China's Pre-Wedding Photo Shoots Are Something Else

"I saw how important these shoots were in constructing new dreams."

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May 13 2018, 11:18pm

All photos by Olivia Martin-Maguire

China Love, a documentary all about China's pre-wedding photo shoots, is screening at the Sydney Film Festival. Check out session times here and absorb the entire program for the festival, taking place 6-17 June, here.

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 USD$1 million to stage theirs 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 colour of what has become a key part of China's booming wedding industry.

On the top of a mountain in Guilin, China. The whole crew had hiked up the mountain for the shoot.

VICE: Hi Olivia. How did you first come across China's pre-wedding photo industry?
Olivia Martin-Maguire: 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 colourful 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.

A fake Santorini beach in the industrial area outside Shanghai. Couples line up for their turn to shine.

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, China Love, about this industry. The film is premiering at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2018 and playing on ABC TV later in the year.

Skylines are a popular way for photographers to get striking, romantic images.

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. Tens of millions of 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 is 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].

A bride on her wedding day in rural China. It's often a more subdued affair than the pre-wedding shoot, as when a woman marries in China, she leaves her birth family to join her husband's, causing elements of grief for both her and her parents.

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 colour 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.

One-day shoots involve six costume and backdrop changes; the pace is fast in order to fit in all the shots.
A couple in their new apartment, honouring his family by feeding them soup. Their pre-wedding photo is visible on the wall. In China when a couple marries the man must provide a home.
A bride getting her pre-wedding photos done in a pool, a very popular style in China. Anything that portrays freedom is a common theme.
A couple poses during a group shoot for elderly couples married during The Cultural Revolution (and hence denied a pre-wedding shoot in their youth).
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