Interview with Wedding Photographer Inbal Sivan
Inbal Sivan is an Israeli-born photographer, former New Yorker, wife and mother of two. Her wedding photography work is beautiful and personal, lit with technical elegance, and best of all, it’s humorous. I admire her as a photographer and friend. She’s very direct and has what I’d call moxie. I value that we met a decade ago while we were both living and working as wedding photographers in NYC, and the unique similarity of having moved and transitioned our lives and businesses to Austin.
I interviewed her over a few glasses of wine to hear more about growing up in Israel, how she got into photography, and some thoughts on wedding photography these days. This text is transcribed from a spoken interview.
How did you get your start in photography?
I went to Camera Obscura, which is a very pretentious photography school in Israel. I went there for 2 years until I was 18. I was the youngest person there by many years. Everyone else was 25 or older. I had graduated high school a year early and I was already young in my grade so I had this gap and I applied and I got in. And then I did the army.
I got in trouble for photography in the army. I was shooting all the time, but it’s classified, so I got in trouble and they wanted to confiscate my film. I was in the navy so I would shoot on the boats, friends and whatever, the way teenagers shoot. But it was all profoundly forbidden. Commanding officers were noticing I was using my camera on the base. I got in trouble for being a shitty soldier overall, but that was one of the things. I had my leave taken away many many times (you would leave Friday and come back Monday). I was fucking up all the time. You get in trouble for not following orders and I didn’t follow orders well. I didn’t do my job well. I just didn’t give a shit. I was gonna leave Israel, that was already a given.
The government in Israel gives you a grant after 6 months of work, and one of those industries is tourism. The last year of my service was in Eilat, the southern tip of the country — it was a hot tourist destination spot with a lot of hotels and stuff. If I got a job in tourism, I would get $6000 at the end of the 6 months. So I worked as a waitress at a hotel in Eilat and I was a scuba diving instructor. That southern border of Egypt is a huge deal planet-wide. And The Red Sea is a big deal in scuba diving. It’s not just flora and fauna, which is amazing, but the Israeli army actually sinks their ships there when they retire, and you can dive through them. So I stayed 6 months and did tourist stuff and then I went to New York with my $6000. I had grandparents who lived in New York.
Who has been influential in your career and why?
I had been to a Robert Frank and Lee Miller show in New York and my plan was to go to America and do a road trip across the country and go to the same places Robert Frank did based on “The Americans.” I did not have a driver’s license or any money. I don’t know how I was thinking I would accomplish it, but that was my plan. I didn’t have any papers and I wasn’t able to work legally so I got a job in the Union Square Christmas Market, which is run by the Israeli mafia. I had never seen snow. Never owned socks. And I was outside 12 hours a day. It was baptism by fire into New York winter. It was miserable, November and December. But it was really good money for someone who had no prospects. Around 4k a month. I shared a studio apartment with a roommate, another Israeli girl with an eating disorder. You roll with it in your 20s, and it was New York. I wouldn’t be ok with any of it now, but you roll with it.
My parents were on my ass about “are you gonna go to college? what are you gonna do with your life?” and I thought, ok I’m gonna apply to college and they’ll see it’s not an affordable prospect… I sent applications to Tisch and SVA. I sent an unsigned check so that if they came to me and said you didn’t sign your check I could reject them. They both let me in. SVA offered you a half tuition for 4 years deal, so I did it. I got some loans and I did it. That was a year in, maybe.
I went to college for photography and had a lot of influential teachers. Phil Toledano was a big influence on me, a great editorial photographer. I was in college in the era of Gregory Crewdson. He did something similar like very elaborate studio lighting on people walking down the street people walking down the street, having lights in the trees, totally candid. A lot of lighting and construction. Constructed narrative. Also Nan Goldin was big when I was in school. She was a pioneer in self-journal photography, doing a lot of drugs, documenting her friends in color doing drugs. There were a lot of people doing b&w removed photography and she was doing “this is my life” kind of photography. I really loved Sophie Calle who did a lot of really cool shit. She hired a surveillance photographer to just follow her around and take photos without her knowledge. I was on the path to doing conceptual fine art photography for a long time.
In my first year, 9/11 happened and that was a big shift in my thinking about documentary coverage and how important it is and what I wanted to do with it. There was this massive historical event when I started college and started photography school and this huge thing happened and changed the world forever. I hadn’t really grasped until then the power that I held as a documentarian like I was really a part of history.
When I was a baby, my mother died and all I have is photos of her. Once September 11 happened, I started to grasp the significance of these moments. I kind of floated through until I was like, “life is happening and things are happening and it’s not all under control. Shit’s going down and someone’s got to tell the world about it. As microcosmic or as familiar as it gets. It’s just as impactful.”
I shot through 9/11. I went down and took pictures. I have a lot of undeveloped film from 9/11. It seemed less important to develop it as it was to be a witness. Weddings came so much later. I graduated college in 2004. After college, I was teaching. I didn’t start weddings until 5 years later. I wasn’t making any money, I couldn’t live off of what I was making, I had to think about career stuff.
I burned out on teaching. I was teaching 6 classes a week. The world was changing when I started teaching. Initially people were coming in with film cameras and they were interested in making artwork. But as I was doing the job, there was more and more “I want to take better vacation photos” kind of requests and that kind of bummed me out.
[Starting weddings] was the perfect storm of events. My friend asked me to shoot their wedding and I also got pregnant and I had a tough pregnancy. It was very hard to teach during my pregnancy because I was nauseous and felt shitty and I was looking for another way to make my living, and it all came together.
I shot weddings up until I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with Ben. And the people I photographed a week before Ben was born, I’m still in touch with them regularly and they still refer me clients regularly.
How much of your work is in NYC vs Austin?
I have kids and would love to stay in Austin more. But the great majority of my work is in New York. It’s really hard; I have a large referral base there but here, I’m starting from scratch. I’m not busy where I want to be busy. But I have a mortgage and kids so it is what it is. I have a maximum of ten years left in wedding photography. I would like to transition to doing more family and more in-person sales.
What’s the biggest challenge with wedding photography?
Out of control expectations.
What took us there?
Instagram. Drones. I try to tell people what is and isn’t possible. I feel like the barriers for entry is very low now; equipment is cheap and easy to operate, it’s definitely the case that an inexperienced or mediocre photographer can do a great job at a wedding where everything goes well but can’t make the most of situations where things don’t go well, which is most weddings. I still feel like our job is very hard and everybody thinks they can do it. But as long as the job is fucking hard, I know that not everybody can do it. Some things you just have to know how to do it.
I can shoot a dance floor. Whatever’s going on I can make it work and a lot of people can’t. When I was in college, for 2 of the four years I only shot large format. Only 4×5 or 8×10. So I would have my lights and I would shoot a maximum of 6 frames and then go home. And that definitely informs the way I work: get it right, don’t fuck around. And then for the other two years I shot medium format. 6×7. 13 frames for a shoot. Not an excessive amount. Never a spray and pray situation. I think I learned a lot from that.
I think it’s pointless to shoot film these days; it doesn’t offer anything technically. There’s nothing film can do that digital can’t do. But I’m grateful for going through the film process because I think I learned about how to be kind of frugal. With ideas. Like have an idea and pre-visualize and execute it. Don’t just hope for the best. So I learned a lot from that and people benefit from that. When people shoot film now I think clients are responding to that as a process. There’s nothing you can’t make with film that you can’t do with digital and much much more. But the process is different. You think more about each frame. You think more about what you’re doing. I’m from Jerusalem and Jerusalem is so old it’s thousands of years old and you walk a byzantine sidewalk to get to McDonalds. It’s so much history that it’s not even valuable. Like the way we think about digital photos. When I moved to America I went to Charleston and someone was like “this building is 300 years old!” and I was like, “…and?” There’s a difference — it requires something and it takes something. Film provides that and digital does not.
Is your shooting process like the film process?
No, but it’s informed by it in a very long-term sense. The lighting process is. I shoot like a digital photographer. A ton of frames. I’m ok with being in a documentary situation and feeling like “I hope this works out, let’s go.” When I’m lighting something and doing something more deliberate my film background informs my process more.
What do you consider being successful?
Providing for my family. Before I had a family it would have been innovating but it’s not anymore. I want to make my clients happy and feed my kids. At the end of the day, I don’t think clients are after innovation, anyway. People want moments and I don’t need to reinvent the wheel at every wedding, which isn’t possible anyway. It’s not what people want. Not what I want.