Woke Wednesday // Meet New York City Wedding Photographer Justin McCallum

Justin McCallum Photography NYC wedding photographer

Welcome back to Woke Wednesdays, our series of features that highlights vendors in the wedding industry who are working to bring diversity and equality to the forefront.

Meet Justin McCallum, a New York City wedding photographer, who describes how he found his passion and shares advice on wedding planning. Justin sat down with writer and photographer Nina Brady to share more.

Nina: Hi, Justin! Thanks for chatting with me. Can you start by giving us a little background on your life?

Justin: I was born and raised in Portland, Maine — back before it was super trendy and had amazing restaurants like it does now. I always loved it, and had the most amazing parents who exposed me to so many creative outlets. Because I sucked at every sport and instrument I tried, I ended up taking a visual arts path, and I always loved photography as a hobby. I went to college in Boston and pre-declared as an architecture major, but in my first semester I took my first formal photography course, and there was no hope for anything else. After that, I worked in a dark room, apprenticed under a humanitarian photojournalist, and helped out at a wedding photography studio trying to find a way to make it a career.

newlywed couple embraced and smiling in front of mural wall Justin McCallum Photography New York City

Nina: That’s amazing! What college did you attend?

Justin: I went to Tufts University, and was super lucky that they had a partnership with (and have since acquired) the School for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so I got to have a liberal arts education and also escape to art school world.

Nina: How perfect! So you currently live in New York, correct? How did you end up there?

Justin: Yeah, I’m in NYC! Specifically Long Island City, Queens (side note — screw Amazon!). My partner, who I met in college, went directly into grad school in New York, and I didn’t really have a specific plan, so I followed him down here. I always loved New York, as I’m a total theater queen, so it wasn’t a hard sell. I worked a few odd jobs when I first got down here, before I really decided to dive into working strictly as a photographer, and then focusing on weddings.

two grooms sitting in library staring at each other and smiling Justin McCallum Photography New York City

Nina: That’s so cool! So how long have you been in business as a photographer?

Justin: I did a lot of photography gigs on my college campus — photographing headshots and performances for all the theatre and dance groups, and I was the head of the photography department of the school paper. I also worked at wedding studios during the summers. I have been shooting professionally for nine years now, but really decided it was a “business” about six years ago. I am sort of figuring out how to run it as a "business" still; I much prefer the creative end to the logistical/clerical stuff.

two brides snuggling and holding hands in from of bamboo Justin McCallum Photography New York City

Nina: I can totally relate to that! It is definitely tough to figure out. Do you only specialize in wedding photography, or do you enjoy photographing other genres as well?

Justin: Wedding photography is definitely the main chunk of my work — I’m a sucker for love stories and always enjoy photographing people and relationships, so working in the wedding sphere is so rewarding. Also, you can’t beat watching strangers drunkenly bust a move almost every weekend. I do shoot other genres, especially in the slow season, and love getting to photograph musical artists, cocktails, events, and performances. It lets me work on other skills and find creative outlets, and that has been helping me prevent burn-out.

bride and groom wearing kilt walking and holding hands in front of rainbow gradient mural wall Justin McCallum Photography New York City

Nina: Absolutely! Speaking of weddings, are you married?

Justin: I am married! My husband and I just got married in June. It was WILD and I totally have a whole new level of respect for everyone I work with, after going through it all myself.

Nina: Congratulations! How was the experience of planning your wedding? Did that lead to you doing anything differently in your job as a wedding photographer?

Justin: It’s definitely changed how I approach documenting weddings. I always tried to be respectful of my clients’ time, but now I really don't want to steal folks from the action and am hyper-attuned to those little moments happening off of the dance floor. I also learned how great it is to work with amazing vendors, and also how many vendors don't value their work. I had the most incredible caterers, planner, photographer and florist, and for what they all go through they should charge three times as much. They were life savers — quite literally, in terms of my caterer, who was able to avoid six severe allergens than could have sent my husband and mother into anaphylactic shock.

bride and groom kissing on rocky cliff by the ocean by Justin McCallum NYC wedding photographer

Nina: After having gone through planning a wedding, is there any advice you have for those who are planning their own?

Justin: Yes!

  1. Set clear guidelines and expectations with your family members and wedding party. That can be things like how many people they get to invite, how much or little you want them to contribute, what help you expect from them, when you want them to back off, etc. Those clear boundaries can save you a million headaches and fights down the road.

  2. HIRE PEOPLE YOU CONNECT WITH! Having a core group of vendors that make you feel safe, who understand want you want, and who you trust will make the day run so much more smoothly.

  3. Don’t make too many spreadsheets. My husband and I had like six different Google Docs with repeating information about our wedding, but we mixed some things up, and by accident invited about 50 more people than we had intended to because we counted by household instead of individuals, but it somehow all worked out in the end!

  4. Stay in the moment on the day of the wedding, but wear a watch. You should take everything in and not worry too much about the minutiae, but we didn’t keep our cell phones on us, so we never knew what time it was and it all felt like things were flying by, so the end of the party hit us way faster than we expected.

  5. Set a budget that you understand can change. There will be a tons of little blips that you don’t realize will happen (e.g. wanting to tip your vendors extra, your wedding parties travel getting screwed up, things you order never arriving) that will totally mess up the budget you set for yourself. You can look at those extra costs as going overboard and messing up your preconceived ideas of what your wedding should be, or you can anticipate change so it doesn’t come as an earth-shattering shock.

  6. And last but not least, the best advice was something my incredible coordinator, Alanna Claire Events, told me when I was freaking out about a million little DIY things I still hadn’t finished 72 hours before the big day: nobody will ever know what you didn’t finish.

bride touching grooms head in front of galaxy mural wall by NYC wedding photographer Justin McCallum

Nina: That’s some seriously great advice! What do you believe are the major wedding expenses that are truly worth the cost?

Justin: The biggest things that will make people remember a wedding negatively are disorganization, not getting enough food/drinks, and the people documenting the whole thing being assholes. That can be saved by hiring an event coordinator who can whip people into shape and keep things moving along — especially ones who actively work with caterers in advance to make sure things will be on-time and in sufficient quantities — and getting a photographer/videographer who fits in with your friends and family. I’ve seen horror stories of videographers who are disrupting intimate moments or saying offensive things, especially to the LGBTQ couples and guests, and have attended weddings with photographers who are either seemingly-absent or were in everyone’s face. Basically, invest in logistics and nice people who take great photos.

couple kissing and smiling in blue parkas at Niagra Falls by NYC wedding photographer Justin McCallum

Nina: I have also heard those horror stories, unfortunately, especially regarding offensive things being said by vendors. Speaking of which, since today is Woke Wednesday, do you consider yourself woke, or otherwise committed to social and racial justice?

Justin: I hope that I'm woke! I was a Peace and Justice Studies major in college, and focused my academic studies in social justice and human rights advocacy abroad, so it's always been something I’ve been incredibly passionate about. But I am also aware that as a cisgender white man who grew up in the whitest state in the country, I can be woefully unaware of the plight of most people of color in our country and many of my communities, so I do my best to recognize my privilege and use it to speak for those whose voices are silenced, but also step back and let people of color and women get the spotlight as much as I can. It also baffles me how close-minded the wedding industry is, and I try to do my part as a fat queer feminist to provide positive, diverse representations of love. Also given the dumpsterfire of our current political climate, I love working with charities, fellow wedding professionals who give back (shout out to Modern Rebel & Co), and I donate a chunk of each of my wedding bookings to one of a group of charities close to my heart that clients get to pick from.

two grooms smiling and straddling backwards chairs by nyc wedding photographer Justin McCallum
two brides embraced and about to kiss in front of lake in the woods by nyc wedding photographer Justin McCallum

Nina: That is wonderful that you give back in that way. What advice do you have for other wedding photographers, especially those who are just starting out?

Justin: I feel like every photographer should view themselves as just starting out! But I also view my work as constantly evolving and changing, when many others find a style and stick within it, mastering it. No matter where you are in your career as a photographer, I think it’s so important to view your fellow photographers as a community instead of competition. I fell in the rut of viewing every other photographer, especially in a saturated market like NYC, as trying to take bookings away from me when I first moved here. But when I attended {un}Convention it really opened my eyes to how much we need people to bounce ideas off of, vent to, and learn from, and it totally changed how I look at fellow wedding photographers. You are your own brand, and you’re the only one who provides your unique service and vision to your clients. Also it’s really easy to feel imposter syndrome if you spend all day looking at other more “established” photographers and wondering how they got there. They were just like you, they still feel unsure, and they probably think your work is really dope, too.

Nina: I totally agree. That is a great mindset to have! Is there anything else you want to add or that you want people to know about you?

newlywed couple dancing under the stars in the country by nyc wedding photographer Justin McCallum

Justin: Oh gosh, I'm not sure! I guess I’d just like to say that my entire goal is to make sure clients have the best time possible on their wedding day. They should have every opportunity to laugh, snuggle, and dance their hearts out. I’ve spent a long time finding the line between cold documentarian and “friend who happens to have a camera around his neck,” and I'm really proud that I can provide a fun experience that feels joyful and professional with the people I work with. Also, I want to mention that I have a lot of availability for 2019 and 2020, since I took a lot to time off this year while planning my own wedding.

Nina: I love it! Thanks so much for sharing all of this. It's been wonderful chatting with you!

Justin: Thank you!