money-to-burn, nothing's-good-enough mindset of today's wedding market.

But what's accounted for the recent explosion of this super-niche industry?

"Social media really blew it up. Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook," Ambler says. "But the other thing is that it kind of becomes the expected norm. Guys do this, a significant other sees it, and, well, when you propose to me, you have to have pictures. It's not one-upmanship, but the bar being set."

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"Social media exacerbates social comparison," says Kevin Lewis, a professor of sociology at University of California–San Diego that specializes in studying social networks.

This isn't a newly profound insight; half the reason we log onto social media is a desire to place ourselves "above" or "below" others in one's network in the category of "success," a word with such a slippery definition that using it as a barometer leads to more annoyance than anything else. What Ambler provides, then, is an instantaneous, ego-boosting broadcast.

"[Proposal photos] are the kind of reason people hate social media," Lewis says. "I'd imagine reactions to this are very polarizing. People at once can't stand it, and also wish they had it, and people that weren't considering it now have to consider it. It's particularly sticky for those people who get caught up in it, and particularly distasteful for people who are single or can't stand social media."

It's that "weren't considering it now have to consider it" group that's particularly compelling. Seeing these new types of photos stream across one's feed inherently leads to a new social norm. Its existence shows that other people have performed this act, which conveys a changing of the norm, which then actually changes the norm. "This is a thing that exists" becomes "this is a thing I want" becomes "this is a thing that's essential to the process of getting married."

"People at once can't stand it, and also wish they had it, and people that weren't considering it now have to consider it."

"Two years ago, it would have never have occurred to anyone to do this," Lewis says. "But now there's active peer pressure, like, I'm going to propose to my girlfriend and I know she wants the proposal photo. Or more passive forms of pure influence, where you have this sudden awareness that this is something people do these days."

Lewis mentions another wedding-related social media phenomenon: first-look photos, where the initial moment the groom sees the bride on their wedding day is captured for the cameras. "These are things we tend not to get on camera in the first place because they happen naturally," Lewis says. "And so, going out of the way to photograph them seems antithetical to the moment itself."

But that sentiment goes out the window when social media is concerned. Because now—depending, of course, on how much one decides to let themselves sink into the quicksand of "life-broadcasting"—it's no longer about the moment. It's about the moment that follows the moment, when you post the photo on social. It makes sense, given that most people are going to see the photo of the moment and not the moment itself. But it also seems to cheapen or water down the actual thing.

All judgments aside—way too many to get into here—what's this new mindset we have because of social media? Where the document of the act becomes more important than the act itself? "If you coin a term that describes that, it will totally pick up, because I'm not aware of one," Lewis says. "It needs a term, it's totally a thing." A lot of times, the name that sticks isn't the best, just the first, so there's no way I'm not going to try my hand.

There's some precedent to this mindset, actually. Back in the 1990s, the term "posterized" circulated throughout the basketball-playing (and thusly, -watching) public. It's when an NBA slam dunk is thrown down with such authority that the image of the moment was sure to be expanded onto a poster, to hang on a teenager's wall. If one was "posterized," it meant they were on the embarrassing receiving end of said power-dunk; the visual aesthetics involved being in the foreground, out of focus, bound by the laws of gravity, weak. And while the dunk was great and all, the poster on the wall—that is, the capturing and posting of said moment of dunking—was much, much more important, as evidenced by the proliferation of the slang.

While we can't take that term, we can tap the most posterized player of all time. And so, if a moment becomes less important than the capturing/posting of said moment, that moment has become (Shawn) "Bradleyized." Now, let's see if that sticks.

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Lead PhotoOh god, not again. (Photo: joshsherrill/Flickr)

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