TIME

Discover China’s Love for Pre-Wedding Photos

First comes love, then come photos.

Red dresses, stylists, camera crews and a perfect kiss in front of a sandstone building. On any given weekday, The Bund in Shanghai looks like a scene from a European rom-com. Couples dressed in colorful, elaborate formalwear bustle from site to site, enacting fairytale scenes of marriage, with a team of stylists and photographers in tow.

Intrigued by the enchanting entourage, passerby and photographer Olivia Martin-McGuire inquired about the phenomena only to learn that it was not a mass wedding or movie, but a rather common pre-wedding photo shoot. “I was enchanted by an entire nation of adults dressing-up in fantasy attire as part of a new national ritual,” she says as she started documenting the shoots.

Pre-wedding photography is a lucrative, multi-billion dollar industry in China, adding a playful, new custom to a country deeply rooted in ancient traditions. Martin-McGuire was drawn to the fantasy shoots that gave “a view into another facet of China not so readily portrayed by the media – color, optimism, enthusiasm and a unique ability to play.” In decades past, Martin-McGuire says wedding photos served primarily as proof of the marriage, consisting of a single black-and-white photograph. Now, the pre-wedding photo shoot involves multiple backdrops, settings and costumes.

Positioning herself behind the wedding photographer, Martin-McGuire looks to make photos from the vantage point of a choreographer. “I am fascinated by the entire set-up,” she says, “and that obviously includes the image-makers themselves.”

The lengths a couple will go to for a perfect shoot are extensive. One high-end studio provides three floors of sets and rooms of wardrobe changes. Others venture out into exotic locations, even those that seem unreachable. Martin-McGuire recalled a November outing to see the famous misty valleys in Guilin, enduring an hour climb in the rain to reach the summit. “Of course, here at the summit I discovered a team of pre-wedding photographers and a couple with a ballooning gown and bags of outfits. They had somehow carried everything up for the shoot!”

The photo shoots, which Martin-McGuire says can surpass $100,000 for high-end productions, are ultimately displayed prominently during the betrothed’s wedding. But, the parade of photography does not stop then as the couple is also expected to take a portrait with each of their guests.

Olivia Martin-McGuire is an an Australian photographer based in Shanghai.

Chelsea Matiash is TIME’s Deputy Multimedia Editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @cmatiash.

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