Talking weddings with Fearless Photographers founder Huy Nguyen

Huy Nguyen’s career in photography has spanned from photojournalism, to wedding photography, to education. Before founding both Fearless Photographers and the Foundation Workshop, Huy cut his teeth making photos for The Virginian-Pilot and The Dallas Morning News. We recently spoke with Huy about what has changed in the wedding industry, what it takes for a newcomer to get started, and some of the more common mistakes he sees wedding photographers make before coming to the Foundation Workshop. Huy will speak at Focus on the Story this May 29 – June 2 in Washington, D.C. Don’t miss it.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

MIKE JETT: To begin, could you tell us a little bit about your time with The Dallas Morning News and your days as a photojournalist?

HUY NGUYEN: Yeah, well I was a staff photographer there for a few years. I did general assignments at the morning news and that was a really strong time for newspapers. Especially photojournalism. I think our staff was a super strong staff and we did a lot of projects. A lot of worthwhile assignments. It was the heyday of photojournalism, unfortunately. As you know, it is in decline.

JETT: Is this how you ended up moving into wedding photography?

Huy Nguyen is speaking at Focus on the Story 2019 in Washington, D.C.

NGUYEN: These things just kind of happen in the industry. We just started shooting one, two, three weddings and then we get hooked, you know? I took some pictures of my brother in law’s wedding and then their friend saw them and booked me. And I just got hooked up into it. For two or three years I was doing both. I had a full time job at the paper and I was just shooting weddings on the weekends, then slowly transition to weddings. I think the 2004 was my first year that I quit the Morning News and jumped full time to weddings in Dallas.

JETT: Was your approach to wedding photography stylistically different than your approach to photojournalism?

NGUYEN: No. And I think that was how I distinguished myself from the wedding shooters working at that time, because back then it looked really different if someone photographed a wedding photojournalistically, with black and white film and a lot of newspaper experience. There weren’t many photojournalists who would do weddings back then. And so the photos that came out seemed very fresh and very different. And I think the photos really surprised a lot of people in wedding photography. They never seen photos like that before. And now the photojournalists sort of showed them what they could shoot and what was possible beyond just the standard wedding stuff. But I approached my wedding photography in the same way I approached assignments. What happens in the life of a wedding day. What happens with these two families. And so I just used my skills and my training [as a photojournalist] and I approached it that way.

JETT: Do you think the wedding photography business has changed much since you first started?

NGUYEN: I think it has changed a lot. With social media and Pinterest especially, it really exposed the clients to see and demand what they want. And so there’s a tendency to force photographers to replicate things, or shoot a certain way, because they see what they like and they want to have that. In the past, I think that there was more trust for the photographers to create something and less expectation for certain shots exactly as they have seen online.

JETT: Tell us about Fearless Photographers.

NGUYEN: With the organization Fearless Photographers, we push one another to try to do more than what the clients expect. To go beyond the normal stuff that you would usually think of. And they never have to go any which one way, you know, it can go into different styles. As long as we do more than what the clients want. So it can be great photojournalism or it could be great artistic wedding photography, or great portraiture. So it’s not any one style, but it just encourages the photographers to strive to do more, and to not to be so afraid of failure or playing it safe the whole day. Just to carve out time so we can do more and experiment or take a chance on photos that may not work out.

JETT: And what about the Fearless Awards?

NGUYEN: The Fearless Awards are a way for us to sift through all our work and present to the clients our best work, and market and promote ourselves and promote wedding photography in general, to attract attention. So it’s very competitive. We get a lot of photo entries from our members and we have independent judges. We call them curators. I try not to call it a contest or competition, but it’s a collective process. So we do this normally we do six times a year – once every two months.

JETT: I like that you say that it’s meant to market wedding photography as an industry across the board, because I always wonder whether or not art should be a competition. And Fearless Awards seem to be more of a mutual celebration than a way to put yourself above other photographers. That’s the approach?

NGUYEN: Well, the awards are used to rank photographers on the site by location. The top awarded photographers are listed first. So you know, it’s like a golf ranking or tennis rankings. Like if you do well in one tournament, you get up a little higher to the top. So that’s motivation to do well, because you get seen more. But we hope that as we present the whole collection to the public that everyone will celebrate together and be proud of it, like “This is what we can do together.” And more attention can only benefit the whole group, the whole organization, and hopefully the whole industry. Because if we put out good pictures, we get everyone excited and hopefully they will book photographers, and invest more in wedding photography.

JETT: What advice would you give to a newcomer to wedding photography?

NGUYEN: Well you know, it’s like everything. You have to be safe. You have to do the basics first. When you’ve got that under control, you get fancy, right?  So for newcomers you need to be confident, but confidence comes with mastery of what you do. So don’t do anything fancy for the sake of doing something fancy, but play the game right. It takes a while for you to get so good that you can see opportunities where you want to do something fun, something different, something fancy. It’s like playing tennis, right? At first, you just want to get the ball over the net. You don’t want to hit the ball out. That’s all you want to do is get to the ball, hit it over the net. And then after you get better, develop your stamina, and improve your skills, then you start playing the game a little bit more, and you start thinking about what you want to do, you have more control and maybe you get some fancy shots. But at first, just relax and try to have fun. Don’t feel the pressure to do something you’ve seen before. I don’t advocate trying to grow up too fast.

JETT: So definitely start out second shooting some weddings.

NGUYEN: I think that’s good practice. It’s like sky diving with an instructor, you know? You know it’s a safety thing. It can only help you. It’s so much less pressure to be a second shooter and be a second photographer where you don’t have to worry about all these things. You just have to make pictures. You should second shoot for experience. If it’s your first wedding or even your first year, you’re not at a place where you’re discussing style or discussing vision or your voice. You’re just learning how to do it. So if I’m a writer, I just want to write and write and write and get good, and then I start thinking about getting fancy. Or if I want to be a chef I gotta learn how to cook first. Then I start thinking about making some fancy dishes, right? So it’s a matter of number of years. One, two, three, or four depending on how much time the photographer puts into it before you can start thinking about the next step, which is actually the mastery of photography. Then you start thinking about how you want to advance beyond that. And if I can add – I wouldn’t consider wedding photography an art. Like, I don’t think of myself as an artist. I’m not there to create what I want to create for my satisfaction. I’m there on a photojournalism assignment. I’m there to photograph the story of what happens to these families on this day. So I have to produce these pictures for them. I’m not there to experiment on my own and do whatever I want, just for fun or for my artistic satisfaction. Like when I had a newspaper assignment, I’m there to work. So the results of my work will be those photos that this family will love. But of course it’s up to me to sprinkle my work with certain characteristics or certain things that I like to add to them, right? That I can get away with and that don’t distract them too much from their story. I can add things, but I don’t want to overdo it and make it my story instead of theirs. So to me it’s a balance between between a job and then adding a little bit into it, so that it’s more fun to do, it’s more interesting, and maybe the client will appreciate it a little bit. But I never forget that it’s their day that I’m photographing and I’m not just out there shooting to satisfy myself.

JETT: That’s a good nugget of wisdom, and a great way to lead into Foundation Workshop. Talk a little bit about the teaching side of photography for you.

NGUYEN: The Foundation Workshop is based on the classic Eddie Adams workshop or the Missouri Workshop, where we send photographers out to do an assignment, critique the photos, and do some in-the-field mentoring also. But we do this with wedding photographers. So we take professional wedding photographers and put them in this workshop environment and teach them how to photograph real life. The workshop has nothing to do with wedding photography, but it’s for wedding photographers who want to learn these skills and then connect them with their work. After they finish, they realize that these skills they’ve learned, the things they’ve learned about themselves while they were shooting, make their wedding photography better. So it’s a five day workshop. We go out in the field two times, and we do some late night editing sessions. We get really deep, because the groups are kept small. So we ask a lot of hard questions like “What’s holding you back? Why are you not doing this? What’s the hesitation here? What’s the problem here?” And try to solve the problems, not just the symptoms. So that’s why it’s the Foundation Workshop. It lays the foundation for more learning later.

JETT: What are some of the more common things that are holding students back?

NGUYEN: I think the thing that I see most in the people that didn’t grow up to be newpaper photographers is that most people are very shy, very hesitant to photograph from a very close distance, because they feel in the way. They don’t feel like it’s alright. They feel obtrusive. And we just have to get rid of that and say “To be a good photographer, there are some moments when you have to get up there, because the best angle is there and you want to be there and you want to be comfortable there. And it’s okay to be there.” So we need to convince them of that and show them and demonstrate that for them. And then show them the results to change their minds and their instincts. That can be hard. Another thing wedding photographers do that we need to correct is they usually move around too much. They don’t spend enough time composing and waiting for the shot, or working the shot or shooting through a situation. Or they don’t trust themselves. Things like “This is a good situation. I need to spend time here.” They don’t know. They’re not sure. They end up running around a lot. So we need to make assessments and adjustments that are counter to their instincts. Those are two common things that we see .

JETT: The first part reminds me of the old Robert Capa quote: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Who are the photographers who inspired your vision as a photographer?

NGUYEN: When I was younger I was lucky enough to work on the newspaper staff at The Virginian-Pilot and I really learned a lot from the photographers working there. Just to see what they came up with day in and day out. So I loved my colleagues. They were so good. And when you see people day in and day out and you get to see what they think and how they work and the results, it was incredible.

JETT: This is starting to be a theme in my interviews, that our speakers all largely were inspired during their internships. I just spoke to David Holloway who said he would follow around the best photographer in the room and listen for when they click their shutter to try to figure out how they were seeing. But not all of us have this opportunity. For someone who is switching to photography mid-career and who doesn’t have the benefit of an internship with the newspaper, what advice would you give to that person?

NGUYEN: My advice for photographers is to learn how to take criticism. Learn how to accept what other people are saying despite how it delivers, or who’s saying it, or what the context is, or how angry it makes you or how wrong they might be. Get to the heart of what they’re saying and examine that. There are online communities, but I don’t know. you’re never going to have that day in and day out group of people who work together, or like you have at school in university where you just did a lot of things together all the time. You just don’t really have that anymore. So it’s just going to be slower to learn, but there are get togethers and communities you can join, and hopefully there’s one where there’s a good exchange of information and exchange of honesty.

JETT:  What elevates a photograph to you?

NGUYEN: You know, coming from newspapers we judge the value of the photograph on how effective the photograph is to make us feel things. We want to feel the situation, what’s going on, and we will never really care about how beautiful the subjects are. And then I came to wedding photography and suddenly it’s different. And so I’m sort of ranting against that because I think it’s dominated our wedding photography industry and it’s placed a great importance on beauty photography and less importance how good the photograph versus how beautiful the people are, how beautiful the things are. I think our industry is just encouraging our couple to view the wedding day as one gigantic pageant. If that’s what you want to do, I can’t stop it. But I’d like to encourage wedding photography to be more about love in the family and between the people instead of the glitz.

All images © Huy Nguyen. Join us at Focus on the Story 2019 to hear more from Huy and so many others, May 29 – June 2.

Mike Jett is a photographer based in Washington, D.C., and Managing Director of Focus on the Story. You should follow him on Instagram.

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