The Civil Ceremony Project
Photographs by Anne Weber
Work from The Civil Ceremony Project will be included in the exhibition Forever Hold Your Peace this summer at the New Orleans Photo Alliance. Anne Weber will be a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow in the Boston area beginning this fall. For more information about Anne Weber and her projects, please visit her Web site.
The Civil Ceremony Project
Throughout the history of the United States, one institution has been defined and redefined over time, reflecting our biases and our hopes, deciding who can unite for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. Marriage is the public face of some of our most privately held beliefs, its definition shifting from state to state and from decade to decade. As the legal definition of marriage faces profound changes through the courts and on the ballot, I became interested in how marriage is and has been defined legally, as well as how people define marriage for themselves: as a spiritual union, a legally binding procedure, a proclamation of love, a passport to a new life, or something else entirely. To examine these questions, I decided to investigate the point where legal and personal defi-nitions of marriage most visibly intersect: the civil ceremony.
With my 4×5 camera in tow and the permission of the local magistrate, I offered my services as a wedding photographer at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, providing participating couples a copy of their portrait completely free of charge. Each couple filled out a basic questionnaire in which they provided a snapshot of who they are and why they were there: name, age, occupation, how they met, how they define marriage. While the set-up — institutional backdrop, fluorescent lighting — remained consistent from week to week, each couple filled the frame however they chose, their poses as varied as their clothing. Individually, the portraits serve as private mementos for each couple to have and to hold; together, they begin to create a more complex portrait of the institution of marriage. Photographs of the government institutions and officials that define and ratify marriage provide a broader historical context to the portraits. At the Wake County Register of Deeds, the shifting definitions of marriage are quite literally archived in its collection of wedding certificates and indexes of ceremonies. Before Loving vs. Virginia struck down laws banning interracial marriage, the NC Register of Deeds bound marriage records in books segregated by gender and race. One photograph depicts a wall of red records labeled Colored Male, White Male, Colored Female and White Female, preserving in physical form how the law once delimited marriage. More contemporary record keeping divides couples into two volumes: one male and one female. Over the coming year, I hope to continue this project in other states where marriage is defined in different terms — including Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and California — using the same frame and format as in North Carolina. Through collecting the stories of couples, the faces of government systems, and the artifacts of historical record, I seek to depict a contrary and complex institution at a moment of remarkable change, examining where private hopes and public interests unite.