As some things are happening in life, they hold your breath. You watch them form and shape, still afraid to blow off the feather of destiny. When they do finally take place, you are not relieved to gasp for air… they leave you breathless in awe, still. Such is my ongoing odyssey with Meera and Arjun.
In all regards, this is a long-distance journey, and it is how it even started in October 2011. I was sitting across the ocean from them in a Moroccan cuisine restaurant when an email came from a young lady from Atlanta, GA. She came across my photography while searching for “innovative engagement photos” online. Visiting San Francisco for Thanksgiving, they were thinking of doing a glamorous photo shoot in the Sutro Bath Ruins. That was some start for a New Yorker already! Shooting an Indian couple against the beautiful backdrop of a windy cliff, ocean waves, and old walls of the baths would be a double delight! Upon my return to the US, we continued our excited discussion and they booked my travel from NYC for the engagement session at the end of November.
And then comes a surprise email from Meera’s fiance, Arjun. He explains that as their wedding preparations traditionally set off by the families, he did not get to make a formal proposal. He prepared an elaborate plan to surprise her during their next visit to NYC and he hoped I could candidly document it. I had plans for that night but how could I miss this?! Two streams of emails followed — official with Meera, discussing the wardrobe and ideas for the e-session via Pinterest, and the unofficial behind her back — for Arjun’s plot. It felt like a conspiracy…
Arjun’s plan was fabulous. He would first take her by a surprise with first-row tickets to Phantom of the Opera, then go for a drink to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rooftop martini bar and garden (highly recommend). That is where the proposal would be made and I would need to candidly shoot it from a distance, easily mixed in the crowd, later revealing myself and finishing off with a few happily-proposed portraits. At some point before their planned trip, things got in a whirlwind, almost ruining his plans. As we exchanged emails just a few days before their visit, everything got sorted and planned out, and we were ready.
Surprises began early that day. First, on their way to the Met, Arjun’s cell phone broke down interrupting our vital text message communication. He had to borrow Meera’s explaining his constant using it for urgent family matters. According to my plan, I went to the Met a little ahead of time to look around and take a position in the bar. Upon my arrival, I learned that the bar was closed, contrary to what they told Arjun on the phone. I had to think and act quickly, putting Arjun at ease and offering to re-arrange everything, preferably without moving too far. First, I found a different location at the Met where I could seat them — at the booked up indoor Great Hall Balcony bar. It was more formal and required table reservations with a waiting line… On the big plus side, it played live classical music. This is what I would have to work with instead of easy blending and pretending to be a party-snapper in the crowd:
I called for the restaurant’s staff’s sympathy and compassion, jumped the line, sweetly demanded a strategically located table to allow me for a clear shot at a concealing angle, and then asked to hold it empty for me until needed… Oh, once they heard the story, the patrons and staff were completely understanding, nodding, and smiling! They grew curious and excited about being part of the plot, too. I kept texting Arjun with my progress as they approached the museum: snapshots of the place, directions to the table I secured for them, seating instructions and diagram, “our” waiter’s name, and other logistics. I later got to switch tables for an even better angle.
Finally, I received a text message that they were on the steps. I gave signal to people in-the-know and ran to my position. There I saw them coming. I understand what Arjun had to go through and the level of his excitement and worry. I don’t blame him for seating Meera the opposite of what I instructed him but I had to make him switch so I could see both of them and not the back of just one, blocking the other. Then I suggested (still by texting) he combed his hair before making the move. Being myself in a pretty open space sitting on a bench some 10-15 yards away, I had to conceal my camera with a big white Canon telephoto lens and my face, too! Although they never met me, Meera could have recognized me from my photos. As it turned out later, she did notice a “very sad man”, sitting with his hands in a grief grasp of his head. Well, my eyes could cry of the tension I put on them trying to watch the guys through my fingers while keeping the nose down…Thankfully, soon Arjun took all of Meera’s attention away, and that is when I uncovered my “gun” and started shooting, moving between two hideouts and catching lots of understanding smiles and sighs from the by-passers. 20 minutes later, I approached the table and finally introduced myself. We finished with an outdoor mini-session on the steps before they went to another reserved restaurant to celebrate. The mission was completed.
Few days later I published the following slideshow. A friend of mine couldn’t resist but shared it with her friend who wrote back, “Thanks a lot for making me cry….” These are people who don’t know my couple… The whole experience felt like a fairytale in making, with supporting people deeply touched by it. I thank all.
I can’t thank you enough for everything you did for us yesterday. You went far above and beyond just your job in the way you helped me set the stage and recover from having to change the original location. Thank you so very much for everything – all the photographs at the end really made Meera feel extra special about the occasion and it was just altogether wonderful. Having you there taking all the photographs really added so much to our entire day, I can’t thank you enough. — Arjun
Now back to the official plan for an engagement session in California later that month. Preparations went uncovered now, and one early morning a few weeks later I boarded the plane to San Francisco. After landing I rode right to the Sutro Heights Park, a couple of hours ahead of the scheduled start time. As the guys were getting ready, I picked a lunch box from Louis’ and while eating, scouted the area to identify places, poses, and ideas I wanted to try. One very promising and adrenaline-pumping sign greeted me. That would be a workplace I wanted to work in! Among the most exciting visions I formed would be a shot over the guys with the huge waves crushing in the rocks below. Possibly something similar to what I did for this couple but more colossal and fierce. I watched the immense ocean waves in awe and counted minutes for my couple to arrive. It was end of November and I knew that the sun would be going down early in the day.
The circumstances made some adjustments to timing, and we didn’t get to have as much time as I hoped for. We started with a few conventional portraits in Meera’s and Arjun’s traditional clothes, then changed to a contemporary look. An even bigger blow was a surprising change in waves’ strength. They started to weaken late afternoon and by the time we got to that part, became almost non-existent, at least for the impact I was after. Although I felt like we were rushing through my written notes and skipping some ideas before the sunset, we managed to create a spectacular imagery illustrated by just a few samples below, now reminding me of the breathtaking Californian sunset and ocean breeze. I flew back the same night, making it yet another 24-hour gig.
And this is all just the beginning… Aside from another encounter, the all-Russian traditional dinner to which I treated the guys during their recent visit to NYC, we are now preparing and holding our breaths for the grand finale of this photographic odyssey to their wedding ceremony. The spectacular conclusion will take place in the land of vibrant, spiritual, cultural, and natural heritage — India, in the Garden City of Bangalore in June 2012. I will be spending three days working with them! I’ve been already blessed with a number of Indian and Pakistani weddings but the one that flourishes on the ancestors’ land is a true fantasy for any artist. And that would be a whole new story to write…