This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
With its elaborate fake scenery and entire crews of stylists, makeup artists, and photographers, China's pre-wedding photography industry is big: big for the economy, and big for engaged couples, who channel vast amounts of their savings into the shoot up to a year ahead of their wedding day. (Reports abound of couples laying down $1 million USD to stage their shoot in Antarctica.) The industry is also big on fantasy, with popular themes ranging from exotic beach landscapes, royalty, and fairy tales to James Bond-style set ups made to resemble action film posters. Not to mention the Downton Abbey effect, whereby middle-class Chinese couples—inspired by the TV series—fly to be photographed in quaint British hotspots such as Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, York, and Cornwall’s Land’s End.
Shanghai-based Australian photographer Olivia Martin-McGuire became intrigued by the practice four years ago when she stumbled across brides and their photographers running around the city mid-shoot. VICE spoke to Martin-McGuire about her photographic collection China Love, which documents the nerves, joy, and color of what has become a key part of China's booming wedding industry.
VICE: Hi Olivia. How did you first come across China's pre-wedding photo industry?
Olivia Martin-McGuire: I've been living in China for the past four years, initially working as a photojournalist. I was running early [one day] for a job and I spotted all these brides running around the building I was going to. They all had white trainers on and their colorful dresses were hiked up as they raced around the streets followed by stylists and photographers. It seemed like a hurry and a flurry and I became intrigued.
I began photographing them on the streets, then I visited Thames Town, a fake little "England" just out of Shanghai where lots of couples were getting these fantasy pre-wedding shoots taken among the fake cobbled streets. I saw this industry as a window into a very complex country. Here we could see the human aspirations, [but] whose dream was this? Why was it so important to everyone? Why were adults dressing up in fantasy outfits against fantasy backdrops, and investing so much money into it? I'm now finishing a feature film documentary, Double Happiness, about this industry. The film is premiering at The Sydney Film Festival in June 2018 and playing on ABC TV later in the year.
What aspects of this practice stick in your mind?
The sense of play that Chinese people have. Australians are so fixated with being real. Make believe is only for children. Whereas adults here are less serious. In China, men do a lot for women when it comes to marriage and weddings. Women are treated like princesses and during the ceremony men must kiss their feet. The whole country has come out of a very harrowing period. Eighty-million people died during the 20 or so Mao years. They were not allowed to be educated or have free thought. I am not sure if Westerners really understand this—China is in a "dreaming state," much like America was when it was all about "The American dream". There's a resilience and selflessness in China which is extraordinary and inspiring.
Most of the pre-wedding photos are taken in giant factories with fake backdrops. Ninety percent of Chinese people don't have a passport and will never travel. In these photos we have a sense of how much the dream is to see other parts of the world regardless, and how practical they are at finding other ways [to do that].
Beyond the visual spectacle, what aspect(s) of the industry did you most want to get across?
I wanted to show a different side of China. [Beyond] the pollution and the politics and all the bad stuff. I wanted to show the people and the color and the fun. I was also exploring the power of photography, as I saw how important these pre-wedding shoots were in building hope, constructing new dreams, and definitely building new memories.