The End of Innocence

by Sarah Kinbar

Stacey Adams

March 11, 2013

Sweet 16 celebrations date back to 17th century England, when young ladies were presented to the court as potential brides. In the U.S. and Canada, we’ve imported the tradition, but the meaning has changed entirely.While there are undertones of sexual maturity (and immaturity) influencing the mood of these parties, the celebrated young women aren’t looking for a husband so much as a fun night with their friends and family members. And photographers like Stacey Adams are right there to record that coming-of-age fun.

For the past ten years, Los Angeles-based Adams primarily photographed weddings, but says that, “often times at weddings I was more interested in photographing the kids or teenagers that were there in attendance. It’s such an amazing time of life when you’re filled with energy and curiosity and endless possibility.”

She began doing Sweet 16 portraits and parties, and early on her shots emphasized the chaotic drama of that age—many of her documentary-style shots look like behind-the-scenes footage from the making of a music video. “Living in Los Angeles, there is such an obsession with fame, beauty and sexuality, and you really see the extremes of what it is to be a teenager,” says Adams.   
After several years of capturing 16-year-olds in all their glory, Adams has found her groove. “Now, I’m more interested in creating artistic portraiture that shows a deeper, more soulful look into the essence of this beautiful and fleeting moment in time.”

Adams books clients who primarily come to her through the recommendations of past clients. “Honestly, I’ve never paid for advertising. Word-of-mouth is the best marketing tool out there, and I’ve been lucky in that respect. Clients have always been pleased with my work and recommend me to their friends, and I’ve gotten all of my work that way,” she’s proud to say. “I do offer my services in free online directories, as well as using social media, blogging, and other SEO [Search Engine Optimization] techniques to increase my presence on the Web. But none of them have been as effective as good old word-of-mouth.”

Bar Mitzvah Trademark

Bar Mitzvahs have even deeper historical roots than Sweet 16s, and have been practiced for over 500 years. When a young man turns 13, he is asked to read in Hebrew from the Torah as part of the religious service, indicating that he will be participating in his community as an adult, upholding its traditions and values. People of the Jewish faith have also been celebrating Bat Mitzvahs for12-year-old girls for the past century.

Because not all synagogues allow photography during the actual ceremony, Michael Jurick, a New York-based portrait and event photographer, documents a rehearsal for the family days before the real deal. “After reading from the Torah with the Rabbi, they feel very confident, and that’s when I shoot,” Jurick says. The images are magical, thanks to the honesty of these moments, Jurick’s keen understanding of light and post-production techniques, and the stunning architecture of New York’s oldest houses of worship.

By this point, Jurick knows these almost-13-year-olds well; he captured them with their families during a pre-event session, where images are used for invitations, decor for the party and guest books. In some cases, he took their early childhood portraits as well, and is now following them on their journey into adulthood.

“Out of my family portrait relationships, grew a thriving [Bar] Mitzvah business, when my clients began planning their larger milestone events,” says Jurick. Word-of-mouth recommendations fuel his business. “My name circulated in New York City and the Hamptons. Connecting with influential event planners and talented designers that produce magnificent affairs has been an amazing collaboration, all to the benefit of the client,” he says.

What is immediately apparent upon viewing Jurick’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah photographs is that they match the cinematic qualities of the events themselves, for which no detail is left unplanned. To ensure that the entire story is told, Jurick’s team includes an interiors’ photographer to capture the stunningly-designed settings for the parties; seasoned wedding photographers who get the intimate moments that reveal the event’s emotional tenor; and a lighting specialist who Jurick calls his “right-hand man.” Due to the fast-paced nature of these events, Jurick has developed what he describes as a nearly telepathic relationship with his team.

“Lighting is what sets our work apart,” says Jurick. “We essentially bring mobile studios to these incredible event spaces.” His expertise, his supportive team, and the trust he has built with New York’s Jewish community all factor in to his success, and his connection with his young subjects keeps his energy focused on the scene.

“Before any photographs are captured, I talk with them and their parents,” Jurick says. “If they’re a little shy at first, that’s okay. I know how to make them comfortable. I’d like the kids to perceive me like a camp counselor—someone who is fun and who they can trust—which brings them out of their shell a little bit. I can relate to them because my children are the same age.”

15 Candles

When it comes to observing a teen’s coming of age, music often plays a fundamental part. At Quinceañera celebrations, families even hire choreographers to teach the Quinceañeras (literally meaning “one who is 15” and the title of the young woman being honored, as well as the name of the party itself) and their courts (traditionally seven damas and seven chambelanes) impressive dances to wow guests. In Latin communities, such as Phoenix, Arizona, where photographer David De Dios is based, young girls anticipate their 15th birthday every bit as much as most adult women look forward to their weddings.

De Dios made the smooth transition from shooting only weddings to devoting his time considerably to Quinceañeras. When he shot his first Quinceañera, he felt overwhelmed by the complexity of its many formalized ceremonies and dances until he decided to treat it as a wedding—and then everything clicked. In a short time, De Dios became constantly in-demand because he uncovered the secret wish of every girl: to be treated like a princess or star the same way a bride is. His recent ad in Quinceañera magazine—featuring a Quinceañera swarmed by paparazzi—positions him exactly where he wants to be: behind the lens capturing a young woman’s most glamorous moments.

“There are so many Quinceañeras here in Phoenix every weekend that I can’t take them all,” he says. “I am booked for a lot of weddings, too, so if I have a Saturday wedding and someone tries to book me for a Quinceañera, I’ll offer them an hour-long Quinceañera portrait session as an alternative.”

Portrait sessions are perfect for those families who haven’t budgeted for a full-day shoot, and they allow De Dios to engage this thriving market within the parameters of his schedule. This year, he has four portrait sessions booked per month plus one full Quinceañera and three weddings.

De Dios also shoots ads that support the Quinceañera industry: dress designers and choreographers are among his clients, plus ads for dress shops.

“One of my most effective marketing tools is the work I do for the dress shops,” De Dios says. “They use my images for posters that hang in their shops, and my name and website are printed on the poster. I get a lot of calls that way. Also, they distribute my postcards in exchange for the images I give them.”

These three photographers have all mastered technique, and all engage in smart marketing practices. Another common trait? Their enduring love for their subjects, which is expressed in the year-round weekend hours they devote to coming-of-age shooting, and their commitment to creating the most beautiful, interesting and special images possible.  

Marketing Yourself as a Coming-of-Age Photographer

Develop a reputation as someone who “gets” kids.

Stacey Adams’ Sweet 16 portfolio is constantly growing thanks to her kid-friendly approach. Her photos bear all the markings of being shot by someone who adores a teenager’s stage of life, and so do her interactions with her young clients.

Jump on board with trends when they fit you and your client.

David De Dios’ Quinceañeras have fallen in love with the photographer’s fingerprint guestbooks, and by branding them as “Quinceañera Guestbooks” he’s given the girls something to talk about and tell their friends. Because traditional guestbooks are out of style, he has capitalized on their desire for something creative.

Be good. Really, really good.

Michael Jurick treats Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with the importance of a movie production, and his clients’ guests notice it. His high-energy, hard-working, fast-paced approach doesn’t just yield great photos, it also brings him new clients. Often, the guests he meets at these events hire him to shoot their own children’s coming-of-age ceremonies.

Have a fantastic online presence.

Even if they’re free of charge, your SEO practices and fleshed-out directory
listings require your time. As teens get more involved in choosing the photographers their parents hire, they’ll use their favorite information source to find you: the Internet.

Be present when you share images with your clients.

All three of our photographers report that one of the best parts of the process is seeing and hearing their clients’ reactions to their photos. The same is true for clients: engaging their photographer directly to respond to images is more personal. It completes the cycle of the relationship, and burns their memory of you in their minds—and you want them to remember you so they can recommend you five, even ten years down the line.

Sarah Kinbar, a writer based in Orlando, Florida, is the former editor of American Photo and the former editor-in-chief of Garden Design. Her own pictures can be seen on BigBlendedFamily.com.

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