Although its 6pm in London, the day is only just starting in LA when I sit down to interview Joe Buissink. ‘We’re just getting to the heat of the day here’ he tells me, talking from his studio in Beverly Hills. With a phone book full of a-list clients (Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera to name a few), Joe’s work precedes him. Shooting weddings all over the world, his un-posed photos (or ‘moments’ as he likes to call them), are beautifully breathtaking. A career that started at the age of 44 with a snapshot of his late wife and son, twenty years later Joe is now world renowned. With a lifetime achievement award under his belt, I was keen to find out more. Down to earth, gracious and truly inspirational, if you’ve ever thought of working as a wedding photographer, this is one man who proves it’s never too late to make a dream come true.
So Joe, where did your interest in photography come from?
I was working on my PhD in psychology at UCLA when I came home one day and out the corner of my eye saw a shot of my wife and son. I instinctively reached for the little point and shoot camera on the hallway table and grabbed the shot. The next day I took the roll of film to the lab where I was working as a part time job, I processed that image and was blown away. I knew I should be feeling that – it was my wife and my son and that was a beautiful moment, but it was beyond that. Months later I realised it was the power of being in people’s lives, in that moment two people have with one another.
So that’s what I sought out, to make a living out of photography. I quickly became a photojournalist for my next door neighbour, who was the publisher of the LA weekly, but I found it hard to make a living from that. I had just been to two friend’s weddings and both times I had walked away saying I wish I had a camera in my hand – it was almost a subconscious thought. When I got home I realised it wasn’t that the photographer wasn’t doing a good job, but that he (it was mostly he back then) would spend two or three hours on formal photos and miss the story unfolding behind him. That’s what people want to remember, that’s what separates weddings. I thought I’m tired of seeing the old white albums with gold lettering saying ‘Our wedding’, they all look the same. So I started out shooting on 35mm cameras, twenty years later I’m still shooting on film the same way.
That’s such a great story, I really love that. So how has your job changed now we live in such a digital age, do you still shoot on film?
When digital first started hitting the wedding photography scene here, everybody jumped ship immediately to get onto the new bandwagon. The more I looked at the digital arena and the new tools such as Photoshop, Lightroom and filters, the more I started seeing everyone’s work looking very similar. It all started to look the same to me, so I said you know what, I’m going to stick to film. Everyone said I was crazy, that I’d be left behind and that the learning curve would be crazy by the time I tried to catch up. I never thought about being better than anyone else, I always thought about being different, so I said if everybody in the world has gone digital and I’m the only idiot left shooting on film then who’s different? I’m still shooting on film today. I’m a secondary shooter on all my jobs, my primary shooter shoots all digital and I shoot in film.
That’s really interesting, so you are looking for the natural shots whilst your primary shooter focuses on the posed images?
That’s absolutely correct. The only people that know that I am the person they hired are the bride and groom and sometimes their parents. To the rest of the party and the guests, they see me lurking in the background with a long lens, they see the primary being in control and posing people, so they always assume they are the photographer that was hired and nobody pays attention to me. That’s exactly what I want; this is how I get my moments.
So what would you say is the most memorable wedding for you?
Honestly as many celebrities as I’ve photographed, I think one of the weddings that still stands out to me is someone who couldn’t afford me. A young Hispanic girl who was crying on the couch when she was looking at my images, who said she realised by looking at my work that there was no way she could afford me. At the time I think my rate was ten thousand dollars to shoot a wedding, but I asked her what her budget for photography was; she said $1500 dollars was the max and I told her that’s exactly how much I am. She was so excited, so thrilled. For me it’s about my passion, yes it’s a business but it’s my passion first. It was one of the best weddings I have ever shot; it was held in a backyard, Mum had picked the flowers and made tortillas by hand and the whole family cooked.
That’s such a lovely story. So where do you get your inspiration from, do you know exactly where to stand to get the right shots, or is every wedding a new experience for you?
Every wedding is completely new to me. I’ve learnt what to do and I’m still a work in progress – I will never get all of this completely correct thank God. I eliminate the thought process, I simply try to open myself up to be present in moments and use my feelings and intuition to respond to things that I think might unfold in a split second. It’s being in tune with moments, dancing with those moments – every wedding has them, and all moments are different. It’s inspiring for me to just be invited in; it’s been an honour to witness one of the most special days in people’s lives.
I was going to ask you how much you plan and how much is thinking on your feet, but I guess you’ve already answered that...
Yeah, even when couples ask me if I would like to see the venue to work out lighting I say no. I want to be surprised on the day and typically if I look at the lighting today, a week from now it will be completely different. So no, I want to get there and be a blank slate, completely open, and just feel and see moments.
You came to photography later in life, what advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Whenever I teach, the first thing I tell people is that the most important thing about photography is who you are –I always see a lot of puzzled looks on people’s faces and I don’t blame them! But while it’s important to understand the technical elements of photography, for example you should know your F-stop from your shutter speed, but it’s really important to find your own style. Whenever I hit the shutter, a piece of me goes in there as well and this does become your style. If we all get consumed by this becoming a business and the passion takes a back seat, your eye and imagery changes. When it’s strictly a business it becomes nine till five, so find out why it is you love what you do with that camera, as when you function from passion you never work a day in your life. Never lose sight of why you started, stay true to yourself and keep figuring out how to become reinvigorated; a lot of people burn out after five years of shooting what they consider to be the same old thing, when it really isn’t.
Also, I started collecting photography before I became a photographer; before I go out on a gig I visit the walls in my house and stare at these images. I get drawn in over and over again, it’s not just about the image itself, the image speaks volumes about the photographer and then you are pulled in as a witness. All of a sudden it’s a three way conversation which I absolutely love. I would suggest to any new beginner, look at the old masters, go find yourself a beautiful gallery and spend a whole day staring at the images.
Amazing advice, right I’ll let you get on – have a great day and thanks again Joe!
If Joe has left you itching to have a go yourself, why not take a look at the different wedding photography courses listed on hotcourses. Find the moments, dance with them and who knows where you might end up.
Choosing these images from Joe’s amazing portfolio was one of my most difficult jobs yet – all credits to the man himself.