Documenting You

by Jessica Gordon

Nordica Photography

March 06, 2013

There’s a reason why Jakob Granqvist and Cole Roberts—the team that makes up Nordica Photography—were named in Rangefinder’s 30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography, 2012. Not only is their wedding work stellar, the pair is redefining engagement shoots with their re-branded “Document You” sessions. “What we don’t like…is the term ‘Engagement Session,’ ” they write on nordicaphotography.com. “We think it’s lame, to be honest, and the notion of an ‘Engagement Session’ feels contrived and fake.” How’s that for honesty? I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Roberts, in Vancouver, and emailing with Granqvist, in Sweden, to understand why the two strayed from run-of-the-mill “pose-in- the park” shots, and how they position this new brand to clients.

Jessica Gordon: What was it about traditional engagement sessions that made you say: “That’s it—we’re doing something different”?

Cole Roberts: Deciding to change our approach wasn’t done on a negative note. We did a session in the interior of British Columbia on a horse ranch in October 2011 (pictured on the opening spread), and when we finished, we concluded that the session was so real. We went to where the couple lives and works, and told them to “do what you do.” They started saddling up horses and changing horseshoes, and we documented the whole thing. We were at our finest because we weren’t dictating to people to go and stand in a certain place. It was a positive feeling that we just documented something real rather than something contrived. That was the session that pushed us toward wanting to do things our own way.

Jakob Granqvist: We’re not bashing engagement sessions; they’re great for some people and there are photographers doing them incredibly well. But they aren’t for us. We want to do something that’s real and that has a story to it; photos that show who people really are.

Gordon: I love the explanation on your website that the term “Engagement Session” is “lame.” When did you decide to market “Document You” sessions differently?

Granqvist: We did a couple of engagement sessions where couples suggested doing something else than just the regular sessions, and we both realized that this is what we should be doing every time.

Roberts: With our wedding photography, we’re preaching that we work best when we’re left to document something, and these sessions just complemented what we were already saying much better. When we were doing engagement sessions the way they should be done, couples would say to us, “this is the most popular park in Vancouver, let’s go there,” but there was just no substance behind it. It felt wrong after a while. Doing the sessions the way we do now feels so much more natural for us.

Gordon: How have clients responded—do they get it?

Granqvist: They do. We basically haven’t done a single “standard” engagement session since. Some people are a bit scared that they’re not interesting enough and don’t do any cool things together, but that’s not what it’s about. What they do doesn’t really matter. It can be as simple as going to a pub, a café or just a stroll along the river that they often do together. Not every couple does horseback riding or has their own boat, but that makes no difference at all. As long as what they do together is real and we can tell the story about them.
Roberts: Since starting these new sessions in 2011, we’ve probably done about 50, and the beautiful thing is that people are emailing us, asking for a Document You session, and maybe they’re already married or not yet engaged. They’re really receiving what we’re marketing, so we’re not limiting ourselves to couples that are engaged, but opening up a new market for ourselves.

Gordon: Have you seen an increase in business as a result of “Document You”, or is it just something that goes hand-in-hand with your wedding photography?

Roberts: Yes for sure, it’s going better than expected. This could have gone either way, and we’re lucky it’s gone in a positive way. Originally we thought, “Is Document You lame?” but then we decided that people would really connect with it.
The increases are twofold: it’s opened up a new market to couples that aren’t necessarily engaged, and couples also want it when they book us for their weddings. At the beginning of our business, we fell into the trap of giving away a free engagement session to make our packages look a little better, and we learned that free is bad! Couples realize the value in what we offer in the Document You sessions.

Granqvist: Couples love the idea of doing something real together and that it matches very well with our way of doing wedding photography. We’re storytellers—telling a couple’s story from start to finish is what our wedding photography is all about— so to do “engagement sessions” the same way works perfectly for us.

Gordon: Describe a couple of the more interesting “Document You” sessions you’ve shot.

Granqvist: Both Cole’s and my favorite Document You to date is one of the first ones, before we had even coined the term. We drove seven hours to a secluded ranch that this couple owned up in the mountains. When we started driving in the morning, it was dark and rainy, and the rain kept coming down the entire drive up. We felt pretty miserable after driving such a long way only to have to shoot in a storm. But—much like one of those biblical miracles—as we met up with Amber and Bryan, the sky cleared and the sun came out in full force. We got perfect light for their sessions, and it was a joy shooting them with their horses, dogs and everything else that surrounds them in their everyday life on the ranch. The weather kept cooperating, and Amber and Bryan were totally comfortable in their element. As we finished, said goodbye and got back in the car to go back home, we saw the dark clouds lining up and within minutes, it was full-on storm again. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were.

Roberts: I did one in Iceland with a couple who lived in different parts of the world, but lined up crazy hikes whenever they had time in their schedules. They sent me a picture of their favorite spot and it looked like an abandoned military base. We flew to the furthest northwest part of Iceland on a private plane, and hiked for eight hours, ending at this abandoned U.S. military base. The entire day was surreal, just walking around on cliffs, but that’s exactly what they do all the time, and it’s a great example of Document You. Not everyone has a horse ranch or flies a plane to Iceland, but we’ve done ones where couples like to drink beer together, so we go to brew pubs.

Gordon: Why do you think so many photographers remain in the box and do the same thing with “posey-ness” in the park? Is it a lack of creativity or just what clients want?

Granqvist: I think one of the main reasons so many stay in the box is because they think that’s what’s expected of them. People think engagement sessions are done in a certain way, and that they need to do them like that as well. Photographers believe that that’s what their clients want, and clients don’t know that there are other options out there.

Roberts: When we first started the business, I remember hearing [wedding photographer] Jonas Peterson talk about finding your voice, and I was always like, ‘that’s just hippie, Kumbaya stuff.’ But it actually resonates with me during these Document You sessions because Jakob and I have found our voice, and it’s in documenting couples.  

Jessica Gordon is managing editor for Rangefinder magazine, based in New York City. Reach her at jessica.gordon@nielsen.com.

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