For better or for worse: meet the couples running successful wedding studios
For some people, the idea of working with your romantic partner triggers horror. For others, it’s ideal. Strangely perhaps, it’s more common in wedding photography than in other genres. The couples below explain why they paired up in business and how they make it work. Candide McDonald reports.
Rocco Ancora and Tanya Wilson
Yin and yang
Rocco Ancora and Tanya Wilson met as established photographers. Ancora was a highly awarded wedding photographer internationally. Wilson had moved into wedding and portrait photography from photojournalism and added teaching to her career.
They met in 2011 and working together was a natural evolution that occurred very gradually, over four years, beginning with Wilson assisting Ancora. “We dabbled a little bit here and there and that was a real bonus. We got to understand how each other works.” There were some scratchy patches early on, they admit. “When we first started photographing weddings together, I’d get in the car afterwards and say, ‘Why are you talking to me like that?’ I was being sensitive because we were partners, and he thought he was talking to the assistant. It took a while to work out the language to use with each other,” Wilson recalls. Their working relationship then swung to the opposite pole. “But we got over that walking on eggshell stage,” Ancora notes. “Now, we swear and scream at each other, and it doesn’t really matter,” Wilson adds. “Always in the car, though. It’s smooth sailing in front of the client.”
Ancora and Wilson’s roles became divided naturally. Wilson is in charge of client liaison, getting people through the door, and managing appointments. “She pretty much runs the business,” Ancora states. “My happy place is holding a camera in my hand and playing with light.” Ancora also runs all the post-production. “It’s kind of a perfect match; we feed off each other’s strengths and recognise each other’s weaknesses as well,” they agree. “We worked out that my strengths were not retouching, for example,” Wilson jokes, “and what I thought I knew, I didn’t really know.”
Ancora is very clear about the advantages of working with “the love of my life”. “The biggest is knowing that we have each other’s back because we’re life partners as well, and there’s that element of trust that you really don’t get with anyone else. Trust goes up another level because I know that any decisions Tanya would make affect both of us. No decisions are self-serving. And vice versa.” Tanya adds, “When we’re really under the pump, we understand what’s happening with each other; when Rocco’s bogged down or when I am. There’s also the joy of just being creative as photographers together, having conversations and sharing ideas; working together makes it fun.”
They agree that there are challenges, mostly around talking to each other as colleagues when you are also romantic partners. “But it’s nothing that you can’t work out,” they agree. “We both have different personalities,” Wilson says. “I’m the loud, hot-head, who just spews out whatever I’m thinking. Rocco is more considered and passive. It’s a yin and yang fit.”
There is one element they consider the top priority for any couple working together; to be upfront and honest about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “The last thing you want is to have two people with very different ideas clashing and ruining the business; potentially ruining your relationship as well,” Wilson says. “We’re also like-minded. I had a photographer say to me recently, ‘I want my wife to come out on a shoot with me so she can see how hard it is.’ I said, ‘Well, do you love her? Why would you do that?’ Our common drive is to get the best result possible for our clients. Our joint mission is to have happy brides and grooms, and we have the same approach to it.”
Ben and Erin Chrisman
Don’t sweat the small stuff
Ben and Erin Chrisman were both newspaper journalists before they became wedding photographers. They then had separate photography businesses; Erin in Atlanta, Georgia, and Ben in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They met at a photographer’s wedding in the Mayan Riviera of Mexico, fell in love, and began the process of adjusting their lives so they could be in the same place. “We moved to San Francisco together as Ben had begun getting more clients there and was feeling the pull to make a home there,” Erin explains. They quickly gathered an international client base because Ben’s wedding photography career had begun with destination weddings throughout the world and his reputation grew by word-of-mouth.
The pair work as two lead photographers and they usually shoot weddings together. “We don’t always know who is going to photograph the bride getting ready, who is going to photograph the groom getting ready, or what positions we’ll take during the ceremony. It’s all very organic, felt out in the moment,” Ben states. Erin works with the couples and their wedding planners in the beginning to get everything organised, booking travel, and nailing down logistics. After the wedding, Ben becomes the couples’ main point of contact, handling their album design, wall art design, print orders, and any other questions that come up about production and products. The couple also have two other photographers in their business, Ryan who lives in San Francisco and Mauricio who lives in Italy, as well as a cinematographer, Vlad, who lives in Santa Fe.
The advantages of being in business together are many, they say. “We always have someone to bounce ideas off; someone to share struggles with; someone to problem-solve with; someone to be in one spot when the other can’t get to it in time; and most importantly someone to travel and work with. Our weddings take us all over the globe, so if we didn’t do it all together, we would never see each other. We also love how seamless and strong we are as a team. We balance each other in so many ways and our clients really benefit from that.”
They agree that working together is not for everyone, but it works for them. “Therefore, we really don’t have that many challenges,” Erin notes. “We bicker like any couple, especially when you consider we are together 24/7, but it’s always minimal and we get over it quickly. We’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff, and to focus instead on how lucky we are to get to do this work, and to get to do it together.”
They make it work by taking time out. “When we travel for weddings, we try to build in a day or two that’s just for us, where we can have a dinner out or spend the day at the beach. We have a four-year-old daughter, so our weddings out of town are our ‘date nights’, even if it just means we get to have a quick dinner together in the hotel the night before the wedding,” Erin states. At home, whether they are working on photos or on the business, they respect each other’s passions and opinions. “We also recognise that arguing is healthy because it leads us to arrive at the best decisions for our clients and for our personal lives,” Erin notes. “Of course, that has only come after more than a decade of learning about each other, learning how to live and work together, learning how to work with each other’s unique personalities, navigating emotions and the highs and lows. We know we have something special, so we work hard at it, because we never want to lose what we have, including this business together that we love so much, and frankly couldn’t live without.”
Shari + Mike
Putting in the work to make it work
Shari and Mike Vallely never planned to go into business together. When they met, Shari was a photographer on the side while working as a child and youth care worker and Mike was a full-time dance instructor, teaching at a local studio and travelling around Canada. “At first, Mike came to weddings with me on the weekends to be a support and help any way he could. When I upgraded cameras, I gave him the old one and told him to take a few photos,” Shari recalls. “He definitely surprised me, and not long after he was taking photos with me at every wedding. It was when we moved to a new city that we really started to consider pursuing photography full time. And when we finally took the leap, we officially rebranded as a husband-and-wife team. Truly one of the best decisions we’ve made.”
The pair took many years to work out how their business and their romantic relationship would work together and determine their roles within the business. “And to some degree we still are,” Shari says. “It takes time and a lot of trying to find the rhythm of your business. What works and what doesn’t. We do have distinct roles, although we have left room for those to shift as we change and grow. I do the editing and social media. Mike creates slideshows, sends out galleries, and handles most of the client communication, contracts, and e-mails. We divided the roles in our business based on our strengths, also taking into account what we are less good at, what we really enjoy doing, and our personalities. For everything else that doesn’t fit, or that someone else can do better, we outsource, like bookkeeping, accounting, website design, Pinterest, and SEO.”
They both feel that the advantages are many. “The biggest one is just having someone around that you can dream with, bounce ideas off, and lean on when you need a break or are having an off day. Having someone you trust in your corner is always an advantage,” Shari notes. “We are grateful every day that we have that. We often say that we feel so much closer and stronger after years of building our business together.” It helps a lot, they add, that they really like each other, so getting to spend so much time together has been a gift. “As wedding photographers, we don’t work a normal 9-5 and our calendar never looks the same. A big advantage to being in business together has been not needing to consider two different schedules when planning life,” they add. “When work takes us to different places in the world, we are able to carve out extra time to travel as a family, which has always been a dream.”
Their biggest challenge has been separating life and work. “They’ve become one and the same over the years and the challenge has been finding family time and having conversations that are not work related, which is really hard when you really do love what you do. Sometimes in business you need to have hard conversations with business partners. Sometimes in marriage you need to have hard conversations with life partners. Keeping these separate so they don’t spill over on each other is a constant challenge,” they note. The importance of finding separation between life and work really hit them hard when they had their daughter. “She gave us a new perspective on life and a deeper desire to find a rhythm that allowed us to still love working, but to prioritise living,” Shari says.
The Vallelys make it work by putting in the work. Shari adds, “By being better listeners and communicators. By sticking to our roles and giving each other space in those roles. With lots of patience and understanding. By being open to feedback. By asking for help when we need it. By being willing to change and shift. By setting goals and having something to work towards. These all keep us moving in the same direction, motivated, and excited about life.”
Erika and Lanny Mann
Making dysfunction function
Erika and Lanny have been named Fearless Photographers in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Fearless seems also to be a necessary element of their working together as a couple; neither feels that it is easy. “Our challenges are probably the same that every marriage goes through. They are many, they are intense, and when we’re in the middle of those challenges, they’re all-encompassing. But when I think about it, if we didn’t work together, we’d just have different challenges,” Erika says. “Marriage is hard and working together definitely makes it harder, or we think it makes it harder, but it also makes it easier in that you share so much.” They are, however, aware that working together holds one overriding advantage. “We can have as much economy as possible in creating our life together,” Lanny acknowledges. “Not only are we self-employed, meaning that we don’t have to answer to anyone other than ourselves, but we have one business rather than two careers, which we would have to balance to craft our life together.”
The pair began working together primarily and, in fact, working in photography as well, so they could share their adventures together. Both were working in jobs that involved getting people outdoors, and travelling became an important part of their life together. “Photography gradually morphed into more than a tool to share our travels with friends and family,” Erika recalls, “but definitely not intentionally.” One of the main catalysts was their two children. “I didn’t really want to go back to work. I especially couldn’t see myself going back to a 9-5 job,” Erika says, “so we decided to start a photography business. In retrospect, we probably would have worked fewer hours had we kept the 9-5, but we’re still very happy to be self-employed.” “I’d say we had similar interests and were just happy doing everything together at that stage of our lives. We probably made the decision so that we could,” Lanny adds.
They don’t do everything together in the business. In fact, they try to keep as many things as possible separate because they are aware that it’s very hard to give a business relationship, married life, and parenting life space when work is such a big part of your life. They both have separate offices and separate roles in the business. “We still end up doing a lot of things together in the business, but that comes with a lot of fighting and a lot of disagreements,” Erika admits. Lanny adds, “In some cases, a lot inevitably ends up being done together. In others, we are able to divide and conquer.” “We do that according to our strengths, or how we perceive our strengths, so anything that needs to be done quickly and efficiently is done in my neck of the woods; anything that needs to be done perfectly is usually in Lanny’s,” Erika notes.
When asked how they make it work, Erika is quick to note that people only think that they make it work. “We do make it work,” Lanny notes. “But not in the way people imagine,” Erika insists. “It’s easy to look in from the outside and assume that it’s easy,” she adds. “We make it work, but that involves struggle, huge failures,” Lanny notes. “It’s full of dysfunction,” Erika admits. “I wouldn’t say what we’re doing is working perfectly; we’re struggling just like everyone else out there. The struggles of marriage are pretty universal and, in our case, making the business work is intertwined with making the marriage work. It’s hard.”
Chrisman Studios – www.chrismanstudios.com
Rocco Ancora & Tanya Wilson – www.roccoancora.com
Shari + Mike – www.shariandmike.ca
Two Mann – www.twomann.com
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