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Worth a Thousand Words

Fairfax photographer wins international award.

One of Justine Ungaro’s award-winning photos, taken at a wedding in Easton, Md., is of feet; specifically, the shoe-clad feet of a bride and groom. It’s not a typical photo of a newly married couple, but then, Ungaro does not take ordinary pictures.

A wedding photographer at Studio Diana in Fairfax, Ungaro recently received the Esprit Award for event photography from the International Special Events Society. Nominated for the photos she took of a wedding in Easton, Md., Ungaro had not prepared a speech when her win was announced.

"I went up there and I had my hand over my mouth and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to have to give a speech. Remove hand from mouth,’" she said.

The W.T. Woodson High School and Virginia Tech graduate had not always been concerned with taking pictures, even though her mother, who owned Studio Diana, was a 17-year wedding photography veteran recommended by Washingtonian magazine.

"I was minutely interested in photography growing up," she said. "I assisted my mother at weddings as a part-time job, but I was not that into it."

"When you’re in your teens, all you think about is ‘How much money does it pay?’" said her mother, Diana Adams.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy, Ungaro had jobs in healthcare and litigation support sales. But in 2002, when Adams said she was thinking of quitting wedding photography altogether to concentrate on portraits, Ungaro decided to quit her job and try her hand at taking pictures. As a tryout, Adams had her daughter shoot a wedding herself, and found out she had an eye for pictures. "I gave her a lot of film and said, ‘Go for it,’" said Adams. "She did an amazingly beautiful job … I brought the pictures to a party she was having and everyone started screaming and ‘ooh’ing and ‘ahh’ing when they saw them."

"That meant I had to become a photographer really fast," said Ungaro. "And (Adams) taught me."

AFTER FLYING around the country to attend seminars by top photographers, Ungaro began working with her mother at Studio Diana, eventually taking over the wedding photography entirely. She learned a great deal from Adams, she said.

"[Adams] bridged photojournalism and portrait photography," said Ungaro.

Laura Weatherly, a wedding planner with Engaging Affairs who often works with Ungaro, agreed. "They’re out to make people happy and they love what they do, they’re not out to make as much money as possible," she said. "Justine learned a lot from her mom."

According to Adams, Ungaro began her work at a time when photojournalism was starting to be a trend in wedding photography.

"Sometimes, I like to put the bride in front of a horrible graffitied wall," said Ungaro. "I’m not as into gardens as much as colorful weird places."

"(Ungaro) tries to do things differently, instead of doing the status quo," said Weatherly. "She’s innovative, fun to work with ... her pictures are very photojournalistic and emotional. They’re not stiff, not typical wedding pictures."

"A good wedding photographer has to be someone who can literally be in your face all night and you don’t care," said Jennifer Middleton, whose wedding Ungaro shot in June. "She was terrific, she seemed like someone (my husband) Eric and I would have as a close friend."

For Ungaro, one of the most important components to a photograph is location.

"One of the best things about being a wedding photographer is that it forces you to become fast, good and consistent with all wedding situations," she said. "You have to be creative enough to see it, even if it is bad weather."

For Middleton, a good photo evokes a feeling. "You shouldn’t have to read a caption to know what’s going on in the photo," she said. "Any picture, like a smell that brings you back to certain moment in time, a picture can remind you of a night, even if you weren’t there in the picture itself."

For Weatherly, the art of a good photograph is in the little things. "Detail shots are what the bride and groom spent hours obsessing about, and so it’s important for the photographer to get those details."

"I look for a picture that looks as powerful and as intense and beautiful as it will 30 or 40 years from now," said Adams.

As for Ungaro, it has been two and a half years since she began working with her mother. But to her, life before wedding photography feels like "a million years ago."