The dreamweaver

For former photojournalist Joseph Victor Stefanchik, reality is the stuff of wedding magic

By Jeff Kent
Images By

When Joseph Victor Stefanchik says his wedding coverage is “photojournalistic,” he’s not just bandying words. From his high school days of working a paper route and hanging around the local newspaper, Stefanchik always has had a nose for news.

After attending the Western Kentucky School of Journalism, Joseph Victor Stefanchik worked internships at five major newspapers before signing on as a shooter at The Dallas Morning News. His talent as a photojournalist landed him the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award for International Journalism in 1998, and a finalist position in the Pulitzer Prize awards of the same year. He’s worked with some of the most recognized people in news photography, and covered everything from land mines in Angola to exploding houses in Kentucky.

Stefanchik wasn’t thinking about wedding photography as a career when a couple of friends asked him to cover their weddings.

“When the film came back from that first one, I really didn’t think anything of it,” Stefanchik remembers. “Then the bride put the photographs in an album, and when I saw the body of work I was floored. I loved the storytelling element.”

Stefanchik looked into the going rates for photojournalistic wedding coverage. In 1997 and 1998, the package average was about $3,000 for the kind of work he was doing. If he could meet or exceed that average, he figured he could make a go of it. He’d save the equivalent of a year’s salary at the Morning News, then leave the paper and open his own business. It took just three months.

Stefanchik dove in head first, taking on every client who walked through the door. In his enthusiasm to establish a booming business, he simply shot too many weddings. Facing burnout and needing to take a step back, Stefanchik did what any stressed-out wedding photographer would do; he took a relaxing hiatus from the wedding world and returned to news photography.

Sounds crazy, but that’s what Stefanchik did. He freelanced for The Dallas Morning News, and eventually went full-time. But after six months back in the newsroom on a heavy diet of breaking stories, Stefanchik felt he was missing something.

“I missed being around those happy moments,” he says. “Photojournalism is exciting, but it’s not always happy. In fact, it’s often the exact opposite. My boss thought I was crazy, but I had to go back to weddings.”

Having lost his brand identity and depleted his referral base during his break, Stefanchik decided to completely re-brand himself, this time as a high-end wedding photographer. His new target clientele is older, more affluent. Instead of the “puppy love” weddings of 23- to 25-year-olds, now Stefanchik’s clients are 28 to 40 years old, with refined tastes and the financial security to indulge them.

“This is a competitive market, so we decided we needed a whole new brand.” He renamed the business JVS Weddings (nee Documentary Weddings), and built a new studio with an upscale look.

The new approach worked. The average wedding package sale ranges from $10,000 to $14,000. In Stefanchik’s eyes, the success has been bred from a mutual trust that he establishes with each new client.

“When I first meet with a bride, I ask her what she expects in her photography, what she expects of me,” says Stefanchik. “I ask her to imagine her dream wedding, then we help her create that dream. Everything we do is very heavily treated

—not manipulated, but treated.”

Stefanchik’s clients often enjoy the relationship so much that they later hire him to document their family life, not as a portraitist but as the family’s photographic historian. “We’re not out to make a quota each year, to book, say, 30 weddings. Instead, we’re into booking 30 sets of trust,” says Stefanchik.

As he shoots, Stefanchik, in all-business mode, strives for unobtrusiveness as he captures the moments of the event. “I often bruise my left eyebrow, because I keep my camera to my eye the whole time. I don’t talk to people. I don’t mingle. I’m there to capture the moments, not for small talk,” he says.

Bucking the trend in photojournalistic wedding coverage, Stefanchik distinguishes his work with the heavy use of hand-held electronic flash. If the available light is there, he’ll use it, but he won’t sacrifice an important moment to wait for the light to be perfect. “I flash about 95 percent of what I shoot, all of it off-camera,” he says. “The point of off-camera lighting is to give dimension to a moment, to force a point of entry into the image”

The result of Stefanchik’s efforts is the full-bodied documentation of real moments. He captures what needs to be captured, without needing to repose a priceless moment. It’s true. It’s unadulterated. It’s, well, photojournalistic.

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