Writing with light

Wedding photographer Jerry Ghionis talks to Neos Kosmos about the industry, being an educator, and bringing out the best in people

Widely regarded as one of the top five and most influential wedding photographers in the world, Jerry Ghionis’ venture into photography started when his brother Nick – who is equally passionate about photography – gave him his first camera at the age of 15. Jerry says to this day, nothing can ever compare to the feeling of anticipation you get, not knowing what the final product will look like, the image you have captured, because you were relying on film – the digital cameras of today just can’t compete.

After completing high school, Jerry began a four-year photography course and quit after a year. Frustrated by teachers trying to teach and mould his creativity, he wanted to explore his creativity alone. He gained much more hands-on experience working at a popular photography studio on Melbourne’s iconic Lygon Street. By 1997, he was ready to spread his wings and start his own business. Enter XSiGHT Photography in Fairfield, which was soon to became one of Australia’s largest and most respected wedding studios.

With 15 employees and working on over 300 weddings a year, the business was going well, but Jerry Ghionis wanted to reinvent it, to see his name up in lights.

In 2007 he launched his new boutique studio in the prestigious Docklands precinct of Melbourne, where he works alongside his life and business partner Melissa.

Today, Jerry spends half of his time shooting, the other half teaching and inspiring fellow photographers all over the world with his passionate approach to photography. In 2011, he was named as one of the top photography workshop instructors in the world by PDN magazine.

“I’ve spoken to 4000 people on stage; I speak to 20 people in a small workshop environment,” Jerry tells Neos Kosmos of his charismatic teaching style.

“The art of teaching is an incredible feeling, having that many people in the palm of your hand. Whether I shoot or speak, I want to make you do three things: I want to make you laugh, I want to make you cry and I want you to hold your breath. Teaching is a craft I developed over the years, and it has taken me all over the world – from Japan to Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia…. To teach someone is probably the most powerful gift that you can give,” Jerry says.

Apart from being an influential photographer, Ghionis is the creator of the ICE Society, an educational internet platform for photography, and inventor of the ICE Light, a vertical portable light for photographers. For the last three years, he has been based in Melbourne and Beverly Hills (USA), as that was the only way to accommodate his frequent trips around the world.

However, his job isn’t all glitz and glam, as he will tell you. For example, planes and taxi rides, living in a different hotel room on daily basis. Last year alone, Jerry caught 53 flights to accommodate all his educating and shooting responsibilities.
“People often say to me ‘Jerry, you are very lucky’. I believe we create our own luck,” he says.

Creating wedding magic

When the big day comes along, Jerry knows that it’s all about filling the bridal party with the confidence they need.
“You do that purely with your energy, with what you say, and how you say it. And that’s what I do on the wedding day,” he explains of creating his special brand of ‘wedding magic’.

“The most beautiful moment for me is when the bride looks at me and has that confidence and knows that she looks absolutely gorgeous. And that’s what I do for living – I bring out the best in people, whether it’s shooting or teaching,” Jerry explains.
Even though some people may dismiss wedding photography as the lower end of professional photography, Jerry argues the opposite. Shooting weddings involves dealing with different genres, different temperaments, and people who are not used to being in front of the camera.

“If you can shoot a wedding well, you can shoot anything. At the wedding you are shooting fashion, portrait, documentary photography; let alone working under the time constraints, and with different personalities. That may seem easy, but that’s like saying to a brain surgeon that brain surgery is easy. There is a disrespect given to photography in general, not only wedding photography.”

The problem that has ‘cheapened’ his industry is that in first world countries everyone over the age of 12 owns the tool of his trade; a camera. But – as he says – even if you were to hold the same tennis racket as Roger Federer, it doesn’t mean you can play like a Grand Slam champion.

“With new technologies, you can make a photo look more interesting, but not necessarily better. A good photograph is about lighting, posing, storytelling, feelings. You can’t just point the camera at anything. Photography can change the world. Imagine the world without photography – nothing shot with the lens would exist. No movies, no televisions, no magazines. With all the digital technology, photography became more accessible. However, I wouldn’t call all camera owners photographers – I would call them people holding a camera,” Jerry explains.

“Photography is made out of two Greek words that mean ‘writing with light’. And that’s what people don’t do. They look for location first without putting much thought into light and exposure.”

But those who have film and darkroom experience will always have an advantage over those who have only shot digitally.
“I say to those people who arguably disrespect what we do – the photography album is one of the only things that will outlive all of us. We are the first digital generation, that has no memories of themselves, no proof we existed. There is a charm about photo albums. Can you imagine the same charm in future, when we swipe through the photos on our iPods? I stand among many who learned the craft with film and darkroom experience. I love technology, but it is when it is at the expense of the craft that I have a problem with it.”

Being unique in a very saturated industry is as hard as in any other industry. The old saying ‘You are unique, just like anybody else’, in Jerry’s interpretation means, ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’.

That’s one of the reasons why this uncompromising photographer rarely looks at his colleagues’ work. He wants to be a leader and not a follower.

“Think of the cooking industry – how many ways can you make cakes?” he asks.

“It’s not only what you eat, but also how it’s presented to you. What makes us different is us. In the process of becoming unique – the personality is your main asset.”

Creatively, the biggest influence in Jerry’s early career was famous American fashion photographer Herb Ritts, responsible for some of the most famous shots of Hollywood icons in fashion, music and cinema. It was his timeless, organic and clean way of shooting that influenced Jerry so.

“No one can say they are unique. It’s disrespecting your influences. You are influenced by anything you see,” he says.
And as much as we want to think that a wedding day equals a fairy tale, the man who witnesses dozens of weddings each year says it’s definitely not. However, it will be remembered as a fairytale if Jerry shoots the day.

“If the magic is there – I capture it. If it’s not, I create it,” he says matter-of-factly.

“A wedding is a perfect blend of reality that meets fantasy and forms this amazing illusion. Who cares how we got there? It’s like a magic show. The combination of respecting the old school rules of posing, lighting and crafting, with modern twists that make you look effortless and glamorous, is that seductive type of imagery that I’m in love with.”

Making a difference

Two years ago in Cambodia, Jerry found himself closer to the poverty and reality of third world countries than he had ever been. The responsibility he felt, as a successful photographer with a great audience and numerous followers in his industry, made him and his wife Melissa found the non-profit charitable organisation The Soul Society, that cares for poor, homeless and orphaned children in third world countries.

“I saw people living in stick houses, but they were happier than us. We get unhappy with a lukewarm hot chocolate, traffic or all those emails we have to answer during the day. This woke me up. In your life, first you want to make it in something, then you want to matter, make a difference; and then you want to master, to be the best in the industry. I came to the point where I wanted to matter. If just with my voice I could make a difference, why wouldn’t I,” Jerry says.

Within six months, The Soul Society became a fully non-profit charitable organisation. On 23 April this year, $80,000 were donated by the organisation to Sunrise Orphanage in Nepal, which will go directly towards the construction of one of the orphanage’s buildings.

To see more work of Jerry Ghionis Photography, visit www.jerryghionis.com