But since once shoddy phone cameras have improved so much in recent years, making quotidian Instagrams look near-professional, Horaczek says that many couples want something extra-special for their engagement, to stand out. “You used to just be like, ‘Let’s take a really nice studio portrait of us,’” he says. “And now it’s literally like ... I’m shooting this engagement photo like I’m shooting for a magazine.”
“If you’re sharing it on social media, you want to appear successful and happy and all of these things, and at some point you don’t want your photo to look like your boyfriend took it with his Samsung,” Lohman adds.
Of course, engagements have just about always been in the public eye: Americans have long been keeping tabs on other people’s vows in one form or another. Even the first-ever issue of The New York Times, published in September 1851, included a wedding announcement. Later, these brief notices in newspapers included what the photographer Melani Lust calls the “New York Times shot”: a formal portrait with the couple’s heads close together and their eyes on the same level.
The normalization of engagement shoots reminds Lohman of another wedding tradition that once sprung up seemingly out of nowhere: diamond engagement rings. Most Americans didn’t exchange rings until the 1940s, when the jewelry company De Beers had a surplus of small diamonds it started selling as engagement gifts. “Capitalism transforms itself, and weddings become this institution in which all these little things crop up and people have no idea where these traditions started or what they mean,” Lohman says.
Read: How an ad campaign invented the diamond engagement ring
There’s more money sloshing around in the wedding industry than ever before: Millennials spend an average of $36,000 on the whole wedding process, nearly $10,000 more than couples a generation ago, according to Wedding Wire’s 2018 survey. These couples also usually end up exceeding their budget by an average of about 40 percent, and photography is the fourth-priciest category of wedding expenses, behind the venue, catering, and the band. The survey also found that 83 percent of couples plan their weddings online on sites like The Knot and Zola, which may influence couples to spend on engagement photos and other items. As could the norms in their social-media circles.
“There’s a reason that, eventually, by looking at what other people are constantly doing on social media, you’re going to start to see all of these little things become nonnegotiable, non-debatable aspects of the experience,” says Lohman. “If your friend, your sister, or your cousin had professional engagement photos done, then the expectation is that you are going to do the same thing.” These hyper-visible “little things”—photo shoots, wedding hashtags, grooms’ cakes, spray tans—self-perpetuate, as couples set an example for the people who see their pictures. It might be hard for couples to resist some of the more consumerist excesses of the wedding industry even if they want to—if a wedding is about love, the thinking goes, money shouldn’t be a worry. According to a 2014 paper published by two economists, this idea has resulted in the “rise of consumerism and industry efforts to commodify love and romance.”
One reason Sasha Rawji is so set on having an engagement photo shoot is that she remembers frequently gazing at her parents’ wedding pictures as a child, and she wants her future kids to have that same experience—with staged engagement pictures, she’ll be less pressured to get perfect photos taken on the day of her wedding. The wedding industry profits off a hyper-visible wedding culture, yes. But it’s also just really special for couples to have nice pictures of themselves.